Volunteering takes a lot of effort, but doing it abroad, often crossing the world with nothing but a backpack, requires true dedication. Volunteering at an international level, particularly in developing countries, means learning a new culture, being away from home and having to face different realities and ways of thinking. Many Italian volunteers (including myself) have traveled to the Indian city of Calcutta with Project for People to work with the Institute for Indian Mother and Child (IIMC).
“The experience abroad gives you something extra,” said Anna Rinaldi, a volunteer and medical student from Florence. “It allows you to insert yourself in a reality completely different from yours, to know new people and cultures, and thus to be less afraid of what or who is different.”
Many volunteers worry that they won’t be able to make a big enough change, but Project for People volunteers emphasized the importance of the little things. For Benedetta Berloni, a university student from Fano, a pivotal moment came when she treated her first patient, a woman with a skin infection.
“I had never medicated anyone before that moment, and when I saw her I wanted to not only relieve pain, but also let her know that I was there for her,” Berloni said. “It was a great thrill when, at the end of the medicament, the lady touched my ankles, that is an Indian sign of respect and reverence. I realized that I had transmitted my love to her.”
Treating people with illnesses is a central goal, but volunteers often give a lot more in the process.
“Even though the treatments that we do are very basic, we can still ease the pain to patients and make them smile as we try to communicate with the little Bengal that we were able to learn,” Manuela Centofanti, a volunteer from L’Aquila, said.
Vannessa Guidi, a medical student from Cesena, noted that even the presence of volunteers can be helpful.
“These people who really need help are happy just seeing us because they know that we are there for them,” Guidi said.
Indian volunteers agree. “We can learn a lot from foreign volunteers because they come from developed countries, so they have more technical knowledge and new ideas,” Ratna Chakrabarti, chief of the IIMC Women Peace Council, said.
Volunteers often work on side projects to help in other ways. Rinaldi went to Calcutta with hopes of providing medical care and empowering women. She noticed that one of the reasons that skin infections were so common was a lack of hygiene, and managed to combine her two goals.
“Through a collaboration with other Swedish volunteers, Hanna Lekedal and Henrik Wilander, we did the 'soap' project which consists of a series of workshops to teach women to make homemade soap,” Rinaldi said. “They can produce it for their families and sell it in the villages.”
Others took a similar approach with solar power. Women were taught to make solar lamps with recycled or cheap materials, and could then sell them, giving them some financial independence while spreading sustainable energy.
“I think the most important thing to do in these months here is to pursue side projects”, said Michele Mena, a volunteer from Milan.
Although volunteers return home after a few months, these side projects create lasting change — new volunteers inherit the project after its founder returns home, transforming old ideas into tangible change.
But volunteers are not on their own. They work with IIMC, which is known for investing in education, building new schools, and giving financial support to families who don’t have the means to send their children to school.
“IIMC is helping a lot this nation, because it is giving the opportunity to thousands of children to be able to receive an education and therefore have the ability to be able to have a better society,” said Sarah Lerario, a volunteer from Lecce.
While their experience is well-rounded, with opportunities to help with healthcare, education, sustainability, and gender equality, it isn’t easy. Many volunteers said that being surrounded with people in need — and sometimes feeling that they cannot do enough — takes a psychological toll.
“Sometimes it is difficult, but I want to say that if you ever find yourself in this situation do not give up, but try to motivate yourself,” Guidi said.
Even though volunteers are often away from home in an unknown culture, spending most of their time helping others, the hard work is worth it.
“What I am certain is that I'm getting a lot more than what I seem to give,” Mena said.