While the past month I’ve spent working for Hope For the Silent Voices hasn’t been quite as riveting as the time I actually spent in Panama, it was satisfying in the sense that I could behold the fruits of my labor.
It’s impossible to separate the highly emotional nature of the work we did working with children from the magnitude of the impact it had on all of us; still, I may never see Ruth score a goal with the soccer ball that we left her and her friends, as I might never see which child ends up with the giant stuffed bear we ergonomically (and miraculously) packed into three quarters of a suitcase to leave with them. I’ll never know what grade Manuel will get on his physics test that I helped him study five hours for. I’ll never see Benjamin’s face as he opens the letter congratulating him on his acceptance into the University for computer science.
In contrast, though the secretarial legwork I spent many hours in front of a computer screen completing will assuredly meld together when recalled some few odd years later, it IS fulfilling to look over a dossier brimming with the thought and attention I poured into it. It’s humbling to look over the site reports it took so long to draft and think that they might better equip the next wave of volunteers to walk in our shoes. Quite frankly, it’s cool to look over the online materials that now communicate a deeper understanding of Panamanian culture and significance to the potential traveler, and the trip application that now caters to college-age students like me, and addresses the unique skillset they will bring on the trip. It also helped me to better reflect on the trip itself as I retraced all the steps we took in our service there and broke down each activity’s effectiveness in the context of the site concerned.
The research I did for humanitarian networking also taught me a lot about the work by the scarcity, purpose and trends that I came across looking up various organizations involved in Panamanian social services. The low, albeit steadily improving levels of educational availability and quality, particularly in rural areas, is one such example of systemic inefficiency as well as an area which could benefit from sustainable external partnerships.
Another pattern I found is that while a few schools and a couple churches in the United States offer service-based trips around the country, the labor-recipients are almost always localized cases where there is little growth or benefit to the greater community. I learned how truly costly it is for NGOs to create services so far away with any hope of achieving progress on a modest scale, which only solidifies the desire for individualized approaches. If your organization is going to be paying so much money anyway, why not create a program tailor-made to its particular organizations? And yet, how much greater efficacy would there be in an NGO conglomerate partnering for a couple years with a single shelter for abused and neglected children, rather than several of them with the tunnel-vision ambition of a project that could come to fruition in the span of a spring break?
Still, although the country could benefit so much from foreign investment, it also stands that the field is ripe for the entrepreneurship of charity, so to speak. With every situation that can be made just a little bit better comes an opportunity to steward the resources we’ve been gifted with on this side of the fence, and while the ugly world faces of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and suffering may never be completely eradicated, a negative can always be counteracted by a positive. As in Loren Eiseley’s story of “The Star Thrower,” it may indeed be impossible to save an entire beach of starfish hazardously washed ashore, – but every starfish thrown back into that great ocean is one more which gets to experience the gift of life a little more vividly.