One week ago, I finished my year-long volunteering project in Barcelos, Portugal. Supported by BRAVO as a sending organization, I was fortunate enough to meet hundreds of new and different personalities and characters, and engage with various thought-provoking activities. So as I reflect and prepare for upcoming adventures, I can’t help but feel sentimental and emotional, yet most importantly, grateful for the countless opportunities to grow, mature, and learn to appreciate the infinite benefits of serving the community.

Volunteering wasn’t always easy – it demanded a lot of flexibility, or better yet, resilience to change. Nothing is a constant when you’re a volunteer. The activities you’re engaged with change from week to week, you’re regularly meeting and working with new community members, and the volunteers around you come and go, reshuffling your friend group and family on a monthly basis. But as difficult this lifestyle is, demanding of you to let go of the people who leave and make space in your heart for the newcomers, it is also incredibly unique and rewarding. Volunteering is amazing for exactly the same reasons that make it hard – you never know what’s happening next, and what joyous moment or unexpected learning experience is waiting around the corner! For example, when I started working with children at the Social Center Abel Varzim, I expected to have a fun time entertaining them on the playground, and to teach them a little English when we get a chance. But in the end the kids ended up teaching me Portuguese, as they were endlessly curious and kept asking me questions, pressuring me figure out a way to communicate with them. Likewise, I wasn’t always too excited to spend three full days picking up garbage on the coast of Esposende, an activity we repeated every two months, at times in cold and rainy weather conditions. But considering how much it opened my eyes to overconsumption and the weight of the global pollution problem, I am eternally grateful for this experience. Even simply living in Portugal and navigating the small town of Barcelos, I’ve gained a new perspective and understanding of my small hometown in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the culture which shaped me, as compared to the traditions which shaped my friends’ attitudes.

Volunteering wasn’t always easy, but it was an endless source of wisdom about adaptability, devotion, work ethic and acceptance. But if you ask me ‘What’s the one thing that volunteering taught you?’, the answer is to be humble, and to give – give your time, your effort, your friendship and affection. Life itself is like a volunteering project, you never know what you’re going to get. So make yourself available, and appreciate and share what you have – the returns will be abundant, and they will surprise you.

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