Welcome back to our interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Today we’re speaking with Brian Harley, a veteran and humanitarian who traveled to Salvador, Brazil to make a difference in children’s lives. His story illustrates the transformative effect of volunteering: how it can shift a person’s perspective, changing him for the better. Please check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Brian.
How did you first get interested in international volunteering?
My older brother first got me interested in volunteering. It was from him that I heard of Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) since he was fundraising for his own volunteer trip. That was in 2007. In 2009 I finally did my program abroad. In those two years the idea of doing it grew larger and larger in my mind and I finally said, “I want to do this too!” CCS happened to have a program in a country I had always wanted to visit, Brazil, so I just felt the time was right. I guess you can say it was a little brother wanting to do what his big brother did, which is true, but the idea of helping others wasn’t foreign to me as I had already done a lot of local work in the community.
Another reason I was interested in doing a volunteer program was that I learned from my brother that CCS includes a lot with their program fee. Some organization fees are more modest than others, but with CCS you get a lot. You still get to be on your own and experience the culture of the country in your own way, but it’s comforting to know that the volunteers lodging has 24 hour security, wifi, three meals a day that are all local dishes, and airport pick up (to name a few things). This is particularly comforting when visiting a foreign country for the first time.
How did you decide where to go and what was your first volunteering experience like?
There are certain places in the world that you just know about, even if you never go there. Places that, for any number of reasons, reach your eyes and ears from various sources. They become exotic and amazing to you even if you don’t know why. I have always felt that way about Brazil. I had always heard about the beaches, the famous Jesus statue, and the country’s amazing festivals. It really stood out for me.
I was fortunate in that CCS has numerous programs across the world, including one in Salvador, Brazil. I could’ve gone with another organization and done a program in Rio de Janeiro for example, but I wanted to support the same program my brother supported. My experiences as a volunteer in Salvador, Brazil were quite simply amazing and unforgettable. I had different program options like teaching English, HIV/AIDS education, etc., but ultimately I chose what I thought would be the most rewarding: caregiving.
I worked with small children between 1-4 years of age helping them eat, cleaning up after them (which was always a challenge) and helping the nuns put them on mats for nap time. The place is run by the organization Mother Teresa started, Missionaries of Charity.
I always say to myself that, so far in my life, the three best things I’ve done are being a brother, serving in the Marine Corps, and volunteering abroad.
The kids I worked with lived in a poor area that wasn’t so clean, Some even lived there five days a week since their families could only afford to take care of them on weekends. But everyone had a youthful spirit and always found a way to have fun and play even though they weren’t in the best situation.
To date, three years and some odd days after my first volunteer abroad experience, I still remember those little kids so vividly. They didn’t know me or know how to speak my language (though they did sing along to Beat It by Michael Jackson… well, just the “Beat it” part anyway), but they ran up to me on my first day. Right as I walked in they were grasping for hugs and wanting to be picked up.
What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your travels?
Of course it would be language. I only speak English and haven’t had a language course in some time. I had never had a class in Portuguese. I didn’t even know there were places in my area that offered them. So, needless to say, it was an interesting experience. I always had my trusty Lonely Planet phrase book with me, and that helped. A piece of friendly advice: make sure taxi drivers turn on the meters! It’s always a fun conversation trying to argue about money with someone who doesn’t speak your language.