Posted by: Project MicroMundo | February 5, 2012

The Secret Lives of Part-Time Volunteers

Hola, amigos, this time written from San Andrés, Petén! I arrived here a few days ago, but internet has been nearly impossible to come by. Have lots to say about Petén, but first I want to wrap up what was going on with Mayan Families in Panajachel. The theme of the day will be Non-Monetary Ways You Can Help – From Afar or Up Close.

Last week I was exposed to a variety of non-donation ways that people help out Mayan Families—from here in Guate to all over the world. I thought you all might be interested in some creative ways that you can volunteer without straining your budgets.

A volunteer helping some girls to find the right size (donated) shoe!

As for on-the-ground volunteers, Mayan Families (MF) this week has had—to name a few—Brenda, an accountant auditing their books; Cadu, a modest but very talented photographer providing great visuals for the MF website; Bethany, a botanist starting up a pot-grown agricultural vocational training program; Mike, who has been helping to install donated onil stoves; and an American couple sorting clothing donations. I was helping Mayan Families set up a system for routine monitoring and needs assessments of the Elderly Care Program, and I also did some grant (budget) writing. Name your skill (be it your mathematical prowess, your sense of fashion, or your biceps)—Mayan Families and many other non-profits could probably put you to work.

Sewing workshop led by a volunteer

That’s right– it’s just “work,” usually between the hours of 9 and 6. Before Project MicroMundo left for Guatemala the first time around, a lot of people practically acted like we were walking the plank. So (at the expense of being obvious) I want to set it straight that most volunteerism is no form of quasi-martyrdom. Jess, Steph, and I have had the times of our lives. All those sappy things that people say about volunteering (that it’s a huge growth experience, life-changing, etc.)—They’re true (to say the least). But we also had a ton of fun during work and off-time. There has been no shortage of relaxing on the shore, volcano climbing, clubbing, exploring the landscape, and being a tourist. We didn’t get PTSD and in a lot of places we could have even had most ‘American’ creature comforts (at a tourist price). And we could have never gotten to know the issues at hand so well without actually getting our hands dirty.

All that to say: If you get the chance to do on-the-ground volunteer humanitarian/development work, for your own sake you should probably take it.

But not everyone has the time or money for that, of course. Don’t let that stop you! A lot of MF work has been done from far away and on a part-time basis. The MF website was actually created by a volunteer, as were many of their brochures and other media projects (thanks in part to Jess!) Some ways that people volunteer from far away include:

• Getting your company, religious group, and/or other communities to support your cause
• Fundraiser events (bake sales, jewelry sales, fundraiser parties, etc.)
• Clothing/food/medicine drives
• Assisting in US branch operations (many international non-profits have a US office)
• IT and web consulting/services
• Grant-writing support
• Making flyers and brochures
• And simply spreading the word among friends and family (via internet)

Giving a workshop on nutritive cooking to the preschool cooks

A visiting doctor participating in a free health clinic

Just shoot an email to your favorite NGO and tell them what you’re good (or okay) at. (That is exactly what we did with Mayan Families and Volunteer Peten.) Lots of organizations (especially the relatively small ones) are tight on human resources and very receptive of volunteer help and expertise. Give it a shot! A little leap might lead you to great things.

For inspiration, I am providing an anecdote of the life of a far away volunteer…


Back in 2006 when MF was just getting started (as a response to Hurricane Stan), Michelle (that’s not really her name, but she likes to keep things private) founded the Mayan Families Connection Yahoo Group (MFC) to more easily get the word out to people who wanted to help. To quote her, “None of us knew if people would join but we figured it was worth a try. Sharon [the MF director] thought that we might be the only ones talking to each other.” Well, this whimsical initiative, from which no one really knew what to expect, turned into a huge force of support for MF, with many hundreds of followers from all over the world. We’ve never met in person, but through Project MicroMundo and Mayan Families’ continual and often critical communication with the MFC, Michelle and I became friends. She kindly indulged me in a virtual interview to discuss the project success.

What inspired you to get involved?

I love helping people in need and way back in 1976 and 1977 I went on mission trips through my church to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala because I had some personal friends volunteering at the orphanage there. Because I was a nurse, I got to volunteer some at the clinic there. I was in Guatemala during the 1976 earthquake and the sickness I saw before and the devastation after the earthquake changed my life. I could never forget the faces of the people who had so little who were so happy, gentle and loved their families so much. I never forgot the desperation on their faces after the earthquake. My heart has been in Guatemala ever since.

It seems like a very active online community… Could you tell me about your general impressions of the Yahoo group?

Mayan Families Connection was started to focus on giving people information about Mayan Families and the needs of the people in Guatemala but fundraising was not the initial intention of our group. The focus of MFC is to give people information and the opportunity to communicate together about the needs of the people so people have the opportunity to give to those in need from their hearts and not felt pressured into giving . . .

A lot of the group members are dedicated and involved in helping in their own ways. Some sell jewelry, some are involved in shipments, some send donations, some go on medical or mission trips, etc.

Mayan Families Connection has a lot of people just read what is going on but are not active in helping. We have a smaller group of several dedicated members who are very involved in doing things to help and come up with some great ideas about fundraising to help the people. Many of these same dedicated people have given as much as they can and also struggle financially in their personal lives. Many of the active members have become lifelong friends and are working together and also branching out to help in their own ways.

Shipments have brought people together who never knew each other before . . . The most rewarding part about MFC for me is watching people from all walks or life and religions from all over the US and some from Canada and other countries come together to help someone in need and become great friends in the process.

About how much time do you spend a week on Mayan Families-related work?

I probably average 30 or more hours a week. My main priority is to get the word out to get people the help they need. That involves keeping Mayan Families Connection Group and Blog updated and flowing smoothly, trying to keep track of who the people are needing help, answering emails from MFC members and volunteers, making flyers, and working with volunteers behind the scenes, etc.

Do you find that people tend to take interest in these issues?

Lots of people take an interest but it is hard to actually get people involved. Our private school raises funds for water filters for Guatemala every year. They got interested in helping because of a video presentation I did at the school. Spreading the word online and asking others to spread it to is the best way to get the word out.

Michelle and her husband are grain farmers in Minnesota. They have 8 children and 3 grandchildren. Many of their children (some adults now) are involved in one way or another with Mayan Families, and this common passion is definitely one thing that brings the family together. In total the they have visited Guatemala four times, and almost all of the family’s work for MF is done from home.

With MF staff riding on ( /hanging off) the back of a pickup truck on our way to lunch

Visiting a sponsored family

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