There are many great reasons for volunteering when you’re living abroad, not the least of which is that it’s pretty hard to do nothing when you see people struggling so much just to survive day to day. You feel good for helping out even just a little bit, you get to meet lots of people in the community, and maybe you get to make a difference in someone’s life.
Jacob and I first came to Guanajuato, Mexico four years ago for an intensive two months of Spanish classes. Through another student at the don Quixote school, we learned of a women’s rights project that might need some help. We jumped in and wrote an English-language website for them in the remaining six weeks—just in time for a U.S. speaking tour the director was about to undertake.
The program director, Vero, had been named one of three worldwide Defenders of Human Rights by Human Rights Watch and was advised by the organization to have a website created to send potential donors to. Of course, she had no resources to make this happen and she was amazed that Jacob and I happened to come to Guanajuato with the right skills just as she needed us. We then went on with our world trip intending to return to this wonderful city where we’d made many good friends.
You Don’t Always Get What You Want
I spent the next couple of years learning all that I could about fair trade businesses, products and shops and visited many in the 42 countries we travel to. The idea of bringing such a project to Guanajuato excited me—I just didn’t know that someone else would beat me to it!
When we returned two years later, we asked Vero what kind of help she needed. Jacob—newly qualified as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language—would end up teaching a group of women at the center and building archive shelves for years of paperwork to be filed away. I undertook to organize their first library and to sort out an economic development project—a fair trade program—that was having a hard time staying alive. Mine would have to wait as there was no sense starting a new one if the existing one wasn’t doing well.
It’s only now, my fourth time in Guanajuato, four years after my first visit that I’m finally able to get it started. Hermelinda, the woman with whom Jacob and I lived while we studied Spanish four years ago, will be sewing sleep masks and pouches that will be sold as part of sleep kits. These will be made available on the Baby Boomers Traveling website and at conferences and travel shows. Later, if we have enough interest, we can start distributing them to stores.
We’re starting small to minimize our risks with only Hermelinda sewing but when we grow bigger she’ll become the trainer and manager of other Mexican women sewing the products. The plan is that, eventually, the entire project will be turned over to them where they’ll own and manage every aspect of the project.
The need for this kind of work never goes away. Even though I’m sure Hermelinda could have used the money earlier, I know I wouldn’t have succeeded with my project if my time had been split between trying to help the other program survive (it didn’t) as well as launching a new one. I’m glad that I held off and waited for the right time and thankfully now that I’m ready, everyone else seems to be willing to jump in as well.
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