First-time volunteers should be aware of the probability of having some culture shock, which can be lessened by gathering as much information about the project and location as possible but is still not completely avoidable. There are several distinct phases to this change of awareness:
- initial euphoria at being in and functioning in an unfamiliar environment,
- irritation and hostility at the situation and conditions (This can be especially pronounced if a volunteer is tired or sick. There is an overwhelming urge to change everything so that conditions are the same as they are in the United States.),
- gradual adjustment and the development of a level of comfort with the culture and situation, adaptation, or biculturalism, after having come to an understanding of the situation on local terms, not the volunteer’s terms.
One additional challenge, especially for first-time volunteers, is the rapid realization that not everyone who presents themselves for help can be assisted either because of the complexity of the problem, lack of resources, shortage of time, or energy level of the volunteer team. Volunteers must be aware that they must pace themselves so they do not work at breakneck speed the first two days only to hit the wall and be ineffective from the third day onward.
Lasting improvement in health conditions of a populace is made through small increments of sustained effort as the local community develops a stake in the development project, not by one supercharged flurry of activity. A relationship of mutual trust and understanding usually develops over a considerable span of time. Progress is often not noticeable until a volunteer takes the time to reflect on what has happened over the years. It is for this reason that return visits over time to the same location are critical for sustainable improvement in a community.
Many volunteers have written about their experiences upon their return home. The ADA News and state dental journals periodically run articles about international and domestic volunteer projects. This Web page will also highlight “volunteer stories” that have been collected from past and current volunteers. Anyone who would like to submit a volunteer story should send it via e-mail to email@example.com.
While on the project, volunteers will develop new friendships with team members and with local people. Often, the friendships last for years; they become stronger if the volunteers continue to return to the same village on a regular basis. Even without those friendships, all who participate in a project share a common bond. It is the rare volunteer who does not think volunteering is a worthwhile experience.
One volunteer received this thank-you upon his return to his “second home” in San José de Ocoa, Dominican Republic:
“Your thirteen years of work in benefit of our country have given birth [to] a baby that is growing up more and more. Thanks to your support, you can see this baby smile in the mouths of all the mountains that surround our city of Ocoa and its campos. You and your crew have given us all the chance to show our healthy and white teeth and smiles, and only you and your people could have made of this dream a possible reality.
We cannot pay you with money for what you have done for us, but at least we can say ‘thank you’ and pray [to] God and ask Him to bless you now and forever.…our smiles will always be our most valuable treasure, and only you have made it possible.”
With gratitude such as this, the rewards can far outweigh any volunteer’s effort.