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7 Lessons on volunteerism
“Do you dance?”
Dance? Was Sr. Paulita Astillero, president of Centro Filipino really asking me if I could dance? But wasn´t I volunteering to teach Spanish to newly arrived Pinoys? Was dancing part of the requirements? I gave her a blank look. Before I could answer, somebody called her attention but before leaving, she turned to me and smiled, a gesture that seemed to have said. “You are in. But you must show me your dance moves. Not now, but soon”. That capped off my interview and marked the start of my journey as a Centro Filipino volunteer.
The world of volunteerism
I started early in the world of volunteerism. At 12 years old, I was already giving English classes to Grade Six students at Andres Bonifacio Elementary School, as part of our Out-reach program in my hometown, Bacolod. At 15, I was giving typing classes to students of Luis Hervias High School. Every Friday, while my friends were looking forward to the weekend ahead, I was preparing my lesson plans for my Saturday classes.
When I migrated to SpainI volunteered as a tutor, translator and interpreter for a non-government organization educating undocumented teenage migrants in Madrid. So, when I moved to Barcelona in 2009, I gravitated towards Centro Filipino, where some of my friends were volunteering. I had wanted to be a Centro Filipino volunteer even before Sister Pau asked me about my dancing skills.
I met the founder of Centro Filipino, Father Avel; considered the Father of the Filipino community in Barcelona. Together with Sister Pau, they showed me what unconditional service should be, being available 24/7 and helping kababayans needing assistance without hesitations.
Fast forward to 2021. Father Avel is no longer around. Sister Pau is now based in the Philippines. But their legacy lives on.
My life as a volunteer in Spain now spans more than a decade. In the middle of a pandemic, when one is called more than ever to do more for others who are not so privileged, I want to share seven lessons I took to heart, which I learned from Father Avel, Sister Pau and my titas and titos of Centro Filipino.
1) The desire to help, the passion to serve and the commitment to carry on – A true volunteer always has the desire to serve anytime, anywhere. S/he is passionate about helping others in any way, to serve with a heart. Serving without expecting something in return. It’s not easy because volunteerism takes up our personal time and energy. Volunteerism requires commitment. It´s a process and finally a journey of benevolence.
2) Truckload of patience– Helping others requires a lot of patience as it often comes with the desire to change the whole system, the whole scheme of things. It takes patience to introduce something new, go against what we think is inefficient and obsolete processes. There will be numerous obstacles, doubters, people who are hesitant to even try new ideas.
3) Happy disposition attracts positive energy – Having a positive outlook is an important characteristic of a volunteer. Can you imagine a grumpy and whiny volunteer? Not fun, right? A happy disposition creates a happy environment. Things get done smoother, faster and problems are solved a little easier.
4) Little things count – Little is more. No matter how small one´s action is, this may be a big thing to others. Making my student understand the difference between SER and ESTAR may be a small thing but seeing their delighted faces once they finally pin the right answers is already a reason to celebrate.
5) It´s never about the money – Volunteerism is not a job where you get paid for what you do. It is basically free work. Never think of this as a cash-generating activity.
My reward is seeing my students get by, become more assertive and speaking the Spanish language more than “Si, Señora”. There’s fulfilment when a student came thanking me one day, saying “Sir, I went to the doctor this morning and I was able to apply what I learned from your class.”
6) Helping others doesn’t make you a superhero – A volunteer will never be superhero. S/he will never have superpowers. A volunteer can only have the power to touch other people´s lives. Helping others doesn’t put you on a podium. A volunteer is a servant of goodwill. You share, you do not brag. You inspire, you never insult. Do not strive for reward nor recognition.
7) You cannot change the world– I remember one story I came across years ago. It was about a woman who was walking along a beach where she found dying starfishes. As she walked, she would pick one up and threw it back into the water. Her friend commented that she was just wasting time because there were too many of them and she wouldn´t be able to put them all back. What difference would it make? The woman picked up another starfish and before throwing, she told her friend, “I may not be able to help all of them, but at least I can save one.”
I can never change the world. I can only do so much with the time and talent that I was given. Sometimes I am frustrated when things don´t go as planned. That no matter what you do, there will always be intrigues, jealousy and envy. As an individual, changing the world is a almost an impossible feat. However, I can be part of that change. I know for sure that somewhere somehow, I am making a difference in someone else´s world.
Serving the Filipino community in Barcelona and being part of my students’ journey in Spain have been my constant fulfilment all these years. As much as it is for them, the rewards have also been for me. I was able to utilize my creativity to share with them and in the process know myself better.
When I look back on my interview with Sister Pau, I realized that her question wasn´t to pull my leg. She already knew that one day, I would be teaching kids to wiggle their tushes to Black Eyed Peas´ ”Boom Boom Pow” for a carnival performance. That even if didn’t dance, I would have gladly obliged. She knew that as long as I was based in Barcelona, I would always be at the service of my kababayans. And that Centro Filipino would eventually be part of my life in Barcelona.
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 13 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino Expat Magazine.