What happens when I'm not in charge (spoiler alert: it's a good thing)

3 years ago

Several years ago I took myself on a service trip to Costa Rica with  Global Volunteers. I was nearing 50 and looking to shake things up a bit, and a service trip seemed like a great first step. It was, and this experience kicked off a period of very rewarding international development work. But this is where it began. And it included the lesson of the green fence.

Our small group was working in the village of Canitas, near the Monte Verde Cloud Forest. Global Volunteers has a few rules that seem to be unique to the organization, and one of the reasons I chose them. Volunteers always work in matched labor … that is, if there are five community members working, five of you work with them. Not six, not ten. The community is in charge of the project, and they are in charge of how the project is done. You are not to say, “I think it would be better if we did it this way.” It’s their project, their process. They are the experts. You are there to assist, period.

Our primary job was to help build a community center. This consisted of mixing cement (on the ground, no mixer), and placing cinder blocks to build the walls. At the rate we worked, it could take years to finish. In fact, my trip was in 2002, and I can see from the online journals that volunteers were still working on the center in 2011. Because of the matched labor requirements, I sometimes worked in the elementary school, which I loved, despite my almost non-existent Spanish.

One day I was asked to paint the chain link fence around the health clinic. My co-worker would be Dinia, a delightful 17-year old who was eager and enthusiastic, and excited that I was from California. My colleague and beer drinking buddy, Fred, a retired college administrator (from Malibu, the much cooler part of California), also had a partner.

We were given two buckets of bright green paint. Don Nicho, the project foreman (and village leader), thinned it with so much water that it barely resembled paint. Fred and I just looked at each other, wondering what the point of the project was, and how long this paint job could possibly last? There was no primer involved, no discussion, just painting a chain link fence with green water.

We started at one end, and worked our way towards the other. Dinia worked across from me, and chatted away. She didn’t speak much English, but that didn’t slow her questions. She wanted to know about my life, my daughters, and what kinds of opportunities she might find in California. What would she need to be able to succeed? Should she go back to high school? Should she learn more English? She wondered about asking her aunt to go with her, what did I think? Did I know movie stars, and how close to I live to Hollywood (answer, no and not very)?

More folks stopped by as we painted. On horses, a motorcycle, and walking with a cow. They each stayed to chat, inspect our work, and thank us for our help. They teased me for having Spanish phrases written on my arm. The school kids came by and we practiced some of the English phrases I introduced to them in school that morning (which may or may not have included “Hey dude, what’s up?” and “Everything’s cool, dude”). They lingered, until one of their parents would shout for them from the top of the hill.

We kept on painting with our colored water. We questioned (to each other only) the purpose of painting the fence, with water, near a cloud forest, where it rained ten inches the previous day. We weren’t sure how our painting the chain link fence would benefit this village, with no paved roads, no hot water, where none of the adults spoke English.  We both had business skills, surely we could be used in better ways? (I’ve since learned that while this was a poor community, the fact that there was a school, healthcare, an agrarian culture, and tourism opportunities were life saving, literally).

But we didn’t ask, or suggest that the fence might not need painting, or that it could use primer, or perhaps even real paint.

We spent two days on the fence, visiting with whomever walked down the road, mothers and grandmothers, teenagers, kids, the dads and uncles and granddads … dogs, cows and horses. Sometimes we had an audience, sometimes we were left alone–but we went on with our work, as they went on with their lives.

And of course, every afternoon it rained.

Over the years I’ve thought about that watery green paint and the chain link fence, and the concept of letting other people define the project and the process. I wondered about the purpose, and if a group of volunteers the following year would also be asked to paint our fence (as the bright green would surely fade). But now that I look back at my journals, I can see it more clearly.

All we needed to do was show up. With respect, and time, and the willingness to engage. To share in their pride of their community and do what we could to help make it just a little brighter.

The process was the purpose. The paint was extra.

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