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What Happens When the World's Poorest People Volunteer?

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It's early November, and I'm sitting in the vast auditorium at UniNorte University in Barranquilla, Colombia, listening to Accion Social present on Colombia's extreme poor at the International Association for Volunteer Empowerment (IAVE)'s World Youth Summit. Lesly sits across the aisle from me, now a leadership and empowerment trainer through Nouvelle Vie. His back is straight as he leans forward, staring intently at the PowerPoint presentation, listening carefully to the English translation on his headphones. "Imagine living in a small one-room house with no running water, no electricity, struggling to eat every single day," says the speaker. This exercise is not much of a stretch for Lesly's imagination.

Lesly and I have been invited to the conference to speak on sustainable development through personal transformation. It is the first time Lesly, age 29, has ever left Haiti. It is the first time he has experienced an environment that has smooth clean roads, shiny university buildings, and steady access to electricity and internet. Putting myself in his shoes, I can understand why the vast majority of young adults from developing countries escape to wealthier countries, never to return home.

"What did you think of the presentation?" I ask him as we leave the auditorium.

"I never knew that poverty existed outside of Haiti," he says.

He sounds uplifted, somehow.

"People everywhere are suffering, but people everywhere are also helping. I'm not alone. We're all in this together, helping each other rise above this."

"How do feel when you come to a country and interact with people who have so much?" I ask him later that evening. We are walking around the pool at the Hotel del Prado, a beautiful sprawling 18th century colonial hotel.

Lesly pauses thoughtfully. "Every country has its strengths. Some are material. Some are not. I don't worry about it. What I do know is that my real strength lies in my own mind. There are people all over the world who are unhappy and who feel powerless to do something about it. But I know that if my mind is on what I don't have, I am powerless. When I volunteer, when I think about what I can give to others, I realize how much I do have."

It's easy for someone like me to volunteer. I grew up in Westchester, an affluent suburb of New York, went to a great university, and live in a warm, comfortable house with a steady supply of healthy food, clean water and electricity. But what does it mean for Lesly to volunteer? What does it mean when some of the world's poorest people volunteer?

Volunteering or selfless service is a frame of mind. It is an attitude of continually working to improve lives and the environment around you, without demanding or expecting reward.

Most people don't expect the poor to volunteer. How can people who don't have their basic needs taken care of think beyond their own survival? How can they have the frame of mind to care about the needs of those around them? The burden of responsibility for taking care of one's neighbor typically falls onto civic, humanitarian or religious institutions. But what happens when these systems fail, as they usually do, due to corruption or poor planning or lack of funds? Blame. Frustration. Powerlessness. Hopelessness. Revolt.

Unless the communities that typically receive services begin to serve, to stretch more than just their hands but their own hearts, they cannot experience the power they have to transform their own lives and own communities.

Being a volunteer, serving selflessly, is a position of power. It moves you from being a victim to being an agent of change. It makes you unshakable. Because your actions are driven by inspiration, not external motivation, you do not wait for someone to guide you or reward you. The moment you stop waiting, stop complaining, stop blaming, and start taking responsibility for the life and people around you, you begin to grow. And the seed for innovation and creative problem-solving is planted in local leaders.

Jobs aren't available in Haiti, like in many countries with struggling economies. But that doesn't mean that communities have to wait for a job in order to address their own needs. Like Lesly, they can grow their own food from saved seeds and compost on their rooftops. They don't have to wait for an international health worker to run a workshop for them on the use of condoms. Like Lesly, they can develop peer sexuality workshops to explore the reasons why they are escaping their lives through sex, which leads to rampant AIDS and unwanted pregnancy. And when the resources come from the outside and are created from within, when more training and opportunities come, the community will know who should be in charge. The new leaders will already be in place to use these resources wisely, to expand and grow what has already started.

Selfless service is a practice that reinforces a set of human values that transcend culture, religion, and nationality. It builds leaders who will find a way to serve their community whether we invest in them or not. Educational background, technical skills or knowledge, though necessary, are not enough to create successful local leadership. They must be coupled with the nurturing of human values and an ethic of service.

If we are waiting for leaders and entrepreneurs to rise up out of communities, we need to raise the bar and support programs that train and support individuals to serve their own communities, not just because they may create jobs for themselves and others. We need to support people who feel so much responsibility for their communities that they must serve, and solve problems in integrated, holistic ways.

"When will we stop asking for money from the World Bank and asking for aid from NGOs and foreigners?" asked Samson, one of Lesly's fellow Nouvelle Vie youth leaders, at the World Bank Summit on youth leadership with the Haitian government last fall. "When will we do this on our own?"

This is the attitude with which, in concert with the growing global networks of financial and support, leaders will pave their own communities' way out of poverty.

On the way to the airport, I ask Lesly how he feels about returning back to Haiti. He responds: "I was born where I was born so that I could serve Haiti. I can now give to Haiti a vision of something bigger."