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Ellie Klein from Spain reflects on how volunteerism abroad, parallels and diverges from volunteerism in the U.S.


~November 2011~

A Developing Volunteerism

stone fence


From fast food to tapas and forty-hour workweeks to siestas, just about everything in Spain moves at a slightly slower pace than it does back in America. Although both are modern Westernized countries with a diversity of people, and currently, economies in crisis, their social customs, norms and development over the past century have been remarkably different.

In the limited international travel I have done, one thing I have realized when comparing life abroad to that in the United States, is that we like to be organized. If we can create a committee and make a t-shirt, we’ll do it. Here in Spain things seem to flow a bit more freely and with far fewer t-shirts.

Need to find a new apartment? Forget about Craigslist. Walk along the street and call one of the “se alquila” (for rent) signs hanging off of balconies. Want to join the school soccer team? There often isn’t one and you better go find out when the local boys are playing down in the park if you’re committed to becoming the next David Beckham. Need your bill at the restaurant? No one is bringing it to you; you’re going to have to ask. In order to get just about anything done, you usually have to talk directly to someone.

Routine activities happen more slowly, in a less linear fashion, and with a deep and consistent dependence on relationships. Based on my minimal experience in a small coastal town over the past month, people here depend on people in a way we don’t in the United States. In the United States, we often refer to systematically organized things, signs, automated message machines or websites run by people. When you want something in Spain, or at least in southern Spain, you typically need to ask the person standing right in front of you for it.

This reliance on people over systems extends to every part of life. Unlike in America, people in Spain do not expect their public schools to offer lunch; in fact, a lunchroom does not even exist as students go home after school to eat with their families. Suburbs are not full of high-rise assisted living buildings and nursing homes; when you get too frail to take care of yourself, your family takes you in. Children are not expected to move out of their homes and start a life for themselves at age eighteen; many live with their parents until they get married. Every transition of life and daily routine occurs with a focus on familial ties over mechanical efficiency.

In a recent Huffington Post article about protests over the economic crisis here in Spain, US Ambassador Alan Solomont (and one-time chairman of the board for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency responsible for Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America) was quoted saying "Civic participation is not a luxury but a necessity for a healthy democracy."

As a relatively new democracy, Spain has not had the time or resources to build a culture of community service and civic participation as we have in America. Spain has rich roots and heritage that have fostered family relationships more than the idea of helping your immigrant neighbor – a fundamental underlying concept of all that is America. Not only are we a nation made up of immigrants, but volunteerism is one of the founding components of America dating back to the 1730s when Benjamin Franklin started the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia. Conversely, organized volunteerism in Spain did not emerge, at least not fully, until after the onset of democracy post-Franco in the late 1970s. People invest time to family in a way many of us do not in America. People here clearly want to help other people. But, the infrastructure, organization and social mentality for group volunteerism are all still evolving. My volunteerism here in Spain is developing as well – next week I will go to the ayuntamiento (city hall) and Cruz Rojo (you guessed it – Red Cross) to see what volunteer activities I can get involved in here in Adra.

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pictureEllie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. Last year she served with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at a local high school and volunteer at the Westway After School Program. She is currently in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain, to teach English at a high school in the Mediterranean coastal town of Adra.


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