Volunteering - Taking steps towards a real global community

It is 8 am and I am standing in a street market in Quito, Ecuador watching a five year old run towards me with open arms. His skin is covered in a layer of dirt, his clothes are ripped and torn, his t-shirt a size too big, his pants a size too small. But his smile - his smile lights up the whole street.

It is the second summer in a row that I am working with the ‘Centro Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia’ - known in English as the Centre for Youth and Adolescence. It is a non-profit organisation that helps the children of the Quiteño markets and their families. And it is a far cry from the blessed childhood that I had in Co. Mayo, easy, carefree, and full of opportunities.

I will admit however, that I didn’t always see it like this. Prior to my first trip to Ecuador in April 2014, I was like so many of my generation, too privileged to even realise it and completely unaware of how much I had and how lucky I was to have it. By no means did I come from a wealthy family, barely from a middle class one, but I never wanted for anything, I never went hungry, I had a great education and I had so many people who loved me. I only wish every child had the same upbringing.

Volunteering in Ecuador changed me, and changed my life. It showed me how fortunate I was, and it helped me to appreciate everything that I have and I am certain that it has the same effect on everyone that has the pleasure of doing it. I learned a lot about myself, the world, and the struggles that people continue to face every day. But most importantly, I learned that there is a lot that can be done to help.

Each year millions of euros are donated to various charities around the world, but what these organisations really need is our most precious commodity – time.

A large majority of organisations are dependent on the help of volunteers, without whom many of their programs would not function. The good news though, is that we can all help! The opportunities for volunteering are endless, and there are options for every interest and personality. There are many organisations for example that are always looking for new volunteers, such as Concern or the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the comprehensive website of the National Volunteer Development Agency www.volunteer.ie has no less than 300 listings of volunteer opportunities throughout Ireland. Or for those more adventurous souls, www.comhlamh.org has a list of volunteering positions available all over the world.

Volunteering has the power to change lives, both for the volunteers and those receiving their help. It allows us to appreciate what we have, while showing those in need of our help that they are not alone, creating a unique sense of community not seen or felt anywhere else. This sense of community is part of what makes volunteering so important, as it unites us against common issues that affect our society, such as homelessness, hunger, alcoholism, or any other problem for that matter.

But even more importantly, it fosters the development of understanding between people; it enhances compassion and reduces judgement. So often we find ourselves separated from the problems that many in our society are dealing with. We are sometimes so far removed from the harsh realities of others that we are unable to comprehend the difficulties that they have to face, from debt to loneliness to disability. But by volunteering, we can bridge this gap and create mutual trust and understanding, to become more aware of ourselves and to help those less fortunate in our community.

That give and take nature is the true beauty of volunteering. We may be giving up our precious time, but the return is beyond anything imaginable. The smile of a child, a mother’s relief, the knowledge that we have helped another person or possibly made their life a bit easier, is worth so much more than a lazy night on the couch. Seeing the results of volunteering is like a drug, an amazing feeling that keeps us coming back for more. In many ways, helping others can be the best medicine. Smiles are contagious after all, and putting a smile on the face of someone else can only make us want to smile back.

Travelling to the street markets of Ecuador isn’t a suitable option for everyone, but taking the time to volunteer is. By offering our time, skills and services, we can make a huge difference in the lives of others, either at home here in Ireland or further afield.

Volunteering is a powerful thing: be a part of it.


Centro Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia (CENIT)
CENIT helps working children, their families, and members of the extended community in Quito, Ecuador. The schools give educational and life skills to around 100 children per year, many of whom would not otherwise have the opportunity.

Volunteer Ireland
Volunteer Ireland is the national volunteer development agency and a support body for all local Volunteer Centres and Volunteer Information Services in Ireland.

About the author: 

Lori Gavin is a recent graduate of the University of Limerick where she studied Applied Languages. A culture, language and travel enthusiast, she has travelled extensively and has recently launched her own website. She has volunteered at home and abroad on a regular basis since the age of 17 and hopes to continue to do so in the future.

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