The ABC’s of Volunteering in Belgium

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When I was given the opportunity to reconnect with my childhood nanny last summer, I couldn’t say no. At 15 years of age, I said goodbye to my comfortable and familiar home in the suburbs of Atlanta, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone to travel to Belgium. The plan was for me to spend two weeks with my former nanny, her husband, and her adorable two year old daughter in the Belgian countryside. Since she is a preschool teacher, I would also have the chance to spend weekdays helping my x-nanny in the classroom.

I was excited to do something where I could rack up community service hours for my school and brownie points for my college applications, but I did not realize that I would take away much more than that. After two weeks of sticky toddlers, drama on the playground, and animal cracker snack time, here are my ABC’s (in the spirit of preschool) of volunteering with children abroad.

volunteer in BelgiumA is for Accepting Awkward Conversations

Probably the biggest fear of most volunteers as they venture overseas is the language barrier, and it’s a realistic fear to have. How are you supposed to make a difference in these children’s lives if you can’t speak to them?

Well I am here to tell you two things: 1) You probably won’t be making much of a difference in their lives (but that will be discussed later) and 2) it is entirely possible to communicate without knowing the language.

In my case, I was volunteering in a region of Belgium that speaks French. I take French at school and hear it around the house since my parents speak French with each other, however I cannot speak it well, just merely understand it. Let me tell you that these three year olds were not speaking any kind of French I have ever heard! It was an entirely new language to me. Regardless, after coming to this realization I embarked on a journey of attempts at French words that they didn’t understand and progressed into hand gestures and physical demonstrations. I am not going to lie; it was awkward at first. However, after a while you recognize body languages, and can perceive what the children want from you. Once the language barrier is broken, and you just accept the awkward incidents, it is much easier to find yourself as a productive volunteer.

B is for Being Open-Minded

When traveling abroad, volunteers will probably find themselves in a place that is very culturally different. In the United States, we experience a lot of what is called ethnocentrism. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ethnocentrism is based on the idea that your own group or culture is better or more important than others. This concept can be shocking, especially to a volunteer with only the best intentions. Without intending to, I found myself acting in an ethnocentric way during my days at the preschool.

For example, on the first day during lunch I tried to make conversation and joke around with the kids as we were eating. Immediately, the teacher (my old nanny) hushed us and said we needed to focus solely on eating our food. Personally, this was surprising to me. Wasn’t meal time a time to converse and laugh? I then saw a different way of doing things I thought were so normal. Even in Western Europe, which I thought had similar culture as the United States, the expectations during meals were much different than what I was used to. Subconsciously I was implementing my own cultural doings onto these kids without realizing that it was going against their own culture. For me this was an honest mistake, however I learned that as a volunteer you are placing yourself in a new environment with new practices and it is extremely important to open your mind and be respectful to other ways of doing things. Just because it is different does not mean it is wrong.

high school student volunteer vacations in BelgiumC is for Creating Lasting Impressions

Now to address what I said before: you probably won’t be making much a difference in the children’s lives. As harsh as it sounds there is a positive side to this. They will probably make a huge difference on your life instead!

I only spent 2 short weeks with the kids in Belgium, and even though they were not noticeably in need or impoverished, I still went in with the mind-set that I would be helping them. Looking back, I realize how skewed my outlook was. I was only a part of their lives for a few days. Sure we had some laughs together choreographing the end-of-school dance while dressed up in neon suspenders, but the children will most likely soon forget they even met me. For me however, I am sitting here in Atlanta, a year later still reminiscing the things these three year olds showed me. That is a pretty good representation of how much volunteering with new cultures (even if they may not seem all that different as in my case) can open your eyes to.

With all that I have taken away from my first time volunteering overseas with children, I have adapted my expectations and appreciated the opportunity to get a slightly broader look at what the world has to offer. I look forward to meeting new people and basking in new experiences very soon, and I hope that I have helped you to do the same.

~ Livia Gobbi is a senior at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia. Her interests include traveling, writing, singing, playing soccer, and documenting food outings with her friends. She has traveled to 19 countries and hopes to visit 10 more before she graduates from college. Still undecided, Livia is considering an undergraduate degree in international relations, business, or journalism. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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