CAGAYAN DE ORO

Sia: Paved with good intentions

COLLEGE students do not always join the professional workforce after graduation. Some still have to pass board exams before pursuing their career of choice, while others pursue further studies, perhaps taking up law or medicine if graduate school isn't their thing.

There are those who slack off at home for a while or, if they are well-off, go on an extended vacation around the country or even around the world.

However, there are some youths who yearn for something nobler and more selfless than the pursuits I've just described, and these are the kind who sign up for volunteer organizations.

Many intend to stay for only a year or so before moving on to a more conventional professional career, but not a few of them find themselves convinced that volunteering has been their life's calling all along, and so remain volunteers for the rest of their working lives.

You might think that a volunteer works for free, but in reality they receive compensation enough to take care of their living and travel expenses, to say nothing of the immaterial and therefore immeasurable satisfaction they receive from the kinds of work they do.

There is no one kind of volunteer: there are builders, drivers, teachers, journalists, filmmakers, chefs, agriculturists, community organizers, and so on. Nor is there only one kind of area assignment, as they could be working in farming or fishing communities, in urban slums, in refugee or relocation camps, with labor unions, or even with the homeless and destitute who call the sidewalks and parks of downtown districts their home.

In other words, a volunteer is a person who works full-time toward bringing about societal change, in the direction of what they believe to be the common good, and oftentimes for the benefit of the underprivileged and marginalized.

While this is my personal understanding gleaned from the happy times I've spent making the acquaintance of volunteers, I feel that this is how they see themselves also.

For a young man or woman with a diploma in hand and a head full of ideals, becoming a volunteer is, by all appearances, a much higher calling than the pursuit of the almighty peso (but, it must be said, not as high becoming an ordained preacher or servant of the Almighty God).

Speaking of ideals, it is no accident that a lot of these young people hail from Jesuit schools or state institutions like the University of the Philippines, where higher learning means not only learning the fundamentals a particular profession, but also taking humanities classes that almost always discuss social justice or some variant of Marxist thought.

There are parents and others who for good reason alarmedly regard the mandatory taking of such non-essential courses as leftist indoctrination, but for now let us give this kind of curriculum the benefit of the doubt, for that is not the point I want to make here.

Rather, what I would like to bring to your attention is that there is an untold number of volunteers who, after working firsthand with their communities and organizations for some time, silently suffer from frustration, depression, disillusionment, or some form of severe burnout. This sad phenomenon tends to be more common with idealists than pragmatists, and what is a volunteer, if not an idealist willing to do whatever it takes?

However, “whatever it takes” is almost always never enough, as the poor communities they work with are simply too set in their ways to be significantly uplifted, and even the organizations themselves have become too sclerotic, proud, and politically entrenched to consider giving up their years-old approach for something that might actually work.

“But it's the thought that counts!” some would argue, and then recite the story of the young girl on the beach who said that she might not be able to throw all the washed-up starfish back into the sea, but at least she could manage to save some of them.

Having been a student of a Jesuit university myself, I too want to believe in this, but let's be honest: isn't the goal of volunteer organizations, whether explicitly stated or at least implied, the upliftment of the underprivileged as communities? Then why is it that it is only a few individuals who do manage to truly lift themselves up from the bleak circumstances they were born into, and of those few who do, why do they seldom come home to pay it forward, but instead prefer the rat race in the big cities – and worse, never look back?

If you do the math, you'll find that it's not a fair exchange: volunteers give so much of themselves but effect so little positive change in the world, if at all. Mental health aside, the stress that comes with the work visibly ages a lot of these young people prematurely too – a sure sign that being a volunteer for the greater good could be just as unhealthy as being a corporate flunky.

I am not telling my fellow young people to avoid volunteering like the plague – for all its faults, volunteering is something a third-world country such as ours really needs – but they really do need to know what they're getting into before they decide to commit themselves to such a demanding and quixotic undertaking. In any case, a much better way to start would be to change the man or woman in the mirror, as the late Michael Jackson once sang.


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