Friday, May 09, 2008

Volunteering with Pro Vita

Since volunteering with the orphanage was the original motivation for my trip, I'll start with that. Unfortunately, this also happened to be one of the more frustrating things for me. The feeling a lot of the time was that the organization just didn't know (or care) what to do with a volunteer. To be fair, of course, the reality was probably a variety of things: the volunteer coordinators being busy with other projects, the fact that I was the only volunteer there at the time, Easter throwing a wrench in the schedule and activities, etc. My orientation basically consisted of being shown a few buildings, not getting introduced to anyone, and being told none of the other people who work there speak English. I didn't even know the kids' schedules or the rules or anything. At that point they sort of left me on my own to do whatever I wanted (I didn't even see the coordinators for a couple days), which isn't a terribly comfortable situation to be in when you're completely disoriented in a new country. Also, I was promised Romanian lessons several times but never got them, so I was stuck with the stuff I had managed to learn on my own. "Where's the hotel?" and "I'd like to buy some wine" don't get you very far in that context, though. Anyway, I did what I could, though I rarely felt very helpful or useful or anything. Some of that was my fault as well, of course, since I'm sure there are ways I could have been a better, more pro-active volunteer even without any guidance. But it wasn't the sort of situation I work well in, and getting frequently depressed about it didn't help at all. Anyway, on to what I did do....

Adrian and Christina I spent a lot of time with the toddlers, of which there are currently three: Christina, Adrian, and Marion. (Some of these names may have Romanian spellings that I don't know.) The plus side to these kids was that I usually knew where to find them, they had no school or homework or chores to work around, and the language barrier feels less problematic when you're communicating at a 3-year-old level. Though there were still numerous times that one of them would be really earnestly trying to tell me something and I'd feel awful because I just had no clue what it was, and I'm not sure they really get the concept of me not knowing their language. Christina was the sweetie of the group. Marion was the quiet, shy one, who'd usually wait for the other kids to start things before joining in. Adrian was the troublemaker. I know conceptually that kids will "act out" just to get attention, but I'd never seen it so clearly demonstrated as with him. You could literally see him experimenting, gauging my reactions, making mental notes about it, and then deliberately doing it again later. Fascinating and maddening at the same time.

Vasile I spent less time with the school-age kids. It was harder to know what to do with them or where or when. Some of the older ones know some English, but the majority of them in the 6-10 age range or so don't. When you meet them on the playground and can only say things like "my name's Graham, I don't speak Romanian," you get a lot of blank or suspicious looks. I did bring my mandolin along on the trip, which I had hoped would be a good way to break the ice, but even that wasn't easy. One of the main buildings where the kids live was constantly blaring Romanian radio out to the playground and surrounding area, so you can't just kind of hang out and play. When I did get a chance, though, the mandolin was a fairly big hit. Not that they cared about listening to me play, of course, they all just wanted to do it themselves. But I'm happy to let them play around with the strumming as long as I held onto the instrument and fingered chords and stuff. Vasile, one of the six-year-olds, amused me by being the only one to start off strumming in jig time. Christina liked it a lot, too, and would insist on sitting on my lap and scooting under the mandolin strap with me so she could try to hold it properly (though it's as big as she is). I wish I'd gotten a picture of that.

Me and Alina Pro Vita also helps take care of several adults with various disabilities who are unable to live independently but all share a building next to mine and help out with various things around the organization and the farm. I hung out with them a bit, too, especially Alina who is the most outgoing and communicative of the lot. She's picked up fragments of various languages from other volunteers in the past, but even if she doesn't know many words she tries so energetically and enthusiastically to communicate that it seems like she speaks a lot more than she does. She also knows the words (mostly phonetically, I think) to lots of random songs, from Clementine to Hava Nagilah, so we had some fun butchering some vocal/mandolin renditions of them.

A somewhat more random job I helped with a bit was transferring sheep to their summer pasture up in the hills. Well, I didn't actually do anything with the sheep themselves, but I did help haul a lot of wood and fence segments around to set up the new sheep pens, and had some fairly harrowing tractor rides in the process. Luckily, though, I wasn't on the tractor when they were towing the van up to the hill. (The van doesn't run, but it holds a mattress, and that's where some of the shepherds will sleep while they're living out there.) Mihail was driving the tractor and getting a bit too rambunctious (I blame his cowboy hat) and he ran both it and the van off the road and snapped the tow bar. However, there was a construction crew just up the road from where we were, and he just pulled over and got one of them to weld it back together again.

Me in our Trench In the second week, Robin showed up and things changed a bit. Robin is an Englishman who speaks even less Romanian than I do and is trying to build a new school there. I say "trying" because it's barely started and it may potentially be a somewhat hopeless task. Pro Vita already has a good half-dozen buildings under construction but apparently not being worked on at all. So who knows how far the school will get, especially if they try to do most of it with volunteer labor (which last week consisted almost entirely of me and Robin). But we worked away at it nonetheless. I spent several days basically just ditch digging -- a drainage ditch and a foundation trench -- with occasional breaks to haul rocks around. It was much more sheer physical labor than I've done in a long while, but at that point in time I welcomed it. It felt really good to be completely clear on what I was supposed to be doing, and to have such quantifiable progress and effects. It was also just nice to spend time work and hanging out with Robin, speaking English unabashedly.

So overall, I kind of have trouble justifying my trip in terms of benefit to Pro Vita. I feel like if I wanted to be helpful, I could just as well have written them a check for the amount of my program fee + plane flights and had done with it. I wouldn't say it would necessarily be like that for any volunteer at any time, but that's the way it played out for me. Still, I did what I did, and it was positive even if small. And there were definitely other interesting, worthwhile aspects to the trip as well. More on that coming up.


fjd said...

Sounds like an awesome trip. I've definitely been in that tough situation you describe when volunteering in the past.

I don't know if you mean to direct your volunteering at kids in particular, but if you do, you might consider volunteering for East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT) at Stanford. Community members are welcome. We're always desperate for tutors. I've been an EPATT volunteer for three years and put in a lot of hours because it's fun and the benefit to the kids is clear.

Elizabeth said...

Hey Graham-

My name's Elizabeth, and I spent three months at Pro Vita this summer, helping Robin dig/pour the school foundation. I was just Googling Pro Vita Romania because I'm starting to write a summary of what I did there for my blog, and I'm still feeling uncertain as to what role I played as a volunteer and whether or not my being there was helpful, either to the Romanians or to me. It's good to read someone else's experience of the place. Anyway, Robin talked about you quite a lot (especially when we went to Red Mountain), so I'm glad to know you're out there and not just a product of his Romania-induced dementia. If you ever feel like writing about it, I'd love to hear about Easter in Romania (I'm shamelessly writing a novel about a Romanian orphanage, which is not at all like Pro Vita, but I'll take all the background I can get.)

Lovely blog. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Hi Graham - hope you're still out there. My daughter is leaving in three weeks to volunteer with Pro Vita ... sounds like exactly the same spot. Sorry to hear your experience wasn't what you had hoped. She is going with a group from International Student Volunteers. There will be eight of them there for two weeks working with the kids and building the school I can only hope that her experience is better than yours and, that while progress is slow, it is still progress and ultimately a good thing and a benefit for the people and the project. I am feeling a bit apprehensive after reading your blog. Wondering if you've done any more volunteering since then?

Graham said...

Anonymous -- since you didn't leave any contact info, I'll just hope you're following the comments here.

I wouldn't worry too much about your daughter. It will probably help immensely that she's going with a group. Part of my trouble was due to being literally the only volunteer there most of the time. Plus, even if she does end up being bored, at least she'll have friends there. :-) But I'm sure it will work out into some sort of an interesting experience, one way or another.

Do send me an email (there's a link in my profile) if I can reassure about any other specific points of the program.

Meghan Elizabeth said...

Hey Graham! I don't know if you're still checking this regularly, but I signed up with United Planet recently, and was planning on going to work in the ProVita orphanage in Romania. I was planning on spending three months there, but I speak no Romanian, and I'm a young, a girl, and somewhat weak. After reading your blog that I came about through googling ProVita, I'm worried I'll be of little to no use. I was going to go alone, but I was under the notion that I'd be placed in a group of people? Do you recommend going through United Planet? I'm quite worried about it now, get back to me if you're still checking this! Thanks!

Graham said...

Hi Meghan,

I had no issues with United Planet itself, though they weren't very clear about how many other volunteers (if any) would be there with me. If you're talking with them, you should see if you can pin them down more about that. If you land there with a big group, it'll probably help a lot. Even if you're just there with more people in the beginning, it should help you get the hang of things and function better later on, if you have some time more on your own.

As for being at ProVita itself, I'm sure some people do have different/better experiences than mine. See all the caveats at the beginning of my post, and of course, I don't know how things may have changed at all in the last year and a half.

I think the best advice I can give is to hunt around for more opinions on the web, and to bring up all your concerns with United Planet, and see what they can tell you.

Good luck!

Meghan said...

Thanks for getting back to me!
How did you stay in touch with your family? Did you get an international plan cell phone? Is there any way to get internet out there? Was there a landline? I'm trying to get as much information together as I can..

Graham said...

I only went for a couple weeks, so I didn't really even bother with staying in touch. :-) You could probably drive into town with someone once in a while and get to an internet cafe, if you want. I don't know anything about international cell phone plans, but I think they had a land line. United Planet should be able to help you out with this kind of thing, since keeping in touch with family is probably a pretty common question.

Meghan said...

Ohh, alright. I plan on going for three months or so, and since I'm young, my parents will be wanting to be able to reach me.. I'll email a United Planet coordinator. Did you go during summer, winter, fall, or spring??

Anonymous said...

Hi Graham,

Your experience sounds very similar to mine, I felt a bit useless and a bit mislead about what it would be like out there volunteering wise. I met some amazing people and I enjoyed it a lot but I really don't think I benefited the community at all. There is so much to do but its impossible to do without someone planning it out. I think they are wasting a lot of enthusiastic labour! United planet charge a lot and do very little too. I'm not sure much of the money I paid to United Planet ever got to the orphanage. I went for a month in the summer of 2007.