The addiction of volunteering (and kids!)

I am surrounded by people who have “volunteering” in their list of hobbies. Some (well, most) glorify volunteering, saying that it enriches your mind, it broadens your perspective, it feels good, and so on and so forth. Sadly, I have never felt such excitement.

My first ever volunteering was when I volunteered for Museum Konperensi Asia Afrika’s 50th anniversary, only a one-off event and I was just attending the blood donor stand, helping with the documentation and administrative matters. It was a really fun experience; well practically I was helping people to help other people (helpception). It was a very valuable practical communication training as I was partly convincing people to donate their blood and be extra friendly although I cannot really understand what they were saying because I don’t speak Sundanese. So, yes, I had my perspectives broaden; yes, I met and interacted with tons of new people; but it hasn’t given me that addiction everyone’s been saying about.

As an avid National Geographic viewer (and partly because of Dee’s Partikel), one of my lifelong dreams is to volunteer in an orangutan camp in Kalimantan or help with Sumatran Tiger conservation. But, that dream is currently a bit far-fetched and the quickest shortcut is through “voluntourism” (with an ongoing debate about whether it is actually positive) and that trip costs at least Rp25,000,000. Like. No way.

However, this weekend I had the chance to volunteer with equally interesting beings: kids. (I don’t mean to compare them, really)

Some of you might know that I’m a big-time museum fan (to some of you who don’t, well, I love museums), and some of you might know that I am currently having an exchange to the UK whose museums I dear so. So I thought to myself, why didn’t I volunteer at one?

Since September 2013, I have applied to volunteer in four different museums in three different cities and I got no luck. Apparently in the UK there are more people who are willing to help and care about museums than positions the museum could offer (while it’s clearly the other way around in Indonesia). So when some weeks ago The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge emailed me to offer a volunteering position for an event, I was really excited.

The position available is to assist families in art activities in Manet’s The Execution of Maximillian special exhibition. Basically I had to help the children to create artworks based on some subjects Manet painted before. I was a bit reluctant at first to register for it; I was not confident with my English, never was I an artsy girl, and I have never assisted children. It was not the type of volunteer I expected; and I thought to myself, who are you to be picky? So with a carpe diem mentality, I signed up!

Long story short, on 28th February 2014, I received the volunteer briefing documents. I went from really excited to really, really nervous upon reading it. I just realized how complicated it might be working with kids! Additionally, my jokes and idioms are not yet synchronized with those of the British’s. In one night, I researched pages about Manet, learned some painting terms and a minuscule of art history, and made up some fictional dialogues that might happen with the kids the next day.

The D-Day.

I arrived at the museum and met the other two volunteers. One was younger than me (and had volunteered at the museum a couple of times before) and one was older (and had plenty experiences in pubic speaking and handling kids). I was intimidated, really. My Indo-American-ish accent didn’t seem to help either; I just wished the day would go by really quickly.

Just about 20 minutes after the museum opened its exhibitions, two lovely children entered – and one of them was given to me alone to be assisted. At first I started really, really stern. Bless her, the other volunteer noticed this and she helped me. I soon copied her, knowing what level of intimacy I should use, what language, and what topics I should talk about. I became more relaxed. Amazingly, as I open myself more to the lovely little lady, she opened herself more as well. She started sharing her ideas with me and became braver.

As more kids came to paint, I became more in love with what I was doing. I am constantly amazed by how they are genuinely interested at so many things we adults often take for granted. I feel very happy whenever they say “thank you” and smiled very sincerely to me even if I only gave them a new brush or a glass of clean water. I am tickled by their witty imagination and their innocence. Their capacity of loving is enormous; their attachment and affection to their parents and guardians are exceptional. The kids and I would laugh at the littlest thing (“fat brush”), and they would be really excited at the things we might see very boring as adults (“AH! we can draw a crab! Uh-huh! A beach ball as well!”).

One difference I noticed from the kids here in the UK and back home in Indonesia is how their guardians would constantly remind them to use the “magic words”: thank you and please. I once wondered how people here are amazingly enthusiastic at small talks and seemingly very polite – never missed a “thank you” or a “please” in their requests. Seeing how the kids at the museum was reminded to use these words, my questioning is finally answered. All of the kids I helped in the past two days said thank you to the “lovely lady” (me (blush)), and all of them would say please when they ask for something. Perhaps the same thing also happens in Indonesia, but based on my observation I believe that the practice is not conducted as much.

Back to the volunteering, besides learning a new life skill (assisting and interacting with children), I met very kind volunteers along the way. I met a school student (not everyday in Indonesia you met school student volunteering in a museum), a charity worker/public speaker, a uni student, and a young adult like me working as a nanny. Their reasons to volunteer vary but they are all equally sincere. I had a very engaging talk with the charity worker, talking about what kind of jobs I should pursue (related to the recently established twenty-something dilemma and professional insecurity), about the perks of traveling, inequality between developed and developing countries (a subject area I have been interested at recently), and working for a cause.

I went home at 4 p.m. that day with a very satisfied face. I did not eradicate poverty nor world hunger, true, but it feels really good helping someone else you entirely have no personal relationship with, even though it came in the form of cleaning dirty brushes or refilling paints. I went home saying I would volunteer for something else back home and I would continue my relationship and research with Museum Sri Baduga.

Although my volunteering experience is far less intense and frequent than that of my friend’s, let’s just say I finally know what the fuss about volunteering is. And let’s just say I am now officially addicted to it.

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