Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Cattolica International

The gift of giving back

Once the door closes, the timer starts. The volunteer students scurry to take their seats. The chatter of small talk fills the room with the weather, the unfinished assignments, the mishaps they have had on their way to the meeting, what is for lunch, and the countries where they have volunteered.

The camera is set-up to shoot the right angle. Their names and countries where they have volunteered, printed on a piece of paper in bold size 20, are placed on the long wooden table. Two recorders are placed in the middle of the table with a vase of lavender wedged in between. Two clicks to record the audio and the roundtable storytelling begins.

Tommaso clasps his hands and places his elbows on the wooden table. He gazes at the vase, closely watching the sun rays cover its ceramic body. “Everything you do to another person is far greater than what you know,” he says. As he breathes out a sigh, his shoulders drop before he recounts his story in Tanzania.

He steps inside the classroom with a stack of papers in his hands and faces the students sitting in crooked chairs, some with chafed wood while others with a missing leg. The buzz of energy intensifies and the frenzy ignites inside the closed space. Tommaso cannot help but smile as he braces himself for his Mathematics and English classes in a morning packed with running, hollering children.

The children do not sit still, but their excitement and curiosity show. The students, aged three to six, burst in joy as he hands out colorful worksheets on numbers and vocabulary. He asks them to pair up to solve the exercises. Without missing a beat, the young students grab their closest classmates and try their best to decode the questions.

He kneels to each pair and watches them closely. For every misspelled or mispronounced word, he writes it down for them or slowly repeats the sound. The students mimic his actions until they nail them. The scorching heat of the summer afternoon does not faze Tommaso. He writes and draws his lessons on the board using colored chalks, and points out at them one by one while asking the students to follow his lead.
The results are a chorus of merry voices and smiles that do not waver. The eagerness of the children to learn paves the way to peek inside what they want to achieve in the future. Tommaso has made it his priority to help the children overcome illiteracy.

Martina also agrees to busting down illiteracy and fostering knowledge. She adjusts her eyeglasses and describes the materials she brings inside her class. “I had crayons and colored pencils, and a lot of paper. Maybe some colored chalks too, but that’s if we’re going to draw on the blackboard,” she says.

As she steps in the class, she asks the children, aged three to four, to find a partner. She gives each pair pieces of paper that they can use to showcase their creativity. Small fingers pick up crayons and colored pencils and dabble with their imagination until they produce drawings that resonate how they feel.

There’s a picture of a girl wearing a triangular dress, her hair portrayed in bent lines and hard-pressed black pencil with smudges. Another image is a house doused in green to match the grass on the front lawn. Then, there’s a family portrait under a huge tree whose color is just plain brown. No matter what the drawing is, every child raises their artwork to show to Martina, their eyes beaming with pride and joy.
After the activity, she picks up a coloring book and sits down in front of the class. She watches as the children dash to sit before her instead of in their seats, some cross their legs while the others put their chin on the palm of their hand. Everyone is attentive to Martina. It is time for a vocabulary exercise.
She flips the pages of the book until she sees the picture she is looking for. When she turns the book to the children, they burst in craze over the drawing. They keep chanting the same phrase and Martina is puzzled as to what it means. The coordinator who speaks Swahili informs her that they are asking what the picture is. It is a rainbow.
From then, Martina does not solely focus on her art classes, but also in helping the children expand their vocabulary. Before the class ends, she gestures to the children to name the items she will be pointing at. She does not surrender until the children remember and pronounce all the words correctly. Once they all make it to the last word, she starts to clap until the children follow suit. The thundering noise warms Martina’s heart. That plus the children tugging on her clothes, asking her in Swahili to join their games outside the field.

Even Ludovica knows what it feels like when the people you help thank you for what you have done. “I had this recurring thought that what I contributed to the community was sort of expected from me. I did not think of it as a life-changing idea. What caught me off guard was the reception I had. For the people in the Maasai Village in Tanzania, what I did for them was more than what they had asked for,” she says as she folds her hands on her lap.
She is surrounded by earth-tone sand, drought-like branches, and bushes as the backdrop for the rows of straw huts where the locals live. The Maasai locals are dressed in elegant and brightly-lit robes, red being the predominant color. The color stands out in the dimly-lit huts where the sun rays pass through the cracks of the roof.
Ludovica sits on a stool there with the Maasai women. In the middle of the hut lies tiny, multicolored trinkets and thin threads that are cut into the same length. She watches as the elders take a thread and puncture it into the small holes of the trinkets. Bead by bead, the pattern begins to take shape until it is molded into a Maasai signature bracelet, one of the sources of income for the locals.
Ludovica eyes the thorough creation of the bracelets. She picks up her own thread and follows the design. When she is unsure of which one to pick, one of the Maasai elders pinches a bead and closes her hand on Ludovica’s wrist. She helps her insert the thread into the bead before she nods and smiles.
When the batches are done, Ludovica stands around them to admire their raw beauty. The handmade creation is nurtured with care and hard work and she is eager to see them on someone else’s wrists. As she gazes at the bracelets, a Maasai elder, with her back slightly bent and her slow steps, walks up to her and asks for her hand. She then stretches out the bracelet and puts it on Ludovica. Frozen in awe, she breathes out and returns the warm smile the elder gives.

That genuine smile might be the best gift and Giorgia and Giulia know this by heart. When they see it on the children’s faces, in the Brazilian community where they volunteered, paired up with high-pitched laughter, their weariness drops in an instant. It is replaced with fondness and dedication to see that look and hear that sound again. “Helping builds a relationship on trust. It opens you up until you share a piece of yourself to others. In return, they will take it with gratitude. You and those you help will realize that helping benefits two sides. And sometimes, you gain more than what you give,” they say.

Giorgia and Giulia walk to the sports center where a group of children and teens await for them. They stretch their arms and legs, bend their necks to the side, and sway their hips in a circle. They cluster together before a platform made of cement with the village’s emblem engraved on the wall.
The pair walks to the stage. Sitting at the edge of it, a boombox rests and the pair plays with the cord and sound checks. Once everything is set up, the song echoes in the sports center as the speaker pads convulse in the loud volume. Giorgia starts to clap while Giulia stretches. After a few seconds, the dance class begins.

Giorgia and Giulia dance to a pop song. The children try to mirror their movements in a free manner. Some flail their arms like a bird while others smash the steps. Their laughter accompanies the beat, freeing their childlike nature. As the pair continues their steps, they watch the children embrace one of the recreational classes that they have prepared and vows to keep their free spirit going.

“You need to be there. You need to live there. Words and pictures are not enough. They just will not cut the real experience,” Giorgia says. “I saw how they lived every day. Of course, I knew that I could not directly solve the problem as huge as that so I had to think in another way. Creatively, even. I said, “why not with dancing?” They moved to the beat of the song and for a while, I saw that childlike joy again that I had gotten used to.”
“Dancing was not just an act. It was our bridge to form a bond with the children. It was built with time and trust. It was not just offering something to someone, but improving their lives too. It was more than helping and that is important,” Giulia says.

Relationships take time to grow and Annalisa believes in that. “Sharing molds relationships too,” she says. “When I volunteered in Madagascar, the children did not care about material things. They just wanted to share the moments with the other children, with you. As you expose yourself to them, you learn what matters the most and you start to focus on them to nurture them and share them back,” Annalisa says.
Her shoes kiss the soft cushions of the earth, imprinting her footsteps on the soil. As she nears the residence where she will volunteer, she can hear the squeals of the children from a distance. She looks at the entrance and a couple of nuns have already been standing by the gates, wearing welcoming smiles as they usher Annalisa into the house to meet the orphans.

As they walk through the halls of the orphanage center, Annalisa watches as the children unveil their bubbly selves to her. They clamor for her attention, tugging the ends of her shirt or just standing a few feet from her with eyes of wonder. When they look at her, there are no questions or doubts that cloud their curiosity. Instead, they express how much they want to spend their time with Annalisa.
And she willingly accepts their company. Every day as soon as she wakes up, she hears the commotion. She steps outside of her room and sees the children rush to her, all while their eyes crinkle. She stays with them and attends to what they need. It might be a blanket for a cold evening, a lullaby to put them to sleep, or an ear to listen to their hopes in finding their parents one day.

Annalisa has become a family for the children and teens. She is their big sister and superhero who comes to their rescue in times when they need answers for their assignments at school or they question why no one has adopted them. “Sometimes, you do not need to act but to just spend time with and listen to them. I grew fond of their company and did my best to be with them always. Now, I miss it, but that is all right. I often tell myself I will return,” she says.

One does not know how much it touches someone if they just have the time to listen to their stories. When Ludovica and Alice volunteered in Costa Rica, they received more than what they gave in the plantation farm. “When I got home after the trip, I seemed different. Not a whole new person, but there was something new in there. I learned how to value the relationships you have with others and not the material things you share with them. You’ll be surprised how much others will open up to you,” she says.

Inside a lofty estate that sits in the field, lives Don Gerardo. He shows Ludovica and Alice around his plantation farm. The green acres stretch beyond the horizon covered in tall trees, shrubs, various leafy greens, and fruits. The sight seems to touch the white clouds that drape over the field if seen from afar. The breeze takes a hint of humid heat and wraps itself around every person that stays there.

Ludovica and Alice wake themselves up from the stupor as Don Gerardo points out where the pair should get the gloves before shearing the vines, the baskets that they can fill with the harvest, and the buckets of fertilizers to feed the crops. The pair tends to the plantation farm, but what they thought would require much manpower ends up being one of the activities they love doing. That and having a sit-down conversation with the owner himself.

Don Gerardo is a storyteller. The young-atheart owner is an avid fan of unwrapping himself for others to see, a sort of therapy that relates him to his audience. Ludovica and Alice are all ears to all of his stories, but one that they recount the most is why he started his own plantation farm. When he told them that he had suffered heart disease and needed to change his diet lifestyle, it all made sense why the organic farm needed extra care and attention. Ludovica and Alice are more than willing to do just that.
They do not only do that for the owner, but also to those who seek organic products since bio goods are not widely- produced and distributed in the area. Although the pair needs to ensure the health of the plantation, they look forward to spending more of their time with Don Gerardo and his stories, and his laughter to their eagerness speaks that they are welcome to stay, listen, and ponder.
“It is a give-and-take, two-way relationship. What you share with them and vice-versa matters. You slowly learn to appreciate what you have and give value to what you experience, and at the same time, give others the time to realize what their actions mean to others,” Alice says.

When the audio recorder ticks, a second of silence dawns before the volunteers recollect themselves. As they reminisce about their experience, they realize the weight of their own actions as they recount their narratives.
The children in Tanzania who were keen to learn the numbers and words can pronounce and identify them correctly. The locals of the Maasai village have doubled their finished products to boost their income. The children in Brazil can play any music and dance to its beat as they face the hardship of their living conditions. The orphans have found their new family. The owner of a plantation farm finds the company of others a safe haven.

As the volunteers dwell in what they have taken away, they find a renewed spirit in themselves to move forward. They do not want to be contented in their seats as they listen to their professors and take down notes. They want to act in any way they can to elicit joy and gratitude from those they help.

A knock on the door interrupts the daze. The volunteers stand to gather their items on the table, putting them back in their bags. As they walk outside the room, they are oblivious that they have left a piece of themselves for others to pick up, encouraging them to embark on an adventure where they can change lives.


Article featured on Worldbound, edition n.3-2019.