Volunteering: Lost in definitions?

Last weekend when I was volunteering with colony children in Indore my sister had asked me “But these are not under-privileged kids; why do you wish to volunteer with them?”. That time I had responded by saying “does a tree ever choose whom it wants to give its fruits to? It doesn’t differentiate between people. It serves everyone the same way.” (I remember my friend, Madhu, once saying that to someone and it had stayed with me ever since.)

That satisfied my sister. But later I was thinking about how it is a very common practice to associate volunteering with “helping” someone and that someone should be “underprivileged”. Sometimes I feel what if we don’t bound ourselves in these definitions. Who is underprivileged and who is not? What makes us decide that? Is money a measure of so-called privilege? A person living in a huge bungalow is privileged and one living in slum is under-privileged. Or is happiness a measure of privilege? Can a person living in slum who is very happy with his life be called under-privileged?

And then the term “helping”. That right away creates two levels – one who is helping and one who is helped. Just like the privileged and the under-privileged. But is it really clear who is helping whom? I’m suddenly taken back to the days I spent volunteering in Uttarakhand after the floods in June. A big question I struggled with there was – Am I really serving. I was learning so much while I could not see any contribution from my side. Guess I was trying to find occasions where I was “helping” yet even though I was the assumed “privileged” one; I was also the one who was “helped”.

And then I remember the trips made with relief agencies to distribute relief material in the villages. All that the organisation giving the material was concerned with was getting that right picture with the victims. A picture of them helping. And I saw villagers cringe away when their names was spoken out so loud and with so little empathy. I saw the locals feel the distance and the divide between them and the ones helping them.

I sometimes then question the volunteering concept. I believe it’s purpose is to bring people together; but does that purpose sometimes gets lost and the definitions end up dividing us more?

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