Guest Blog – Al White of Eli Lilly

A good volunteer experience can be inspiring and energizing. If you’re lucky, it even can be life-changing. I had just such an experience in 2014 when I spent two weeks in service in Moshi, Tanzania.

Through a program called Connecting Hearts Abroad, my employer, Eli Lilly and Company, annually sends about 100 volunteers to serve communities in need across four continents. I was thrilled to be assigned to Moshi, a bustling town in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Back in the States, I had volunteered and served on boards before, so I thought I knew what I was in for. In truth, I had vastly underestimated what Moshi and its people had to teach me.

Here are some of my most important lessons from the experience.

Be flexible.

My specific post was with the Good Hope Support Organization, a Moshi not-for-profit that focuses on creating opportunities for disadvantaged youths. In orientation sessions before my fellow volunteers and I left for our service experiences, the Connecting Hearts Abroad staff stressed multiple times, “Be flexible.” This advice felt abstract until I’d spent a few days in Moshi, and then I got it.

I was assigned to a small, two-classroom building with no desks, no textbooks and a shortage of even simple supplies like pencils and paper. From the moment I arrived, I was asked to dive in and help teach subjects ranging from geography to mixed operation of integers. I‘m not sure I did a perfect job, but I was encouraged by the warm smiles and attentiveness of my students. My attitude and honest effort, I saw, were far more important to them than being a polished and perfect instructor.

Be in the moment.

Our classroom was cramped and hot, and a constant stream of noise from outside threatened to drown out my voice. We also were interrupted occasionally by Rosie, a toddler from a nearby home who would stroll into our room. Through all this, my students stayed upbeat and engaged. They wanted to do well in their work, and it showed. Their resiliency reminded me to go with the flow, and as soon as I did it became easier to enjoy my entire experience in Moshi.

Don’t try to be a savior.

I thought that I was going to be a savior in the community I served, but I wasn’t. It wasn’t about me—my expertise, my credentials, my big ideas for fixing every perceived problem I saw.  I was there to support a project that was owned by local partners who would be in Moshi long after I left. I was a helper, and my help, in whatever form it took, was enough.

Appreciate and respect other cultures.

Before we flew to our assignments, we were encouraged to learn as much as possible about the destinations we would visit. Toward that end, I spent a week in neighboring Kenya before my Tanzania assignment. Because I had never been to East Africa before, the extra week was tremendously helpful.

Both in Kenya and Tanzania, I was impressed by the richness of the culture, the dignity of the people I met and the openness and joy they exuded. Although the lives of people in Moshi were different from my own, I tried hard to avoid making constant comparisons. In particular, I worked to toss out assumptions that my life was somehow superior.

Seek first to understand.

When Stephen Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” he was talking mainly about interpersonal skills. His advice, however, can apply much more broadly: to communities, to cultures and really to anything in life that’s different from our own frame of reference.

I believe seeking to understand should be the mission of every volunteer, whether you are helping in your own neighborhood or traveling to another continent. My experience in Moshi, brief as it was, helped to make me a more curious and reflective person. It encouraged me to think hard about my priorities, and it left me with a strong desire to keep exploring the world and learning. It gave back more than I put in, and I’m forever grateful for that.