This is a reflection from student Kayley Gould, on how volunteering in her local area has shaped her views on how volunteering can be done right.
Last year, I explored in depth what it means to volunteer. I researched and wrote my senior thesis on the dangers of volunteering through exploring the white savior complex and orphanage tourism, and I was fortunate enough to be able to share my ideas with my school during our annual TEDx event. While I spent the majority of my senior year of high school focusing on the negative effects of volunteering, it made me appreciate the positive aspects of service even more, and that is what I am hoping to share with you today.
Volunteering plays a large role in my life. Throughout my high school career, I developed a love for education and have centered most of my volunteering around the profession. Volunteering in this area gave me invaluable opportunities that a normal high school student would otherwise not be exposed to. One specific area of interest for me has been working in special education. Through volunteering with organizations such as the Silicon Valley Down Syndrome Network, Open Mind School, and in a Mountain View High School class, I have been surrounded by amazing mentors who have been able to provide me with honest advice, as well as given me the opportunity to learn by doing. This ability to learn through doing, in my opinion, is the best part of volunteering! As long as people are able to go into their volunteer work recognizing that there is always more for them to learn, volunteer opportunities like this allow people to explore different areas of interest and find what resonates most with them without the pressure of having to earn a paycheck.
Additionally, volunteering has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with people I would otherwise be strangers with. Before my time volunteering with the Buena Vista Homework Club, I, like many residents of this area, was unaware that the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park even existed. I quickly fell in love with the mission of the organization and the people involved, and I have been volunteering as a tutor for the children for just two years now. Throughout these past two years, I have been able to watch the children in the program grow from dreading their homework and often not completing it, to genuinely taking interest in their academic subjects.
In the beginning, I usually worked with two fifth-grade girls, and when I first met them, they had no self-confidence and would repeatedly call themselves stupid when they could not solve a math problem. Volunteering with both of these girls has taught me that education is not only about making sure students learn academic concepts but equally about instilling confidence and passion in them. Today, I am extremely proud to say that both girls are excelling in school and learning to love learning. Instead of always moaning about homework assignments, they now sometimes come to the homework club telling me that they have already done their homework, and they want to work on extra credit. Outside of the classroom, I have seen them gain so much more confidence in themselves and even got to watch one of them sing a song in front of her school for her talent show last year.
In addition to the individual growth of the students, I have had the privilege of seeing the
organization itself develop from 7 volunteers to now around 40, with around 15 children in grades Pre-K to high school attending the homework club regularly each week. It has been such an incredible opportunity to be able to watch the progress develop over time, and volunteering has allowed me to form lasting connections within my own community.
Volunteering at Buena Vista has taught me so much more than I will ever be able to reciprocate to the kids. I have witnessed the difficulties many of the families have had to face and now recognize that not every student should be expected to perform at the same level, that everyone has their own unique struggles. This past quarter of college, I was able to take a class that paired us with a local organization focused on immigrant youth. I chose to work at Buena Vista and continue the work I had done in high school. Learning about the different risk and protective factors immigrant youth face helped reinforce my work at the homework club and gave me a greater insight into the difficulties the children I work with face every day. And for the people in my class who did not have previous experience working with immigrant youth, their service placement provided a space for them to learn from their community partners while giving back to the community.
Volunteering for these organizations has taught me so much and truly helped shape who I am and what I am passionate about today. While I do think that we need to be careful when volunteering and fully understand the effects of our actions, I believe that when someone takes the time to learn from volunteering, they will gain more from the experience than they would by doing anything else.
Kayley Gould is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying English and Education. She has been volunteering her whole life and became passionate about the ethics of volunteering during a research project in high school. She hopes to share what she has learned through her volunteering and research in order to help people make their volunteer projects the most educational, effective, and rewarding experiences possible. The main image is a still from her TEDx Talk.