(The following appeared on The Huffington Post on Feb. 17, 2015)
I received my Valentine’s Day gift in Guatemala City from an elderly woman living in a nursing home in Guatemala City. Her name is Florencia, and the gift she gave me was a very special love at first sight!
Some background is in order.
My professional life is tied up with the volunteer experience, both as the head of an international women’s volunteer organization and as the U.S. delegate to a global network of volunteers and NGOs.
I have also volunteered many times in my own community.
But the trip to Guatemala was different. It was Florencia – an almost 80-year-old woman who had no family, was confined to a wheelchair and who spoke no English – who demonstrated for me the power of anyone to give and receive love and, in doing so, to make a difference in the lives of individual people.
That experience was personally powerful for me because Florencia allowed it to be…in fact she initiated it.
Because Florencia doesn’t speak English, and my Spanish is rudimentary at best, our communications were largely conveyed though smiles and simple gestures or simply holding hands. It didn’t matter.
Because Florencia is confined to a wheelchair, a lot of our time together was spent with me wheeling her to meals or prayers, holding her hand, nodding and smiling as she said things to me – most of which I did not understand. She said I was “linda,” which means lovely, pretty, cute. I guess that was all it took – I’m easy!
(Florencia lives in the Hogar de Anciancas de San Vincente de Paul, a senior citizens’ home for about 100 women, lovingly operated by a very dedicated staff.)
I also spent time with other residents there who, like Florencia, were elderly and alone; but I felt particularly drawn to Florencia because of her great gift for expressing love.
Those few days with Florencia also caused me to think about the value of the volunteer experience for the individual volunteering, and not just the individuals we “help.”
Here’s what I came away thinking.
First, the important thing is simply showing up. I arrived in Guatemala for my one-week stint consumed by the urgencies of my professional life, and by what I needed to do back home, in New York. Put it away. It’s not important.
Second, it’s really not about you. On arriving in Guatemala I immediately fell coming off the bus and hurt my knee, badly enough to spend my first day searching for antibiotics in local pharmacies with one of my fellow volunteers who happened, thankfully, to be a nurse. So I spent my week there limping. (It still hurts!)
Third, you don’t have to “fix the problem” to be effective as a volunteer. On arriving I felt overwhelmed by the needs I saw there and my inadequacy to deal with them. I’m not a geriatric specialist. I don’t speak Spanish. And, like most of us, I am really not all that comfortable in nursing homes.
But Florencia changed all of that.
She did it by expressing her love and her gratitude that I, and my fellow volunteers, were there.
She did it by sharing her life with me – at meals and at prayer and sitting quietly.
She did it by graciously accepting me.
And I am thankful!
I read musings of others who volunteer and I know all of the “old saws” – that you get more out of volunteering than you give, and so forth. It’s always sounded so saccharin, or sappy. On my last day in Guatemala Florencia and I sat in her room, tears streaming down both of our faces. Having looked up the phrase in one of those free, online translators, I said to her, “Usted estará siempre en mi corazón” (you will always be in my heart).
Note: Our trip to Guatemala was arranged in partnership with Cross-Cultural Solutions, a wonderful nonprofit working to address critical global issues by providing meaningful volunteer service to communities abroad, and contributing responsibly to local economies. The trip brought together fourteen Junior League members from across the U.S.