Volunteering: A Risk Today, An Opportunity for the Future
(ANS – Bellflower) – Juan Carlos Montenegro is a past pupil of the Don Bosco Kennedy Salesian Technical Institute in Quito, Ecuador. From his years in the Salesian school he felt that his life “should not be a meaningless life.” As a student, he decided to go as a volunteer among the native Achuar people in Wasakentsa. “It was an experience that changed my life forever,” he says.
Juan Carlos, how did your vocation as a volunteer start?
I believe that my vocation began in the family. My parents were an example. A second reason was the opening of a Salesian school that taught me to help the needy as a Salesian volunteer.
What have you done during these years as a volunteer?
My first experience was in Wasakentsa. Then at the age of 25 I was invited to work in the St Dominic Savio parish in Bellflower, California, in charge of youth ministry. In 2007 I took the position of Manager of the Salesian Provincial Volunteer Program and continued my missionary experiences.
You are now finalizing a study on volunteers. What are the implications for the Congregation?
A survey was conducted among 428 former volunteers from 28 countries around the world. In this research, we realized that a missionary experience changes your life. 93% of the former volunteers surveyed believe that the volunteer experience has helped them and has changed their lives.
What is the essential element of volunteering?
I think it is accompaniment. If a volunteer feels accompanied he or she grows as a person. The accompaniment requires not only processes, but also particular moments like being attentive, listening, having personal meetings and praying together.
What do you think is the most difficult part of volunteer work?
The study shows that for 52% of former volunteers the most difficult time is when the volunteer period is over and they must return to “normal life.” After living with poverty, coming back home causes a shock that is not easy to accept.
In our culture of indifference, are there still young people who want to be missionaries?
Certainly. There are young people who want to give themselves, to share their lives. We just need to give them a proposal and a way. How much good we could do to so many young people who are wandering the world without meaning! But I also want to stress that it is important that the identity of Salesian voluntary service be well defined.
What is there for a volunteer at the end of the experience?
Our research shows that there are three benefits: self-knowledge; knowledge of different contexts and knowing how to interact with people; and then the most important one: being open to a relationship with God! These three gifts are irreplaceable for the rest of one’s life.