Introductions in Volunteer Experiences
03.04.2012 - 06.04.2012
Introductions are important. And even though you might be able to change a first impression, those are usually really important, too. Plus they especially stick when you’re working with teenagers. One false step and you lose their trust.
This week HOY volunteers are working with a foster-care type organization for pre-teens and teenagers. Although it’s my fifth year going back to this place, it’s obviously a new group of kids and a completely different experience every time. At HOY our word is convivir – to hang out, and spend meaningful time together. Even if as a volunteer you come with an agenda to teach English or work on an environmental project, convivir must be your primary motive.
Introductions are part of that concept, and every culture has a different way to do it. With teenagers in Cuernavaca, it’s usually the fist “pound” with the guys and soft handshakes accompanied by kisses on the cheek with the girls. You say your name and where you’re from; even if you don’t remember all of their names the first day (or the last day), they will remember yours.
Unfortunately, I, a veteran volunteer, kinda sorta didn’t quite remember this very important interaction on our first day of volunteering. Although at the moment it didn’t seem like a big deal, going back the second day and doing things properly had an obvious effect. On our first day when we arrived the kids had already started a craft project. We tried to silently incorporate ourselves into each small group, introducing ourselves and asking questions. Some talked, but most of them were in their own world or too shy. We were invading their space and maybe being just a bit too nosy. Later we introduced ourselves and talked a little bit, but honestly, it was just too late. We had made our first impression. Plus, the volunteers didn’t really feel welcomed or integrated into the group.
In contrast, on our second day when we arrived, the whole group was together and we came in and introduced ourselves. Of course they remembered our names. And just that simple change in timing with introductions led to a whole different dynamic. We were approached by more teenagers, told intimate details about their families and lives, and asked hundreds of questions. We led the activities instead of lamely following along, and we were able to actually convivir instead of sketchily hanging around.
Although I don’t like to report on negative moments, these are the kinds of little details that make for a meaningful volunteer experience. And seriously, even Obama knows how important the fist pound is.