In Spain there are over 3 million people who do volunteer work. Three of these very generous adventurers tell us how they embarked on an experience which changes lives including their own.
It was a day like any other. The news on the TV was talking about the drama of the refugees and Alberto Agrelo found himself at a crossroads, either change channels to stop these heartrending images of human beings on the verge of freezing as they drifted or get out of his chair and do something about it.
This 31 year old firefighter opted for the second. He’s been to Lesbos twice attending shipwrecked refugees on reaching the coast in precarious vessels and one in the Mediterranean, 15 days on a ship rescuing them from the sea. “I use my vacation days or change shifts with a colleague so I can go”, this volunteer told us.
My partner doesn’t take it well: “She misses me. I give up free days, but above all you’re going to a place where you can come back very affected psychologically, and you put your physical integrity at risk. My family worries a lot, but they know the way I am and that it’s something I need to do”, Agrelo said.
He also said it’s an experience you can’t explain with words, you have to live it: “Pick up a 3 day old baby from an inflatable dinghy in the middle of the sea, pregnant women, children unaccompanied because their parents couldn’t pay the mafias the passage or just because they’d been killed before setting sail. It’s these situations which give you a real dimension of this drama. It’s much more serious than what we can see on TV”.
Alberto Agrelo is one of over 3 million Spaniards over 14 who do volunteer work. In the majority of cases they are paid boarding and traveling expenses, but they don’t receive any money whatsoever. The crisis has not stopped these magnificent altruistic people; in fact since 2010, the number of volunteers has grown 18.3% in our country according to the report of the NGO Platform of Social Action.
The question is: What makes them leave their comfort zone and embark on something like that? “A nurse described it perfectly when working in Guatemala”, said Juanjo Martínez, director of DOA NGO: “It’s a subject pending approval”. This 61 year old surgeon left his job over 10 years ago, and set up the organization to get volunteers who would carry out health tasks in the poorest areas of Latin America. “We only send professionals to the area, doctors who can treat and operate on those without access to basic health services”, explained Martínez, who clarified that: “The work isn’t only done the 20 days they’re there; but throughout the year, they stock up on material and medicines, seek financing and manage their own transport”.
Being a volunteer doesn’t necessarily mean traveling thousands of kilometers. Another drama reigns next door to our homes, accentuated by the crisis, which has also ravaged our country, i.e. those at risk of social exclusion. “Very often we think it can’t happen to us; however, the line between a normal life and that of poverty is much thinner than we think”, warned Esther de Castro. This architect already in her thirties, has done volunteer work with several NGOs in Tanzania and Peru; yet one of her toughest experiences was in Madrid with Solidarios para el Desarrollo NGO, dealing with the homeless. “We gave them information about where they could get food or spend the night; however, that with the greatest value is another function”, explained De Castro: “We made them feel they were a part of society not on the sidelines, because we were concerned about and interested in them”. What really impacted this young architect was her experience with a top executive of a multinational, who became unemployed when the company went bankrupt. “He was unable to deal with the situation, his wife divorced him and his family shunned him. He’d gone from having everything to becoming homeless. This brings home to you how important it is to be a volunteer, because this could happen to anyone of us”.