What does it mean to be a responsible volunteer abroad?

By 2018 Christianson Fellow Victor Filpo

Victor F.

During my eight-month volunteer role with the Mariposa DR Foundation—an organization devoted to empowering and educating girls and young women in the Dominican Republic—we hosted short-term volunteers periodically.

After discussing “responsible volunteering” with one cohort, a thoughtful high school student from the U.S. asked, in a concerned tone, “What do I have to offer to your girls [at Mariposa]? Is it okay for us to even be here? I don’t even speak Spanish!”

Her eyes were full of worry and empathy. She was sixteen-years-old with blue highlights in her hair and oversized glasses resting on her small face—a fashion statement very different from that of my Dominican and Haitian students at Mariposa. More importantly, she was a young student with a lot of good and hope in her heart. I felt one of those mentoring smiles sneaking up on me and I told her:

“The amazing thing about human connection is that we will find ways to share with each other. People have fallen in love, created lasting friendships, and learned from each other without speaking the same language. And yes, it’s more than okay for you to be here. It says a lot about you that you actively think about your place in this context, and I’m sure the girls will learn from you and connect with you, too.”

Posing in front of Cabarete sign on the beach

Hanging on the beach in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. Image courtesy of Victor F.

What impact do I have on the people I aim to serve?

I was often in the position of that young student, especially late nights in my room when I read letters from the Mariposa girls. I often asked myself before sleeping and at unexpected times throughout the day, “What impact do I have on my students at the Mariposa Foundation?”

So many times I wondered if my temporary influence was detrimental to these girls in the long run, students whom I’d grown to love so much. I would count with my fingers the things that I did concretely as a staff member and questioned their validity:

  • I taught dance classes in English (Is teaching them more English life changing?)
  • I taught a few self-defense courses (Will they be able to defend themselves in the future?)
  • I taught a class on internationalism (Will the girls remember the information 10 years from now? Will this inform their interactions with other people and cultures?)
  • As the most visible, masculine presenting figure at the foundation, am I a positive influence on the girls?

Thinking about these questions brought guilt to my heart, and one day I opened up to another adult volunteer. She started crying too, locked eyes with me, and said, “I’m not sure of much in this world, but I’m sure that it means so much to these girls to have met you.”

That’s when I learned that if the connections I made in the Dominican Republic and at the Mariposa DR Foundation meant so much to me, they had to mean just as much to the people with whom I connected. I felt this on my last night in the country as I walked through the community where I lived (also where many of the Mariposa girls reside)— a place called Callejón (“Big Street”). It’s long, with 12 numbered subsidiary streets that run off on the left-hand side, ending in the native caves where the indigenous people of the area lived a long time ago.

Callejón in Dominican Republic

Callejón ("Big Street") in the Dominican Republic. Image courtesy of Victor F.

I decided to walk along each street, starting from Calle #1 (Street #1) to Calle #12 (Street #12). I bumped into many of my girls, some took me to their homes to meet their families, while others took me to the houses of other Mariposas and coworkers so that I could say farewell to them as well.

Some of the Mariposa girls

Some of the Mariposa girls. Image courtesy of Victor F.

They followed me, from street to street. Some stuck to my side trying to speak in English or letting me know how much they liked our dance classes. I heard some trailing behind me tell each other how they were going to miss having a teacher like me, and I listened to them speak in the slang that I’ve picked up over time.

Telling them “goodbye” wasn’t as hard now, compared to when they previously fought back against me and said that volunteers promise that they’ll return but never actually do. When I locked eyes with them and said that they’ll see me again, there was trust reflected back. Their sweet te quiero (“I love you”) and tight abrazo (hug) before heading off had so much appreciation in it, while their smiles (and lack of tears) told me that they believed I would be back.

With some of the Mariposa girls on the basketball court

With some of the Mariposa girls on the basketball court. Image courtesy of Victor F.

I reached Calle #12 on my own, the smallest and least populated of the streets, where only one of my students lives. I sat with her family, remembering how the grandmother once gave me a shoulder rub and freshly made pineapple juice in this same space. My student seemed to be texting on her phone, so I jokingly asked her if she was writing to the president of the country. After giving me major side-eye, she informed that she was actually messaging a previous high school volunteer—the student with the blue highlights and oversized glasses. I hid my surprise and asked her how they communicated. She shrugged and responded, “I don’t know . . . in Spanglish? We talk about everything though! Anime, school, fashion . . .”

I eventually walked back to my own home, feeling and hearing the fresh, cold water coming from the caves. I knew in my heart that it was the right choice to come to the Dominican Republic afterall.

I took the advice I gave to that visiting student, understanding that another important part of this kind of experience is not only actively thinking about my place while I’m in the space, but also about what I decide to do after all of this. Leaving the Dominican Republic was less hard than I thought, mainly because I knew that the exchange, learning, and connections I made weren’t ending but, in fact, were only beginning. I know deep inside of me that I will walk in the streets of Callejón in the future—from Calle #1 to Calle #12 (and even to the caves)—but also to all the places where I’ve forged loving connections.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation