I don’t necessarily collaborate well as part of a team. Nothing personal, I just never think we’ll be able to work in partnership for the greater good of the organization. Here we are with one common goal—perhaps, if we can agree on that—and here we are with all these distinct personalities trying to mesh together to reach that goal.
Steph is high-strung, Lucy is tranquil; Chrissy likes meetings to be relaxed and social, but Manuel wants to get down to business and save the storytelling for later; Mike is happy all the time, and Pete is sad; Andrew is always late, and Suze always has to leave early for one reason or the other; Dave may be the boss, but he will stop talking to me like that; Pauline refuses to volunteer for anything; Jenn is organized, Stacey is cluttered; Armond rarely speaks, and Cindy won’t shut the hell up; Jimmy wastes all that talent on apathy; Larry picks his nose; Lindsey has a bad attitude because no one will listen to her suggestions; and Murph? Murph, a guy I’m meant to trust on the basketball court, is sleeping with my girlfriend—well, she’s not technically my girlfriend, she’s my ex-girlfriend, but we’re still trying to work things out, and it’s been going really well lately, and Murph knows this—and, yeah, it’s not officially cheating, but that’s still kind of fucked up that my own teammate would sleep with her, to say nothing of her culpability in the matter.
Now I ask you: how can Murph and I be expected to work together on a common enterprise, to win games and championships, when every time I look across the locker room at him, I picture him inside of my girl? More than that, I’m distracted by thoughts of what I’m doing so wrong that she needs to find comfort in the arms of another guy. This is all my fault, isn’t it?
And this is before each of our individual ideas is fully introduced. You want to go one way, Orville wants to go another way, and I want to go another. Even if your idea is better than mine, which it probably is, I’m still going to be resentful of the fact that we didn’t at least get to try mine out. I ain’t no sweetheart myself, after all. Blame launches, fingers point, and then the real drama begins.
Besides, people are generally unreliable anyway. If you ask Roy to pull his weight and buy a bag of bananas for the kids on Thursday, you’re probably going to find yourself having to leave fifteen minutes early on Thursday morning so you can stop by the store yourself.
This is how it was for me in Honduras. Nobody was sleeping with my girl, but the disparity of personalities dampened our attempts at being optimally productive. Laura wanted to do a science project on Thursday, and when we vetoed her proposal—just that one simple proposal—she checked out for the rest of the hour we spent planning. Kelsie chimed in only to voice dissonance. Mariana never prepared for a meeting, didn’t have thirty minutes during the week to brainstorm ideas for activities. Shreva did, though, but all her ideas involved having the little nestlings draw pictures in their journals for hours at a time.
And Martin? Every day with the kids in Honduras, from nine to four, Martin sat off to the side—rarely in the circle—as the rest of us volunteers danced and skipped rope and constructed bracelets out of beads and yarn and reviewed common English phrases and studied geography with the children. We’d be fighting to retain attention through story time, and Martin would be just sitting there. We’d be lining them up to go to the bathroom, and Martin would be just sitting there. We’d be cutting and pasting; Martin, sitting there. We’d be playing kickball, and, well, he loved to play kickball. But everything else? Sitting there; no energy, no enthusiasm; rarely speaking, never leading an exercise. We had parties and tearful good-byes for Jennifer and Kerryn, but not one kid wondered about Martin the day after his flight took off for home. What are you doing here? I wanted to ask him. Why would you waste your time here, quite literally getting in our way, when it’s evident that you don’t even like children? But I let him be, as I already knew the answer: he was halfheartedly following his girlfriend around the world until she got tired of helping the hindered.
This is Honduras, people! Look at these kids! They are hopelessly, eternally stuck in a life of poverty! We can put our egos and our petty disagreements and our languid attitudes aside for a couple months or longer and try to do something about it. Let’s focus our energy on making a positive impact on these kids who have almost exactly nothing. Right? Right? They have nothing! Come on!
But I never yelled or got angry. I took it in stride. I was at peace with joining a team in Honduras, and my ire could only get in the way of the cheerful energy I hoped to convey to the children. Anyhow, there were plenty of extraordinary people volunteering with Honduras Child Alliance, too, and I sought to feed off their liveliness. Great people doing great things. Those children loved Ivana and her relentlessly chipper demeanor; Jennifer hung out with her kids long after-hours, while the rest of us stumbled home exhausted; Emily donated enough money to build bathrooms for six families, and Jim went about assembling the crew to build them; Jürgen, at forty-five, had quit his job in Germany to spend a year volunteering with those who could only fantasize about his cushy life back home; Fabienne from Switzerland and Anna from Belgium worked into the night preparing snacks for the kids for the next day; various people added shifts to their evening schedule to teach English to adults in the El Porvenir community; and Carly, our hardy forewoman, worked long hours and into the weekend to organize all of us into as straight a line as possible.
Volunteers’ motives vary, and abroad, out of earshot and eyeshot of moms and dads and friends, true motivations are unearthed and exaggerated. Some do-gooders sincerely want to make a proper impact and others are just delaying adulthood, using these last moments to booze and find a fine-looking Honduran to bang. Just as I quickly learned to bypass Martin and Kelsie and Mariana, I was inspired by Carly and Jim and Jürgen.
So, yeah, even though my greatest memories were born on the basketball court growing up, I’ve never worked well as part of a team, and this dynamic persisted when I had volunteered in Honduras. I recognize this as a flaw, but I have other, more pressing flaws to doctor first. Really, though, I’m on the fence regarding the power of teamwork anyway. Studies conflict about whether more work can be accomplished together or individually, and to me, it’s to each his or her own. Teamwork, when efficient, forces people to put their own selfishness aside, because other people are counting on them. Trusting other people and sacrificing for others is a beautiful and courageous thing and can often produce amazing results.
Yet some teams—the dysfunctional ones—take every chance they get to socialize and recess for smoke breaks every half hour and deflect accountability when shit hits the fan. Every chance to half-ass the ropes course during the team-building retreat to the mountains. And to generally be as inefficient as possible back in the cubicle. Many people join up only so they can gain the satisfaction of being a part of something—to belong—and many team members merely hang with the group anyway, obtaining nourishment and hoping for some ultimate gain or advantage.
So just as five heads can—and should—be better than one, so, too, has plenty been accomplished by individuals sitting alone at their workbenches, and I—more often than not—associate myself with that camp. Value can bloom from the sovereign mind, too.
Maybe I work better by myself because I’m not that guy who makes friends wherever he goes. “Hi, how are ya? I’m Adam Shepard. Pleased to meet ya. Great party, eh? Beautiful spread of cheeses. Right, so, what do you do for a living…? Oh, wow, dental hygienist? I’m not supposed to be meeting you for another four months. Ha. Ha. Ha.” I’m basically graceless and lack charisma. I get by in social settings, but even then, I’m that guy who stands by laughing awkwardly for a half hour, just barely allowed in the circle, munching on his fourth plate of chicken fingers after he’s already divvied up his one good bullfighting story and inquired whether termites will be served.
All of this, though, meant that when I sought my next—and final (for this trip)—volunteer opportunity in Nicaragua, I needed to step away from collaboration. Either I was going to work completely on my own (not a realistic scenario in the world of volunteering) or I needed a clear-cut directive: I’ll wait here while you guys pool your ingenuity over there in the corner and then tell me what to do. Tell me what to do, and then I’m going to bow my head and go do it.
I wanted a water project. I wanted to dig a trench and lay down some pipes and a pump. The water in Central America looks clean, but it’s filthy—loaded with parasites—and families use it to wash and cook and quench thirst. I knew digging a trench would be hard work, but it was the only possibility that I could think of that would require simple instructions, nominal mental capacity, and no input on my part. “Start digging here,” they’d say. “Three feet deep, two feet wide, and stop when you get over there,” and they’d point to some vague spot, knowing I wouldn’t make it that far before they came back to give me further instructions. This was an ideal scenario.
But I didn’t get any responses to my e-mails. Well, I did, nine actually, but they were all snubs, in the vein of, “We don’t accept foreigners to work on our water projects; we rely on natives to do all of the work,” or “We work only with groups of five or more that want to come together.”
What! You work only with groups! I want to come dig a trench for six weeks! I want to help! All I need is a shovel! I’ll sleep in a tent and pay for my own food! What are you talking about, you accept only groups of five or more? Come on! Is there no Ditches Without Borders?
I sent twenty-two emails to twenty-two organizations in Nicaragua, and I thought that would be way too many, that I’d have my pick of opportunities. I was straightforward and polite:
Hi, Mr./Mrs. [Last Name],
I am writing to you from Honduras with another month to go on my volunteer program (with Honduras Child Alliance). I came across your site about the work you do in Latin America, and I really want to know how I can lend a hand on a water project in Nicaragua. I would like to dig a ditch for six weeks if you can find a place for me.
Do you have a water project I can latch on to starting around January-ish? I'm pretty simple: I can live with a family or anywhere else you want to put me, and I can prepare my own food. (I can cover all my own expenses and pay any administrative fees as well.)…I’m just looking for a shovel and a spot to dig (and I’m happy to buy my own shovel).
Thank you! And cheers to the work you are doing…
Zero positive replies. Zero!
Volunteering is big business, and if you’re going at it solo, finding any affordable opportunity to lend your hand isn’t easy. But this wasn’t a new concept for me. I tried to volunteer in Guatemala, but the admission process was twelve weeks. Twelve weeks! I paid them twenty-five dollars to take fifteen minutes to look over my application and maybe call a reference or two, and they said they needed twelve weeks of consideration.
And Cross-Cultural Solutions? Here’s an organization that is doing great things around the world in a variety of different capacities: childhood development, education of at-risk youth, elderly care, the empowerment of women. Housing is in abundant supply in the States, but with Cross-Cultural Solutions, maybe I could work abroad to help a family that would otherwise be living in an exposed wooden shanty, or assist with the building of an orphanage. And do you know it would cost me $2,988 to volunteer with them for a couple weeks? $2,988! For a couple weeks! A night in a Guatemalan hostel costs seven dollars, but you can quickly negotiate that down to six, five if you’re staying for an extended period. A homestay with a family is even cheaper (and better for cultural immersion). But $2,988! And that’s in the bargain-priced “off-peak volunteering season,” after I’d have already scared up the additional funds to pay for my own round-trip airfare, visas, immunizations, Internet, laundry, and postcards home. Cross-Cultural Solutions would cover my housing and meals, though, and for $2,988, there had better be a veritable cornucopia of breakfast foods strewn upon the fluffy Egyptian bedcovers as soon as my alarm clock went off. I’ll have a Western omelet, please, and French toast, coffee cake, loaded hash browns, and four buttermilk pancakes with blueberries and whipped cream. Oh, and you know those little wieners that you usually see just at cocktail parties? I’ll take a bowl of those, too, thanks; I know they’re not typically served for breakfast, but while I’m working hard out there building orphanages, tutoring at-risk youth, caring for the elderly, and signing my savings account over to you, I’d like to indulge a little. And give me a bell, too, please, because when I’ve decided that I’d like to take a bite, for $2,988, Miss Guatemala better be standing directly outside my door in her lacy nightgown ready to feed it to me by hand.
But $2,988! Really? Lunch in Guatemala usually cost me three dollars for a plate, never more than four, and I’m a big eater. Cooking for yourself costs much less.
Since when was volunteering limited to the affluent?
And don’t get me started on the salaries of the directors of these “nonprofit” organizations. I don’t hate Cross-Cultural Solutions, nor do I hate any other major nonprofit organization—many are doing great things around the world—but if you want to buy a pretty house and drive a sleek BMW, shouldn’t you be working for Google or Nike instead?
I wrote to Cross-Cultural Solutions asking whether I could just show up and be put to work on a crew building a house for a needy family in Guatemala. I’d be happy to cover all my own expenses; just give me a place and a time, and I’ll show up ready to work. I’ll bring my own hammer, I explained. The program advisor/corporate relations specialist simply wrote back that their fees are in place so as not to burden the community with the support of volunteers and that with my financial constraints, Cross-Cultural Solutions wasn’t going to be a good fit for me.
It’s not just Cross-Cultural Solutions. Finding an affordable place abroad to offer your services gratis isn’t easy. Expenses add up: administrative costs, salaries for employees, application fees, predeparture-handbook printing fees, office-maintenance fees, website hosting fees, and a little cash for the annual staff retreat into the mountains to hold hands on the ropes course. I get it. But in reality, whenever a dollar goes to charity, not only do I not know how much of that dollar will actually go to help someone, I can pretty much bet the next dollar in my pocket that however much of my first dollar makes it through to the poor, starving children of Africa won’t be used the way I’d like it to be used. Worse, I don’t know whether my donation will be received by the beneficiary with a greedy hand or a little fortitude.
Honorable organizations are still out there, though; you just have to do a little legwork, and I was fortunate to have found Honduras Child Alliance. It was a great fit for me: a small organization, refusing to get any bigger, keeping a tight leash on how they spend their money. If I had a problem or a question, I walked three minutes around the corner in El Porvenir to Charlie’s house to talk to him about it, or I e-mailed Eve back in Pennsylvania, and she would usually e-mail me back before I logged off. You can see right on their website exactly what Honduras Child Alliance is doing to help, and if you want to come from the United States to visit your sponsored child and take him or her twelve kilometers into the big city to eat at Pizza Hut for the first time in his or her life, well, by George, hop on a flight, good buddy, and come on down to shiny town. Let’s order a round of cheesy bread for the table and brownie sundaes for dessert. The Honduras Child Alliance directors aren’t bringing home for-profit salaries, and every supply is used and then reused and then reused, and then, when it’s worn down to the nub, it’s donated to a destitute yet industrious family who can find a new function for it altogether.
Finding another Honduras Child Alliance (“Send us your application, and we’ll be in contact within two days”) appeared overly ambitious. Twenty-two emails sent to twenty-two clean-water organizations in Nicaragua, and I got nothing better than one confounded guy who couldn’t process my motives: “You want to dig?” he wrote to me. “That’s it? Just dig a trench? In Nicaragua? I don’t understand.” Mostly, though, I was ignored as crazy or quixotic. Even the Rotary Club (each of their local affiliates in Nicaragua and Costa Rica and then the Central American branch as a whole), which I know is working on water projects all over the world, didn’t get back to me.
Was I pissed? Yeah, I was pissed. How would you feel if you went to a bar, beamed flirtatious vibes at twenty-two people individually throughout the night, bought them each a round of their drink of choice, separately, and then they each ended up turning to you and saying, “Sorry, but…uh…you’re really just not my type”? You’d be pissed, too. We’ve all been rejected, sure, but twenty-two times in rapid-fire succession? I just wanted a shovel. I’ll take care of everything else, folks, just hand me a shovel and point to a spot where I can start digging. Instead, just because I didn’t fit into the little bubble of an organization (twenty-two organizations!), I couldn’t find an outlet for six weeks of sweat. Couldn’t even get a first date to chat for a little while over dinner.
But then, just as your keys are always in the last place you look, my twenty-third e-mail kindled a positive response. Opportunity—and Jesus—beckoned.