I recently met with a volunteer coordinator of the NGO that I originally came to Peru to volunteer with back in 2009. In the 4 1/2 months that I was there I came to the disturbingly vivid conclusion that their concept of humanitarianism was severely anemic, their president/director a lecherous miscreant and donations expected to be used for the poor children were funding adult debauchery. They considered my efforts and comments to correct the situation ''inadequate and inappropriate''. We parted company deciding that what I wanted to see in an NGO, which later was the bases for Changes for New Hope, was a far cry from their objectives.
My meeting with the new volunteer coordinator was equally disturbing. Alex told me, "Jim, come on man! Do you really think that any of us are actually making real changes in the world? When volunteers come to Peru and help some kids with their homework and hug them, is it really the turning of the tide of poverty or despair? Let me tell you how it is; we bring in volunteers who pay a fee to the NGO and spend some time with children they work with. They feel good doing it and feel that they made some altruistic accomplishment to put on their resume' when they return to their home countries. It is mental masturbation for them. They pay us to feel good for a month or two in South America. If you believe anything to the contrary, you are deceiving yourself."
My response came from a vortex of passion which surprised him. "If I thought for a minute that the daily efforts that I have spent my time and personal assets developing was merely mental masturbation or that the children that we engage are not actually developing into better human beings with opportunities and intrinsic character that never before existed, I would pack up tonight and head for a beach somewhere warm. We have children who were trained little thieves, liars and con artists, who no longer consider that way of life an option. We have children with better grades in school, better attitudes, better self esteem and believe that they have a future in front of them. They are healthier because we give them vitamins and medicines, they wear clothes that fit and are not shabby. They sleep warmly under thermal blankets that we provide, use wind up lanterns that gives them light in homes where there is no electricity. School supplies, recreational games and toys, as well as love and security that we provide for them as we teach them how to become fine young men and women as they grow up.
I suppose that is the difference between believing in what you are doing as a humanitarian and just using the faces and stories of the children to create a parking space for young impressionable volunteers to arrive and spend their time and their parents money."
He said that we will have to agree to disagree.
I shared with him some numbers. While numbers are not the end-all-be-all gauge of success or progress, it has to account for something. While there is no competition among organizations, I reviewed with him that we have created a project for poor children living in desperation in October 2009 and have helped twice as many children, in four times as many locations, provided eyeglasses, medicines, vitamins, wind up lanterns which enables the children to study after dark, thermal blankets, new shoes because theirs are destroyed during each rainy season, dental help, psychological help, self esteem classes, art projects with two art exhibitions, two chess tournaments, continuous academic help, clothing, recreational games and equipment, family violence assistance, created the Haz lo Correcto-Do the Right Thing campaign which was endorsed by the mayor and became a citywide project for the betterment of Huaraz and engaged the international community in awareness to help the children and add more children as sufficient support allows. We accomplished this and much more with a fraction of the volunteer staff, and a fraction of the donations. We did it in half the time. ''By contrast,'' I concluded, '' Your NGO, by your own admission, was simply engaged in 'mental masturbation'. Meeting adjourned.
Four years. Every step has been earned. Trial and error with what works and what doesn't. Learn Spanish on the fly. Share our plans with parents and children in a credible way that they won't consider it to incredibly impossible. Make it happen. Listen to every child, learn what makes them smile and why they might be crying. Spend money on materials and specific needs of the children without knowing when or where more money is coming from. Believe, hope and trust that everything that you have invested your heart and life into will move the children toward the goals that you have set for them. And you hope that your passion moves people, some who have never met you or seen the project, to believe that what you are doing is genuine and effective to change the part of the world that you have decided to touch. Ignore every negative, approach everyday as a new opportunity. This day is better than yesterday, regardless of how good it was. Each volunteer is making a real difference, an actual shift in the wind from where the children would have been without them. Every sponsor and donor is delighted to receive a small drawing from one of the grateful children for their compassion in action that is so appreciated. Four years with no end in sight, we are not even looking for the finish line because, for us, it doesn't exist. Every stumbling block has become a stepping stone.
Charlie looked at me across a table at our monthly meeting. ''Four years, we have accomplished more than anyone could imagine. Ok amigo, what is next?" I lifted out a clipboard from my backpack, there was a starburst of circles and notes and ideas filling the sheet. "2014 looks like it is going to be a busy year, Jim" Charlie observed. His eyes widened at my response,
"Just next month amigo."