Always room for change

I have grown quite a bit since I got to Paraaa… not physically, I think I have maybe shrunk (If that was even possible!)( as I was already very small) but my friends and colleagues say that I have changed and developed a lot for the better. Yes, WIN! It has been fantastic to have been surrounded non-stop for 10 months by such an abundance of cultures, languages, various ways of living and thinking. And travelling is not the same as living with a group of people for nearly a year, but I have also managed to travel a fair amount since being here – a generous amount of holiday time and many incredible places so nearby! I have worked with fantastic children who have the most beautiful smiles ever but the most worrying and mouth-opening impoverished backgrounds – and developed my teaching skills along the way. Many of the kids I will miss so much, them climbing all over me, laughing at my ridiculousness and constantly asking me to take out my piercings! I want to smuggle some in my suitcase to call my own, but this I will not do!

And I now have an infinite number of super cool, interesting and beautiful friends all over the world, who have treated me like family and I know, will continue to. I can´t wait to be reunited with them in the future and to go and visit them, reflect on our time in Peru and what we can do together, travelling, living together or whatever it may be. I feel fairly selfish to be enjoying this opportunity for free when most of the world have never left their country, and guilty from learning so much, and not really making that much of a real difference, after all 10 months is hardly anytime. But I urge everyone to grab an opportunity like this if they get the chance. So there have been an infinity of positives that everyone involved in the organisation have shared and helped create, but like life, and everything there were also some aggravating moments with simple, everyday things…like living conditions, contract breachments and at times the lack of professionalism from the ones in charge. They really form a tiny part of my whole stay here but I find that it is important to share the frustrations that many volunteers went through, that weren´t visibly resolved, or resolved in ways that didn´t seem to change much.

As we all know, SKIP is run by the help of volunteers and without that help it would be nothing. But not according to the ex-coordinator of human resources, apparently “The volunteers do not matter, as long as there is poverty, SKIP will exist.” But how would an NGO not completely crumble without it´s volunteers? In NGOs all around the world, working towards equality and worldwide issues, there needs to be an equilibrium… and to achieve this the vital ingredients include flexibility, communication, openness to constructive criticism and ideas that the workers bring, and a central belief in democracy. Up at the office, when we are working directly with the children and parents we are a fantastic team, and if there is imbalance it gets noticed immediately and a meeting will be held and things always got better again. And with such movement of volunteers, some being here for 2 weeks and some for 2 years, it can be hard keeping the balance. But the problems rooted more from higher up…the people we hardly ever saw, who would appear at times to have follow up meetings or come to set new rules after hearing things that passed through the grapevine. With such distance from these bosses, and no answers to our questions we started to feel powerless, drowned out and ignored, planting a feeling of exploitation among the workers.

With many of the volunteers paying a hefty sum of money in order to volunteer here, and no awareness of where most of this money goes, assumptions can easily made imagining where this money is ending up – the lack of transparency could be easily resolved if volunteers were told how much it costs to run the organizations for a year and where their’ donations’ were going to, or they could feel it was being mismanaged. The average British volunteer pays 400 pounds a month, whereas a whole apartment by the beach can be easily found for 128 pounds a month. Expanding on what that includes: In the volunteer house this can include a shared or if you´re lucky, a private room. Shared bathrooms with hot water, a kitchen shared with 20 people, and wifi. In your own apartment you can find your own room, a living room, your own bathroom with hot water, personal kitchen, wifi and drinking water…oh and a sea view.

So The 400 pounds is for fairly basic living conditions, and in addition doesn’t include drinking water( which is really an essential) and the only cleaning product provided is bleach and most of the time washing up soap. I agree completely that the majority of this sum should go straight towards the SKIP centre and not spent on home luxuries for the spoilt gringos, but some of it should maybe go towards important jobs around the house of volunteers. For example when I had just arrived the bathroom I shared with 9 other people had a leaky toilet. This meant that the whole time the floor had about an inch of toilet water covering all of it, and this wasn´t fixed for a good month or so. Other examples could be a volunteer whose bed was completely broken and wasn´t replaced for 5 months. There are rooms with no glass in the windows or without curtains, privacy can be important to some people! And with no talk of how the money gets divided up and where it gets spent, volunteers quickly make assumptions or become frustrated.

We are all human, everyone makes mistakes, and no one can be truly professional all the time. Time needs to be taken in making decisions and also situations reviewed after a change, and there is always space for apologies. I highly disagree with the practice of confrontation about issues with workers when they are ill or have been drinking, as none of these times is going to get a good response. I think accusing volunteers of lying or suggesting that they are delusional is inflammatory. Shouting at your workers is a no no for me, discussing is better. Creating random rules in fits of anger based on emotions and for not feeling included in decision making can make bosses unpopular and unapproachable. Even when rules only influence the people living in the house, there have been cases where the volunteers themselves had no say in that decision making process – as if we are children incapable of regulating ourselves.

One situation that happened to me was that when I arrived I understood that all my travel costs were included in my contract. But a possible mistake made by the organisation providing my money (Not SKIP) was they had not taken into account the money needed to make trips to the nearest border to renew my tourist VISA which is a 12 hour journey ONE WAY! Needing an overnight stay – explain as it could be just an hour away) My sending organisation prides themselves on making these worldwide volunteering opportunities available to everyone, if you have no money they make it possible for you to travel and work in other countries. But without that extra money to renew your visa what are you supposed to do if you rely entirely on that money? The bosses’ solution was initially; “well….you should have emergency medical money in case of a situation where you’d need to seek medical attention, so use that. And if you didn’t come with that then you’d be fairly stupid.” But this amount of money adds up when you are a long-term volunteer like me and have to renew your visa 3 times during your stay here. Thankfully they then agreed to reimburse half of the amount, but that could still make it impossible for some people and what would they do if they had no one they could borrow money from? Also the SKIP info on the website said that long term volunteers could get a year long visa…which was not explained well, as this visa is only for people staying over a year and even these volunteers did not have one

Another mistake made by the sending organisation was a confusion in holiday time -contact with our sending organisation and our ambiguously worded contract lead us to believe we would have 20 days of additional holiday time… but instead we got told 3 months after we arrived that those 20 days were not agreed upon and were caused by a miscommunication, and that in order to keep the holiday time stated in our contract, we would have to forfeit all of the standard school holidays and stay at the house during our 3 week Christmas break to clean and paint the volunteer house. During all of this, the sending organization decided to ignore the majority of emails we sent them to solve the problem, and went behind our backs to communicate with SKIP instead. The problem was not that we were pissed off about not getting our holiday time. It was the way it was discussed, or not. Anything we said was ignored and we would get short simple replies not explaining the situation and confusing us. Many emails were sent, but non replied.. Unaware that it was being spoken about between the two organizations, unaware that they had even taken our questions into account, the two organisations settled things without us knowing and without playing any part in it, only being truly ignored. Though it was a good solution in the end, we did not get our ´extra´ holiday but we were not forced to stay the whole of the Christmas vacations. I reckon I have it fairly clear now, after my 9 months and 2 weeks of being here…it all boils down to a degree of a lack of flexibility and some heavy-handed treatment; a grass-roots organisation should not act like a multi-national corporation – responding to errors with lawyer-like formality and lack of personal tact. Instead of communicating with volunteers about problems in person, strongly worded emails and warnings would be sent. Threatening the termination of the contract of the volunteer was a common occurrence and volunteers given warnings would have no chance to defend themselves or give their side of the story. All these things get noticed and talked about between volunteers, affecting everyone living in the volunteer house and those living outside. We had meeting between the volunteers talking about each personal problem that was either recognized by the others or not to come to a decision on what to do, how to be heard and respected without offending the bosses or being rude! We came to the decision that a letter signed by each of us would work the most effectively.. So a letter was composed and signed and given to the bosses. Or managers or whatever A meeting was held between all the coordinators but sadly no feedback came to the volunteers. . Volunteers become unhappy, and feel insignificant and unappreciated… and during my time here 7 volunteers have left before their contract ended. These come down to different and personal reasons but I am fairly sure most admitted to not liking the way the NGO was run and this contributed to their reasons for leaving early.

But this is not to say that I am not grateful for the amazing time I have had here, and all that I have learnt, and I also know that that SKIP and my sending organisation and EVS are all doing fantastic work…but not always to the satisfaction of the customer , as these amazing people are giving up their time to contribute to the work of an NGO! And those reading may think that this is a complaint about the smallest things in comparison to the lives the people we work with live, but helping volunteers feel valued and listened to means they in turn give a much better service to those they work with, and changes still need to be considered. And things have changed a lot, one boss left which really made things a lot better but had the unfortunate effect of making  the work load for others impossible. Another boss decided to move into the house, which I found an improvement, not much changed but it meant she was less of a backstage stranger and easier to approach about problems we found occurring. To have gained this amazing opportunity has been a dream come true and I sincerely think that everyone between 18 and 30 years old who have never been able to work away like this should check out the Erasmus plus scheme that the European Voluntary Service will be merging with for this year. Think carefully about where you are going and why, read about other volunteer experiences and what you can contribute. And don’t be silenced into submission! This is not a diatribe against SKIP, but hopefully what will be taken as constructive   feedback, as in every workplace, volunteers included or not, there is always room for change and improvement.




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