How Volunteering Abroad Changed My Life
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. May 3rd – June 2nd 2013.
It’s been just over three years since I stepped foot in Brazil with IVHQ and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the country or the friends that I made there. At the time, I was a twenty-two-year-old university drop-out who’d recently moved back into my childhood bedroom. Quarter life crisis does not even begin to describe the state I was in. I originally signed up for a three-week volunteer trip to Rio de Janeiro with a friend, but she chickened out and suddenly I was at it alone. I cried at the airport. I cried on the plane. I cried in the taxi to the volunteer house. I cried in the room I shared with the funniest English girl I’d ever met. But as soon as I finished crying I started to relax and feel at home in my own little corner of the most beautiful place I’d ever been, and I started to learn a few things…
1) I realized that I’m an idiot
When I announced that I was leaving to spend three weeks in Rio de Janeiro I came face to face with many different reactions. Some people were afraid for me, saying that it wasn’t safe for a young woman to travel alone. Others thought I was brave. Some people couldn’t understand why I would want to leave Canada in the first place. The problem with this is that I was so busy convincing other people that I would be fine, that I never actually let myself think of what would happen if I wasn’t. I didn’t let myself consider what would happen if I got to the volunteer house and was too shy to talk to anyone (which happened), or if I was in a grocery store and didn’t understand how to buy fruits and veggies, so I held up an entire line of grumpy looking Brazilians (which happened twice).
And I never considered what I had to give. What could a twenty-two-year-old, recently dumped, English major drop-out offer someone living in a favela? Someone with no running water or electricity? A child who has never been able to go to school?
When I actually got to Brazil all of these fears that I didn’t know I had erupted at once. I looked at what I had brought with me – an embarrassing assortment of whoopee cushions, crayons and toy cars. I kept asking myself why I thought a whoopee cushion would help anyone. I kept asking myself why I was there.
I only call myself an idiot because I was stupid enough to doubt myself and too afraid to trust the process. Going to Brazil was the most positive and powerful thing that I could have done for myself, and I was rewarded with a newfound sense of my own strength and value.
2) I learned what a real hero looks like
Being in Brazil was like being at a comic-con convention and meeting nothing but superheroes. Never before had I been surrounded by so many amazing and diverse people, whether it was at the house or at my volunteer placement. I made friends from all over the world whose presence in my life still impacts me today.
My volunteer placement was at a place called Centro Cultural Infants – a run-down community centre – in an area called Villa Kennedy. My official title was “Can-you-help-do-this-thing-over-here?” During my time there I built a fence out of spare tires, painted walls and floors, and plumbed an entire kitchen. I took breaks from fence building and flooding the kitchen to teach English classes. My youngest student was five and my oldest was seventy-three.
No, before I got to Brazil I had never built a fence, or painted an entire room, or plumbed a kitchen with plastic pipes and super glue, or taught English – and I had certainly never done all of these things with the guidance of a 4’ foot tall, 50-something-year-old, exclusively Portuguese-speaking, firecracker of a lady named Cleide (clay-gee). As far as I’m concerned, Cleide was the patron saint of Villa Kennedy and she never failed to impress me with her resourcefulness and unwavering positivity.
I watched Cleide nail her thumb to a fence post and walk it off. I watched Cleide climb onto the top rung of a ladder, strip some electrical wire with her bare hands, tape them together again and knock a spot on the wall to make the lights work again. I watched Cleide take care of her children, one of whom suffered permanent brain damage after being hit by a bus as a child. Cleide sacrificed every single day so that the centre would be open to those who needed it.
And at the end of the day, when we were sweaty and exhausted and dirty, she still had her sense of humour. One time, while we were plumbing the kitchen, we got lost in translation and Cleide cut into the wrong pipe. The entire centre quickly flooded with three inches of water. My friend and fellow volunteer Julia and I grabbed brooms and mops and quickly tried to push all of the water out into the street through the doorways and the gaps between the floors and the walls. We were laughing and screaming “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” while water flew up into the air and soaked us to the bone. Eventually Cleide, who spoke no English, asked us what we were saying. I did my best to translate with my soggy pocket dictionary and some awful charades. Cleide slowly nodded and looked all around at the water spraying the ceiling and our dripping hair and faces. Suddenly, she turned back to us with a huge grin on her face and yelled in her best English “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!” I will never forget the connection I was able to make with someone I could barely communicate with, and I hope that she never forgets me.
My last few days in Rio were challenging. I had put my new roots down too deep, and pulling them out and saying goodbye was heartbreaking. My last day at placement, Cleide declared there was no work to be done and took Julia and myself out to a beautiful park.We walked through a natural landscape with plants and animals I had never seen before. She showed us through the favelas, a very unsafe place to go unless you’re accompanied by a local, and then treated us to lunch at her favourite restaurant. When I left that day, Cleide hugged me tight and motioned to my pocket dictionary. She spoke very slowly and repeated herself three or four times before I had found every word in the worn out and dirty pages of my language lifeline. Cleide said, “This is not goodbye because I know that you love us and you will come back” – and I promised her I would. I hope that this blog post is enough to send me back, and to keep my promise to her and the community she loves.
What Rio taught me, I can barely put into words. It taught me about myself and my strengths. It taught me about the power of laughter and human connection, and it lit in my heart a fire that drives me to help others, even when I think I have nothing to give. Today that fire still burns, triumphant in the face of news and media that try to tell us every day that we should care less and hate more. I will never stop caring. I will never stop helping, and I will never forget the love I had for people who were once strangers.