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


~January 2012~


beach footprints


In a recent visit to the London Tower, my friends and I were asking one of the guides about the guards at the museum. “If some guy broke the glass and tried to take the crown jewels in there, I know a bloke would come and help out the guards, and nine times out of ten, it would be an American. That’s what you people do,” the British museum worker chuckled, “You help people.” His observation is not unique. Although I never thought of America as more helpful or altruistic than any other country before traveling abroad, the rest of the world seems to notice our fascination with assisting others (a more general and comparative view of our national politics and this partiality towards “helping” is rather obvious).

During my orientation in Seville before starting work as a Language and Culture assistant in Adra, our orientation leader, a thirty-year-old woman born and raised in Spain, described a recent trip to New York City. She recounted a story in which she was standing on a street corner with a map trying to find her way around when not one, but many people stopped to ask if they could help. She was flustered. “No,” she said, shaking her head confused as to why all of these people thought she needed their assistance when she clearly had a map. To her, this was not particularly nice or considerate, it was just plain odd.

Statistics show that donations to charitable organizations tend to rise when people are aware of other people donating, demonstrating how humans follow other humans (especially when those “other people” are one’s own friends or fellow citizens). We act, do and live largely by what we observe. Our frame of reference and upbringing greatly impact how we come to interpret, and thereby act in, any situation. Although ever evolving, studies on altruism generally agree that the trait of “selfless-ness” it is a mix of nature and nurture. From a psychological standpoint, altruistic traits appear in all cultures, from infancy to adulthood – but the devolvement from sharing into systems and statistics is less ubiquitous. Helping is popular in America and within Americans. It is ingrained in our pedagogy, prevalent in the media and the example set forth by our public policy.

Listening to the observations of non-U.S. citizens, it is easy to see how influential this upbringing has been on our outward actions and characteristics. Yet, by definition, altruism is not always big, organized or even noticed and a more careful look at societies around the world quickly shows that there are a lot of helpers beyond the population of the United States. Although I am an American, I am the only one at the Cruz Roja in Adra (Cruz Roja being the Spanish translation for the Red Cross - an organization that began in Switzerland). My fellow volunteers are all local Spanish citizens. I officially start my work this month.


*Ayundante meaning “helper” – a word I recently learned when trying to explain “Elf” (Santa’s helper) to a group of my students at the local high school in Adra.





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ellie on beach


Ellie 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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