A Note on What to Expect When Volunteering:
Most of you who are reading this are considering coming to the Dominican Republic to do some much-needed volunteer work. Your interest is honorable and your intentions are good. Most of you who are reading this are coming from a place of privilege. Still, your interest is honorable and your intentions are good. Most of you who are reading this can afford to set aside a couple of months, buy a plane ticket, finance your stay, and even have enough left over to indulge in a bit of sightseeing and local travel. That is why you are here!
Volunteering in a place like the Dominican Republic will challenge you in more ways than you thought possible. You will encounter cultural conflicts, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. You will not feel comfortable. In fact, you may find yourself feeling quite uncomfortable. This is good. This is growth. Your journey will develop you as a person, help you to develop compassion, patience, and a genuine sense of well-being. This, however, will not happen over night. It will also require your cooperation and keen observation skills.
If it is your first time traveling to a “developing nation,” there are a few things that you need to know. First of all, the only expectation you should hold is that of having no expectations. If you have no expectations, you are freer to loosen your grip, meet new people, explore another world, and do it all without feeling disappointed or overly frustrated.
This is not an exclusive cultural guide by any means. The piece intends to mentally prepare you for what to expect more than anything. I do not write about too many particularities because I am writing more about the frame of mind you should adapt to have more success. Think of this as a list of tips that will help you to enjoy yourself, as well as make the journey worth while:
- Be familiar with Spanish.
Many Dominicans speak English, especially in the touristy areas; however, if you wish to travel outside of those places, you’ll want to have a basic grasp of the language. If you want to form strong bonds with the non-English speakers there, Spanish can go a long way. Everyone understands that this will come with practice. Your openness to learning, listening, and practicing (with many stumbling blocks!) is essential in your process.
- Stay open.
Obviously if you’ve decided to spend a few months or weeks in another country you have a certain sense of openness to you. Sometimes, though, what we think and how we act can look differently. Volunteering in a place like the Dominican Republic will challenge you in more ways than you thought possible. You will encounter cultural conflicts, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. You will not feel comfortable. In fact, you may find yourself feeling quite uncomfortable. This is good. This is growth.
- Throw out your watch.
Not really! The point is, the concept of time in the Dominican may not fit with what you’re used to. In many of the places where our volunteers come from such as the U.S., Canada, and Europe, there are cultural norms and expectations surrounding time. Life on the island has a slower, more relaxed pace. If someone shows up a few hours late to a meeting it is not because they are rude, inconsiderate and out to waste your time. Know that you won’t be able to plan down to the minute like you might be used to. People will show up late. People will not show up at all. People will make plans and then break them. People will not carry around a ton of guilt for doing this. This is okay. This is also a relief. Be prepared to “go with the flow” when it comes to planning and schedules.
- Be flexible with your plans.
In a developing nation such as the DR, people do not have the luxury of planning ahead. Dominican culture is present-oriented vs. U.S.-type cultures, which are future-oriented. As a volunteer, you will be working along side some of the most vulnerable people in society. Because there is not a culture of “plan ahead for everything,” many tasks are accomplished at the last minute. You can be your own ally by letting go of expectations. If people seem relaxed while you are feeling uptight, it is because you have a different expectation than they do. There should be a sign that says, “CAUTION, PLANS ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE AT A MOMENT’S NOTICE!” That being said, your job is to listen, observe, and act where and when it is appropriate.
- Be proactive with your constructive criticisms.
Undoubtedly, you will be faced with many frustrating situations. You might find fault with the organization and the way things work. That is normal and many people who have volunteered experience the same thing. Instead of complaining and criticizing, which is the easy and most automatic thing to do, ask for advice. Look for culturally appropriate responses to the situation. Reach out to the organization with your criticisms, but make sure to frame them in a constructive and open way. Again, you are attempting to get a grasp of their culture, not the other way around. You may hold a position that requires you to teach and contribute, but you are also here to learn and to contribute positively to the people and the organization. Be honest about your feelings, but be open to different kinds of solutions than what you are used to.
- Be prepared to improvise
Dominicans are constantly improvising. And life in the Dominican, no matter where you come from, is a constant improvisation. It’s beautiful and it makes you feel alive. At the same time, it doesn’t provide much security or concreteness. Life itself is constantly evolving. People are doing their best with what they have. People do not have access or exposure to the same kinds of knowledge. This does NOT speak to their levels of intelligence or preparedness to take on the world, it simply means that they have had a different set of circumstances and have adapted as such. You stand to learn a lot by being exposed to this type of lifestyle.
- Don’t press the panic button
What might seem glaringly unfair or strange to you may be commonplace for someone else. Remember that food and shelter are basic necessities that people may be fighting to hold on to each and every day. You may encounter some situations that you could consider shocking or disturbing. Don’t press the panic button. What people need most from you is love and accountability, not for you to fix something in their lives. “What will be, will be” is a good refrain to think of if you find yourself in a tough emotional spot. Definitely ask questions and direct your concerns to the people around you, but remember that not everything will be pretty.
- This organization is operating within the system, just like everyone else.
Organizations like InspireDR are operating as part of the world, not apart from it. For every solution, there is a new set of problems. The staff at InspireDR is doing its best to navigate the problems. In summary, not one organization will be able to conquer all of the world’s woes. What they will do is expose you to people and places you would have NEVER thought about going to. They expose you to poverty, social class, racism, hunger, lack of access to basic needs, etc. and that in of itself is a humbling, immensely valuable, and life-changing experience.
- Think about your positive qualities and what you can give.
Do you love art? Do you love sports, cards, dance, reading? Take your passions and put them to good use. Don’t be shy! Use what you have to connect with people. Bring your ideas and your projects to the organization and don’t be afraid to share. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we always have the human connection to rely on. Keep giving and you’ll experience returns greater than you could imagine.
- Focus on the process, not the outcome.
Take a step back and look at what you are doing. You are connecting to a world so vastly different from your own, and if anything, giving love and support to some kids whose lives will be different because of it. What truly matters is your understanding, your leadership, your smiles, your encouragement, and your presence. Don’t get caught on the details, and enjoy the ride!