Working for Free: Gaining so Much

There was a time in my life when my father called me a professional volunteer.  Working for a handsome wage was much less of a priority in my youth. It started with summer camps, and continued to take me all over the world to share pieces of myself with others; yet, I would argue I gained more than I gave.

I stopped asking for permission to do things when I was about 15. I never got arrested, or caused any real trouble, so my parents reluctantly handed me the reins of my future. They tried on a few occasions to regain control, but I never reneged.

Not long after my 19th birthday, I announced that I would be travelling to Zambia (a beautiful nation in central Africa).

My Father said, “No!”  My Mother didn’t sleep that night, as she envisioned a Bruce Willis-like character extracting me from a tribal warfare scenario. Regardless, I respectfully bid my parents farewell, and boarded my first-ever international flight to the other side of the world.

I volunteered at a crisis intervention centre for families who were affected by HIV and AIDS. The first day I arrived at the centre I was ushered into a staff meeting. The first topic on the agenda: How many coffins will be necessary for this week?

I sat silently thinking: What have I got myself into? This is so far from my reality. Yet for the next two months I travelled through a tiny town by bicycle with both African, and international volunteers experiencing a new reality.

One day we navigated into the ramshackle yard with many children, and one feeble grandmother. My African co-volunteer explained this was one of the poorest clients.  Upon our arrival, the grandmother smiled, with almost no teeth, and welcomed us into her home.

There were cracked cement floors, but no furniture at all. She immediately set to work spreading out empty feed sacks as a place for us to sit. She had leprosy, and as a result she had no fingers, and no toes, no food, no children – just grandchildren, and all of them were young, and very dependent on her.

I thought: How could this woman be honoured to welcome me – a wealthy foreigner in her home? I felt as though I should be clearing a place of honour for her to sit, for she had unknowingly taught me what a real hero looks like.   

Each day I met new people, but I frequently came across a man named Jimmy. It was Jimmy’s job to coordinate a support group for women diagnosed with AIDS and to grow vegetables to help them stay strong. He once called me, Humble Megan. This is the greatest compliment I had ever been given, for this man is the epitome of humility. He lived simply with his wife and children, and gave continually while asking for almost nothing.

This tiny portion of Africa taught me to never take anything I had for granted: modern medicine, access to clean water, and an education for me – a female.

When I returned to Canada, and I continued my studies, but soon I caught another travel bug. One day I reported to my father that I had decided the next place I wanted to travel. “Do you want to know where?” I asked.

“Let me guess – where is the worst place in the world I would want my daughter? India,” he guessed.

“Yes!”  I responded with enthusiasm.  

By this time he had learned that telling me no was not going to work.

While in India I volunteered at a school. Throughout the time I was there I developed a friendship with the headmaster’s wife. She had seven kids, but she still made time for me. She shared stories of growing up in a northern province of India, having her house burnt down in tribal warfare, and returning to the fields to work the same day she gave birth. She continued with stories of her husband’s brother passing away, and her accepting two of his four children into her family simply because the man’s widow could not afford to feed them. This woman gave me a new reference point for strength.   

On these trips I also had some exciting adventures. I leaped off cliffs bungee jumping, I rode elephants through the jungle, I went on safaris, and I climbed in the Himalayas, but it wasn’t those tourist adventures that stuck with me. It was the people;  the local people who allowed me to forfeit my own sense of reality to experience theirs.

Years later, I am now a parent. I look at my child – only two years old – and I already dread the future of him declaring all the places he will go to push the limits.

I now empathize with my parents more than I would like to admit. Someday I, too, will likely grit my teeth, hug him close, but allow him to go whilst suppressing my strong desire to say, “No, don’t go!”

At this point my life I also have a great job, two degrees, and I do collect a pay cheque, but I have never forgotten the people who taught me so much while I worked for free.

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