Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

This is an article I recently submitted to the ICYE international newsletter, on the theme ‘Assessing the impact of long-term international youth volunteering’…

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.”  – William James

All international volunteers make an impact during their placement – sometimes negative but mostly positive – on their host family, project, community and on their own lives. However, it is assessing these impacts that is the difficult part, and the reason why international volunteering is often negatively represented in the media. In my experience, volunteers contribute and gain two broad sets of skills: hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are teachable abilities or skill sets that are easy to quantify, such as IT proficiency (e.g. setting up e-mail accounts and basic websites) or language ability. As a long-term volunteer in Uganda, I learnt the basics of the local language, Luganda, whilst helping others to improve their English. This was done very informally and mostly within my host home, where the children were eager to teach me new words in their language and correct my pronunciation. Through regular interaction and conversation with me, their English progressed significantly, whether they realised it or not.

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

An informal IT lesson in Sierra Leone (2012)

Soft skills, on the other hand, are much more difficult to measure. Also known as “people skills” or “interpersonal skills,” soft skills refer to the way you relate to and interact with other people. I gained a great deal of soft skills during my volunteer placement, including teamwork, communication, flexibility, creativity and patience (a much needed attribute when working on “Africa time”!). I also recognised that I promoted and shared other soft skills with my host family, workplace and community, such as motivation and respect for the diverse needs, feelings and views of others. My Christian friends, for example, were amazed at my willingness to join my host family in the mosque for the celebration of Eid, yet I found it an honour and privilege to be asked.

Soft skills are not only difficult to quantify, but also to measure and evaluate the impact of, as they manifest themselves over time in the lives of the volunteer and their host community. When I arrived at my host home for the very first time, I remember my host mother, Madina, recounting how each of the volunteers she had received annually since 2007, and the particular impact each one had made on her family and the small nursery school which she owned. The skills they had imparted ranged from teaching swimming and first aid, to establishing a reading culture and the importance of learning through play. However, the common element of all of them was their overall impact on Madina’s attitude to life and decision-making. Despite the age difference, she was very open to learning from the young volunteers, believing strongly in collaboration and asking the opinions of others.

The beginnings of 'Buddy Reading'

The beginnings of ‘Buddy Reading’ (Uganda, 2014)

To look back, seven years on, and see the difference that these young volunteers played in her life, and no doubt she in theirs, it is not an exaggeration to say that volunteering changes lives. Although many volunteers will pass on hard skills and soft skills, and pick up others, the overwhelming impact of long-term volunteering can be labelled as simply ‘life experience’. For although life experience is very difficult to measure in terms of its impact and outcomes, volunteering experiences do make a difference in shaping people’s lives and life choices, in the next seven or even seventy years to come.

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4 thoughts on “Long-term Volunteering, Lifelong Impacts

  1. Well Emma, reading this reminds me of lots that we all picked from you while you were here with us.Mary, one of the girls in our initiative…(AmFuture) still believes that you created a huge mark that will not fade.Recalling, the former days of her love for music but yet fear of trying out, your coming and becoming part of us created a whole beginning of self belief. Despite of the circumstances, you stood and patiently waited to see these girls raising to that place they had always been frightened to get to. That was and will always be a major mark you created in us all… Self Belief.

    We are still wowed by the attitude to showed towards learning our local language…(Language)…! In-fact like you have said, Patience is something that we all ought to have if we are to learn.

  2. Well Emma, reading this reminds me of lots that we all picked from you while you were here with us.Mary, one of the girls in our initiative…(AmFuture) still believes that you created a huge mark that will not fade.Recalling, the former days of her love for music but yet fearful of trying out, your coming and becoming part of us created a whole beginning of self belief in her life towards her dream. Despite of the circumstances, you stood and patiently waited to see us raise to that place and indeed you gave us a great platform of Character | Discipline | Love.
    Infact if there is a tag we could put to your name it would be :
    Character | Discipline | Love | Patience

    • Its the most important article I have ever imagined in life. Truly long term international voluntering creates great impact in all sides of life and environment between the both the guest ( volunteer) and the host community. Its always hard to know the strength of some one’s heart towards important people in life. Just because of your adventure in Uganda my heart realised the difference between what people want and there need. I was able to understand that my want meant my need and enlighted my future. Am sure for this, Emma’s long term volunteering in Uganda created a great impact in my life including the way i now understand my future. This worked the same for so many othercUgandans in different ways. Also realised that Baganda( Ugandan central people) have may things in common with English people more especially in behaviour. (Politeness)! Oh.. A lot to say about this.. Thanks.

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