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Volunteerism: The Noble and Not-So-Secret (Art of) Service

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BACOLOD CITY, Philippines – The bus’ tires swirled dust and tracked grime as it lumbered through the unpaved roads of the district. On both sides were sparse trees, grown sturdy and adapted to the aridity of the land, rocks jutting proudly out of the earth like roughly-hewn rejected sculptures in a dusty, musty corner of an art gallery.

Three hours ago, the bus had just left a rather chaotic bus station, where baskets and cartons of fruit and beverages, and jute bags, were jostling for space, for attention along with men, women, and children deftly maneuvering for a crack in the queue so they could finally hitch a ride after waiting for hours. Now, it’s nearing another station, and as the bus gets nearer and nearer to its destination, the knots in Ruby’s stomach gets gnarlier and gnarlier.

She checked the scuffs of her well-worn running shoes, fished out of the rummage bin, soles already showing wear and tear by the previous owner. This, she thought, would do well in the harsher and drier climate of Tanzania.

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About a month ago, Ruby had planed into Tanzania, and was housed in Dar es Salaam with 20 other volunteers from all over the world where they had their in-country orientation. And then, there’s a week of language training, necessary for any volunteer assigned to a foreign country.

After weeks of prepping come the actual site visit to Kondoa town, the administrative ward in the district of the same name. And that’s where we find Ruby as she sits in the bus contemplating about her life as a volunteer.

The year was 2013. That was the year when Ruby Padasay, an Education graduate in one of the universities in Bacolod, decided to fulfill a vow she made with God: to be a volunteer should He allow her to survive college.

And she did.

The highs of social work

Six years after her first assignment, when she experienced her most nerve-wracking bus ride in a foreign nation, Ruby had been to two other countries – Malawi, and Nepal. And there is no stopping her. Not soon.

In fact, Ruby – who is connected to Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), a non-profit organization that sends social workers abroad for in a bid to fight poverty and its roots — sounded giddy when she reveals her next assignment: “hopefully” to Rwanda by September. And she made it sound as if she was off to gay Paree or the coconut-lined beaches of Maldives.

“Volunteer work is addicting,” she admits to DNX, especially when, as she puts “you have created the changes” to the community. In her case, since she is assigned under VSO’s education program, much of efforts have gone to create – or at least help create – policies that would alleviate the problem in education and the educational system in the countries she was assigned to.

More than merely providing stop-gap measures to alleviate the problem, Ruby’s workload as education specialist include crafting strategic plans for training colleges, creating model classrooms viable for learning, training of teachers in the marginalized areas, and even creating mobile library for pupils.

Beyond the classroom

Like most social work, volunteer work offers a special perk: learning. Be it about another country’s culture, their way of life, or the harsh realities of people in nations below one’s own economic ranking.

The author and volunteer on Bongoyo island, one of the most  frequently-visited islands of the Dar Es Salaam Marine Reserve. Photo  from Ruby Padasay's personal collection.
The author on Bongoyo island, one of the most frequently-visited islands of the Dar Es Salaam Marine Reserve. Photo from Ruby Padasay’s personal collection.

Being born a Filipino, she realizes, is not without its perks. Especially when compared to the way the other countries treat their own women.

“Thank God I was born a Filipin(o). I have all the rights as a Filipina,” Ruby declares. As a Filipina, she says, nobody is stopping her from getting to a good college of her choice. She is also not bound to a social construct of how and what women should have and should do.

The Philippines, she also muses, have a lot of things better – it’s just a matter of looking at a proverbial glass of water.

Better educational system, better food, better transportation.

Especially the transportation.

That bus ride at the start of the story is just a glimpse of how bad the transport system in African nations could get.

A wait for a bus ride would mean hours of standing, waiting for the next bus in the station – (“Stations are really chaotic – but the rest rooms are really clean!”). Then there’s the rank smell what could only be people stewing under the heat of the sun.

And if you consider yourself lucky – again depending on how you perceive that glass of water – you can finally ride a bus and endure another six or eight hours still stewing, but this time while INSIDE the bus.

Food makes special mention.

“We have a lot of variety here, at least. We have restaurants, fast foods that open 24/7,” she says. None of that, she says, are available in the countries she was assigned to.

Filipinos have also been griping about the economy something which Ruby, herself a former activist, is acutely aware of.

But even that is relative.

The Philippines, Ruby shares, is much better off than Nepal, a country that experts have described as “a yam between two boulders” (in reference to the country’s strategic location between giants India and China). Though tourism in Nepal is an industry by itself, income from THAT activity is quite low. Women are also enjoying far fewer rights in Nepal.

By comparison, Tanzania is progressive.

“Culturally, (we are closest to) Tanzania… most of their women are empowered, have access to jobs, and enjoy basic rights. Tanzania also has better maternity laws (than the Philippines), and are also quite outspoken,” she says.

Ruby takes a brief break and poses in her volunteer works for this photo in Bukoba, a city in  the northwest section of Tanzania. Photo contributed by Ruby Padasay.
Ruby takes a brief break to capture the sunset in this photo in Bukoba, a city in the northwest section of Tanzania. Photo contributed by Ruby Padasay.

Volunteers as heroes

Ruby grew up in humble beginnings: father was a porter in the North Terminal, while mother was a cook at Lion’s Park. But, she says, she was lucky to have been “blessed with education”.

“I’m blessed with good friends, good companions, and perfect parents,” she says.

The support from parents, especially, has made her life as a volunteer much more bearable. The most challenging part of being a volunteer is not even the sparse – or even outright lack of – monetary support.

“People think that as volunteers, we get paid thousands of dollars in allowances. We don’t. There are even those who have to shell out their own money just to volunteer,” she reveals.

There is also a certain allure to volunteering.

There’s a special kind of glow when you realize you have done change in the community; there is however, an even brighter glow when you have realized that you have noticed a change within yourself.

More than anything, Ruby has experienced a new-found appreciation of herself, even the smallest things.

“I used to really hate my skin. But when I went to Africa, nobody cares how you look. People appreciate you for who you are,” she says.

Should people, then, care for volunteers and for what they do?

“People should care about volunteers,” Ruby says, “We have left behind a family. Support does not necessarily have to be monetary. What is important is the emotional support for that is something we need most.”

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