No regrets

It happened exactly 20 years ago… on October 14th 1994… a lifetime ago. After considering the idea for a while, on a Friday afternoon I gathered all the courage I could muster and walked inside the headquarters of Save the Children Romania. That day I became for the first time a volunteer – and been one ever since.

It’s safe to assume I had no idea of what I was about to do and how it would change me. I was scared out of my wits – literally, it took me about 5 minutes to find my voice. It was the first time in my life I did something on my own, without telling anyone about it (friends, teachers OR parents, for that matter). How I got there is an entirely different story.

I was 15 years old, striving to adjust to high school life, searching for my own way and, secretly (I know now I wasn’t even aware of it), trying to give a new meaning to a promise I made to myself.

The lady I talked to was at a loss; she didn’t know what to do with me. She explained why I couldn’t work directly with children and politely tried to convince me to wait a few years – I was very young, a child myself, the notion of volunteering in Romania was quite vague (after all, only five years had passed from the revolution), I didn’t have my parents’ permission…

She took a long look at me; after a few moments of silence, she accepted my offer. She gave me various materials to give to other children. I think she was (and still is) amongst the very few people that saw the determination in my eyes without mistaking it for stubbornness. She knew that I won’t give up and, somehow, I’d find another way. And so it all started…

Over the years I’ve volunteered for many NGO’s or in the local community (you know, helping an old lady carry her bags and such). I’ve worked with people with disabilities and orphans; I was involved in campaigns for people with HIV/AIDS and children’s rights; I’ve rendered my assistance as best as I could, from disseminating information, to art-therapy sessions, translating materials, carrying literally tons of food and clothing, and any other task I could perform.

Many times people looked at me sideways, or even mocked me, upon hearing I was volunteering and more than once I did so without a contract – the first law came in 2001 and only now, in 2014, the Romanian government decided to officially recognize its value for the society and to issue another law that, among other things, recognizes volunteering as professional experience. Well, better late than never…

Throughout the years I met wonderful people, incredible people and some of them became my closest friends; I’ve seen humanity at its best… and at its worst; I’ve laughed from the bottom of my heart (as I rarely do) and I cried my eyes out of frustration that I can’t do more; sometimes my back hurt so bad that I couldn’t walk properly for days. It wasn’t always easy – actually, it never really is. Every time you volunteer, you give away a piece of your soul; you render your heart opened and vulnerable, hoping that the people in front of you won’t take advantage and/or disappoint you.

Volunteering taught me about myself – that I am human, that I’m not perfect and I’ll never be and, the hardest lesson of all, that I have limits and limitations, no matter my want and will; it taught me about people – that not all are what they seem (for good or worse), that I shouldn’t judge anyone although others will judge me, that they come in various sizes, shapes and colours and they ALL have the right to a decent life; and it taught me about life – that is both wonderful and unfair, exhilarating yet downright heart-breaking, that it has straight paths and treacherous ways, and that it is an unending story to which all of us add our own contribution, whether we like it or not.

The lady that talked to me that day… I don’t remember her name (and she definitely doesn’t remember me); only that she was – maybe – around her late thirties (or early forties), that she smiled at me, and that she gave me a meaning, whether she realised it or not. Although quite unlikely, I’d like to meet her again one day and tell her what I’ve become, what an unique journey it has been, that I tried my best to make a difference (successfully or not, I do not know) and that, despite all the downs, I have no regrets.

Thank you for giving me the chance to volunteer, my fair lady…

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