My last few blog posts have focused on bettering the experience for professionals working in nonprofits or working as volunteer managers. Each post has offered advice and friendly suggestions based on my experience working as a Regional Coordinator for Volunteer Maryland (VM) about how to run successful programs.
This week, I’m changing the tone slightly to speak about a recent service opportunity that I had last Friday, November 5. VM is an AmeriCorps program however members are required to spend ten percent of their year completing direct service hours with nonprofit organizations throughout the state of Maryland. This can mean a regularly scheduled volunteer commitment or a series of episodic, one-time volunteer opportunities.
Last week, I had the privilege to participate in a bulb planting which was the result of a combined partnership effort sponsored by South East CDC, the Baltimore Resettlement Center, and the International Rescue Committee. I went into the event with little to no experience planting anything (most things that I plant end up dying; I somehow managed to kill a cactus….) so I had an open mind. When I arrived, only three people were present; Jenny Michalak, Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for Southeast CDC; Danielle McKinney from the Capital Area Baltimore Resettlement Center; and Jamie Spitzer from the International Rescue Committee. We unloaded materials from Jenny’s van and waited for the rest of the volunteers to arrive.
Jenny told me about the event the week before, mentioning that it was the result of a talk she gave about volunteering as a way for refugees to experience and learn about American culture. Given my background in French and Intercultural Communications, I was immediately intrigued by the subject. Charged with creating a follow-up volunteer event in which refugees could participate, Jenny held a planting last Tuesday. The participants, clients from Bhutan and Nepal, enjoyed it so much that a second planting was scheduled for Friday the 5th.
As we waited, I tried to remember everything I’d learned about mindful communication, Hofstede’s Dimensions of Cultural Variability, and cross cultural conflict. Needless to say, all that went out of the window as the other volunteers arrived. The language barrier didn’t stop the Bhutanese and Nepali clients from diving right in. The first thing I noticed was that, while I was quick to don work gloves, the men and women put their hands directly in the dirt. I am not a fan of dirt and was told that one of the bags was actually compost so you can imagine my concern. When offered gloves, one of the women nodded, understanding what the gloves were for and smiled knowingly. She then continued on, working the soil and popping in Crocus bulbs with her bare hands. It was explained to me later that the Bhutanese come from a culture in which they feel a strong connection to the earth. They immediately took to the gardening as if it was second nature, never mind the fact that they couldn’t read the labels or didn’t know the English word for soil. I soon found myself with nothing to do as every bulb that could be planted was planted in every last bit of plant-able space by our Bhutanese experts. I also found myself being given a lesson on the planting of pansies, completely in hand gestures!
This experience was almost mind-blowing because of the fact that the two worlds that I so often keep separate (my academic discipline of Intercultural Communications and my AmeriCorps service through VM working with managers of volunteer programs) collided over the course of twenty minutes. It sparked several questions within me regarding the need for more opportunities like this. Jenny explained to me that what was planted that day had the capacity to hold clients through hard times when they miss their countries and their family members still abroad. Knowing that they planted something that would bear fruit next spring and being able to wait for that fruit, to tend and care for their plants, had the potential to help keep client morale high.
Wouldn’t it be great to provide these sorts of opportunities to clients in need all over the city of Baltimore? Tell me about an intercultural experience that you’ve had while volunteering or managing volunteers!