Volunteering and warm fuzzy feelings
Throughout my travels I have always felt the need to incorporate voluntary work into my trips. I am so lucky to be able to travel the world that I believe it’s important to give back where you can. And quite frankly, my personal view is that volunteering is amazing. Some people think that volunteering is a selfless act, and though I don’t want to take away from the amazing gesture it is for someone to volunteer, it’s not entirely selfless. People don’t say ‘volunteering is good for your soul’, for no reason. It’s true. Yes you’re doing something incredible, great and honourable for others by volunteering, but you’re also gaining so much more yourself; gratitude, inspiration, self-growth, compassion, pride and even sometimes, identity. (just to name a few).
My most cherished memories of my travels belong to the different projects I’ve been a part of, and that have helped shape me into the person I am today. When I’m volunteering my whole heart is full, and there’s truly no greater feeling than knowing you’re making a difference. Have I sold volunteering to you yet? I hope so! But just to be sure, keep reading to hear about my favourite volunteer experiences around the globe.
I can’t actually fathom the exact words to explain this place to my readers. I totally fell in love with Riverside (& South Africa); the cause, the project, the people, all of it gave me ‘the warm fuzzy feeling’. So much so, that I plan to go back next year.
Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre specialises in the scientific rehabilitation and reintroduction of South Africa's 5 Primate and other wildlife species back into their natural native habitats: Chacma Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Samango Monkey, Lesser Bushbaby, and Thick-tailed Bushbaby.
My days here were never dull. Caring for monkeys 24/7 is not an easy task, but it is so rewarding that what you’re doing doesn’t even feel like work. Imagine waking up in the morning to the sounds of African wildlife, imagine your first thought being that what you’re doing today is making a difference for tomorrow, imagine the moment where you gain the trust of a Baboon and they wrap their tiny hands around yours. Whilst I was at Riverside, and whenever I think of my time there, my heart feels as though it could burst with love.
These orphaned monkeys need us, they need good, compassionate humans to make up for the wrongs they have faced at the hands of the bad humans. Some come to Riverside as they have been lost, some have been kept as pets, some are severely injured, and some because their mothers have been killed right before their eyes. But one thing they all have in common is, they would not survive by themselves. And this is where Riverside comes in, the owners and all the volunteers who come through their doors are responsible for ensuring that they get the life they deserve, back out in the wild where they belong.
Everyone knows that monkeys are the closest primates to humans, but it still amazed me how human-like these lovable creatures are. I remember when I first arrived, I thought ‘how on earth am I going to learn all the names of these monkeys’. Turns out it wasn’t that difficult. Each monkey had their own unique personality and you soon learn their differences, and their quirks. I dare anyone who goes to Riverside, to stop yourself from growing so uncontrollably attached to these primates - especially if you’re there during ‘baby season’, whereby you become a monkey parent! Feeding them when they need to be fed, getting them off to sleep, showering with them attached to you! I can tell you, this experience made me very aware that I was by no means ready for parenthood (I love sleep way too much), but seriously, how many people in the world can say they helped raise a baby monkey?
And do you know what? You learn life skills without even realising; responsibility, their lives are literally in your hands; patience, baby monkeys and their needs are very similar to those of a human baby; unequivocal compassion, for something/someone besides yourself; and appreciation, good things don't come easy, you have to work hard to make the differences you want to make, and at Riverside that means working long days whatever the weather. These animals depend on YOU, and trust me when i say, doing good and right by these magnificent beings is the most inspiring feeling. Knowing that each and every day is a step in the right direction to their release back into the wild, and that you’re a part of that outstanding achievement is so magical, so profound that you really can’t put it in words.
Up Close Bolivia is based on the concept of “RECIPROCIDAD” which means “reciprocity”- a concept at the heart of Andean culture. It is all about giving back and contributing in a way which enriches both the person who is giving and the person who is receiving equally. The centres built are completely managed by local families. The nursery provides childcare services for around 60 children from low income local families, enabling their parents – especially women – to take up employment opportunities outside of the home while their children are cared for. Do you know how important this is in a country that is plagued with inequality and inadequate development? I’ll tell you how; it’s not just important, it’s life changing.
Getting to know the children, both at the nursery and at equine therapy impacted me more than I could ever write down in words. Despite there being a language barrier (I speak very little Spanish), this did not hinder the ability to create relationships. The Bolivian people I met made me feel so welcome, and loved, that I can’t help but be in awe of them. If I said something the wrong way, they did not judge, instead they would smile or kiss me on the cheek and correct me, if I did not understand what they were saying, they would laugh, hold my hand and then show me, when I felt poorly (from altitude sickness), they made me home cooked meals and teas to drink to help with the side effects. I learnt a little Spanish before travelling South America, and I encourage others to do the same but I do wish I could have spoken it more fluently. Even so, my experience was so special and it still amazes me that two people who do not speak each other's language, find a way to communicate and form bonds.
There were two fundamental moments during my time here; One being present at the first time one of the babies in the nursery stood up and took his first steps; we were all ecstatic, clapping, smiling, laughing. A very prominent thought came to my mind; you don’t need to share the same language, to share a moment of happiness and pride. And two being actively involved in a child's recovery at equine therapy. I don’t know the exact ins and outs of her back story, but what I was told is that she had special needs and was involved in a traumatic accident that had resulted in her not speaking for months. The aim of the therapy was to build her confidence again to encourage her to talk. During my time at UpClose Bolivia, this was achieved, and her first words were ‘Dalmatar’ - the horse's name, and my name. I do not kid myself in thinking I was the cause of this achievement, all I did was lead Dalmatar (name given because he looks like a Dalmatian) around the pen and be there alongside her as support. But the message stands strong and clear; I was there and I was present, I was a part of something spectacular and sometimes the smallest actions can make the biggest difference.
I volunteered at two of the projects that UpClose Bolivia offer; the community childcare centre and equine therapy centre, but you can also volunteer to;
Teach english in local schools
Support children living in a refuge
Support La Paz Zoo Animal Enrichment and Environmental Education Programme
Get involved in community Arts and Environmental Projects
Coach local football schools
Saga's mission as a non profit, non governmental organisation is to prevent cruelty and replace it with kindness to all animals. This is accomplished through the island's only non profit veterinary clinic - conducting ongoing spay/neuter and vaccination campaigns, animal adoption and public education programmes. The vision is to build a permanent animal clinic/education Centre and continue working toward a long term solution to end animal abuse, neglect and overpopulation.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am animal CRAZY. If I could adopt every single animal on this planet who needed a forever home, I would. But unfortunately that is wildly unrealistic, however, I can provide my love, time and attention when travelling by volunteering at animal rescue centres.
(I have also volunteered in Lagos, Portugal by walking shelter dogs through Raw Algarve Adventure Tours - highly recommended!)
Unlike the other two places I have mentioned above, Saga Humane Society doesn’t offer an official volunteering programme, but they do rely on volunteers to help walk the dogs, give them cuddles and remind them what human love should be like. So that’s exactly what I did everyday for two weeks during my time in Belize. I would wake up early in the morning, head to the shelter and try to walk as many dogs as possible before the midday heat. I would take the dogs to the beach, try and teach them to swim - some LOVED the ocean and actually dragged me in a few times! Haha, and others completely hated it, and therefore we would just sit and sunbathe for a little while before heading back. And when it was too hot, I would simply go into their kennels, give them the biggest cuddles and also play with the little ones who obviously have bundles of energy.
The people who run Saga Humane Society are truly special, they have dedicated their lives to making a difference in this country, to save and care for the animals on this island. Most work every single day of the week; looking after animals and running a shelter is no walk in the park, and when they do not have volunteers to help, the pressure and stress on these individuals is extremely high.
Dogs can't tell you what you mean to them, but they don’t need to. They show it. From the way they look at you, to their tail wagging, or the not so subtle lick in the face, they show it. And my goodness, these animals deserve a loving home. They are man's best friend, the most loyal of companions. As i’ve said, I really wish I could provide a home for every dog I come by, but I can’t. What I can do, and what you can do too, is give walks and love. By doing that, you’re giving these gorgeous animals happiness; you are making a difference.
Volunteering is good for your heart, mind, and soul.
When you volunteer to help others, you’re helping yourself as well. Volunteering can “provide a sense of purpose,” and it can also help your mental health. When we humans feel empathy or carry out a generous act, levels of oxytocin can increase in the brain. Oxytocin, a hormone otherwise known as the “hug hormone” is associated with feelings of closeness, trust, and bonding, and has the capability to reduce stress, and increase feelings of calm.
Most of all, for me, volunteering makes me appreciate life. It reminds me that there is so much good in the world. Things worth fighting for. And though so much good still remains to be done, that doesn’t matter when you’re part of a community with a vision for positive change, something special. You may only play a small part, but you are involved in something much bigger than yourself, and you are part of the movement to make a difference in this ginormous universe that we call home.