Tales from the volunteers

There is a prevailing trend in the non-profit sector; an insidious illness emerging from the peroration which often envelopes the area. Increasingly, actors are seeking to force an ill-fitting, rigid formula onto the liquid consistency of human emotions. Success is measured in cold, hard facts; how many adults gained job opportunities as a result of this project? How many children entered higher education? How many volunteers gained a second language? How many women did we successfully emancipate? How many re-tweets of our hashtag?

The approach is driven by undeniably logical factors. Charities are attempting to attract large donors whose manner of assessment is the only one they know; tangible results in return for an investment which they can subsequently sell to their conscious-impoverished clientèle. But this trend is a wind blowing above the ripples on the water, ripples which become swells and eventually waves. But how can one revel in the waves, if one doesn’t notice the ripples from which they are born?
It is these small movements which I am to write about; the unnoticed behaviour of the reserved. I am to tell you that success is not found in numbers, but in the most tender and reserved human behaviour. I am to tell you this because I believe myself to have been lucky enough to be privy to those moments, durable by their existence in my memory, transient by that by that very fact. The European Voluntary Scheme has gifted such experiences to me, but is setting to take them away from others. I write in protest of that trend and to espouse a different approach.
I cannot tell you how many women I have taught whom have subsequently felt emancipated, nor how many of the youth I have taught felt better inclined towards employment. I cannot even tell you how many new words they gained. What I can tell you about is the feeling one gets when a pupil who could not conceive an English greeting, suddenly constructs a sentence from words you had forgot you’d taught her. Or a sense of value when one woman approaches you after class and tells you that she is a housewife, bound by the rules of her conservative partner and by the rigours of motherhood to a multitude of children. She tells you that she is freed in the six hours a week you teach her; allowed to travel, learn, socialise and develop in independence. She tells you that she was married very young, deprived of a thorough education not only by her circumstances, but by a system that failed her. She tells you that you are her only chance to have an education that is hers.
Only a week ago, I was sat outside my class, waiting for it to begin. I had often expressed my want to become fluent in Arabic, eying their street Arabic to English dictionaries jealousy. I thought these green glances had gone unnoticed, and perhaps they had for all bar one little girl. She came to me and presented a beautiful, hard-backed dictionary. Costly, for anyone of her background, but especially for a young girl of no income. She said, “For you. Now you can go home and show people that Muslims are different to DAESH [ISIS]. Thank you for everything”.
You can assess your numbers, analysis your data, process your questionnaires, but you cannot capture those moments. Nor should you want to; their value lies in their transience and fragility. You should instead seek solace in a volunteer’s word, a volunteer who is graced with those fleeting interactions and with the residue of their impact. Take heed, before you lose those moments in the pages of your books.
Katie Williams, EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer


European Voluntary Service (EVS) project supported by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.

I, like my peers, grew up speaking English. It flowed from us as one would expect a plant to bloom. There is an inevitably and valueless nature to its presence in our lives. Why be grateful for salt, when everyone has it, or at least should? I have never before considered the price of salt, nor have I my mother tongue. I grew to manipulate, disregard and chide my language; like one may treat a dog that will always come back and always be yours, collecting slang and dropping letters. But travelling on the EVS (European Voluntary Service), and more significantly teaching English, has changed that perception.

To begin with, every human I meet is expected to speak some, if more, English. Expected to aid and communicate with me effectively in my mother tongue, apologising, often profusely when, in its native home, a person has to rely on their own language. Every International, expected to converse with me expertly in my language, and it seems, with one another. No effort is expected on my part, for I have a British tongue in my head. Perhaps not even gratitude, for it is my right to call over a taxi and say, “Do you speak English?”, because surely they must.

The inequalities were more startling once I became more familiar with the value of my language to others in their lives. Because of the ever increasing importance of industry, tourism and non-profit organisations, English has become the key to improving and elongating one’s career. Speaking eloquent Arabic and being good at your job is not enough. English is the key to the door between cleaner and manager, between a handful of bleach and money. Britain complains consistently that foreigners are coming over and taking our jobs, but what we cannot see beyond the White Cliffs is that our influence, archaic and imperialistic though it may be, and language is taking foreigner’s jobs. Stifling and restricting them, forcing them to engage in an alien language in their own country.

So thus, we have a gift we did not thank anyone for which is life changing to others, gained by the Great British imperialistic march (arguably, the American influence in the global economy is a significant contributor to the power of English, but one cannot deny where their language stems from either). And suddenly, it is a currency. My mother tongue is worth at least £10 an hour, a gun for hire for those desperate to engage in a foreign industry that stifles their progress. Our ill-begotten gains are still a valuable source of income for us and a yoke across the shoulders of other nationalities.

One of my adult pupils has a motivation and determination that rivals that of British children, crouched behind the bike sheds, hoping to avoid yet more obligatory education. She has never missed a lesson, never missed a note, never failed to thank me as she leaves. When she first entered my class, she neither had the confidence or the ability to string two words together in English. Last week, for the prize of a Snicker (yeah, I know, serious stuff) she retold in English the (also Arabic) story of Red Riding Hood. There were mistakes, there were stumbles, there was the shaking of hands as I placed her on that stage, but she did it. Off her own back, she told a story in English, in entire past continuous tense. She steeled herself against insecurities, fears and linguistic challenges, to do something that left this fluent speaker…speechless.

So there we have it, some gifts are priceless. It just took me 23 years to realise that.


Katie Williams, EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer


Click here to visit, Katie’s original article.


European Voluntary Service (EVS) project  supported by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Commission.

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