06/26/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

In Morocco, A Lasting Impact Means Building Trust

I'm back in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco for the second term of the America's Unofficial Ambassadors (AUA) summer program here, helping a new team of volunteers get started in their service roles.

Our team has a lot to do in Morocco; teaching English at a local community center, running a summer camp for young people, teaching French in a village school, and building partnerships along the way with the people of this beautiful country.

It's heartening to look ahead at the impact our volunteers will have in the lives of the people they're serving. At the same time, my visit has also been a chance to look back at what our 2013 volunteers accomplished and take stock of how effective the program is.

One of the biggest criticisms of volunteer abroad programs -- an often apt criticism -- is that while they may "feel good" for the volunteers, they fail to have a real impact in the lives of local people and fail to gain the trust of the communities they serve. Part of my job is ensuring our volunteers don't fall into that trap. So after each placement with AUA is finished, we do a whole series of reports and follow-ups with all of our partners to gauge the volunteers' performance, all with intent of ensuring we placed the right people with the right skills in the right service role.

Still, I hadn't been back to Morocco in almost a year before I came here last week to get things ready for our new team and those reports are no substitute for face-to-face feedback from our partners in the field.

Of all our partners, the one I knew would surely tell it to me straight was Ito, the head-woman of Tarmilaat village, who had come to call some of our volunteers last year her "American daughters." Always smiling, always incomparably welcoming, Ito commands respect in Tarmilaat and there isn't much that happens in the village without her approval. Earning her trust and keeping it has long been a goal of mine ever since I first set foot there almost two years ago.

If you haven't visited the Middle Atlas region, Tarmilaat is a low-income shepherding village just a few kilometers from the quaint comfortable mountain town of Ifrane, which doubles as a high-end ski resort in the winter months. Leaving Ifrane and going to the village means leaving a lot of that quaintness and comfort behind. That's what being a volunteer abroad is really about, though, stepping outside your comfort zone to play an active role in helping others and to be an ambassador to people you might otherwise never have met.

The village itself is a collection of small, makeshift stone houses set on a series of rocky hills. Its name in the local Arabic means "the sands" because of the brown and gray sand you'll find if you dig there, even just a few inches into the ground. Families built the houses in Tarmilaat after deciding to settle down several years ago with their livestock, and today the village is where they call home. Officially speaking, the people of Tarmilaat are squatting on the land, which means they are barred from building permanent structures there or from getting services like electricity or running water.

The one permanent building that does exist there, however, is a one-room schoolhouse setup for village children by the Ministry of Education after some concerned local citizens realized that the nearest school was several kilometers away on the other side of a roadway. The school at Tarmilaat is where our volunteer Maddy Becker taught French last year and where her counterparts Haley Luce and Hallie Westlund organized a short summer camp for kids. Rachel Wiser also provided basic business training to the women of the village last year, helping them to market the handmade woven goods they produce, most of which are made on simple looms they construct themselves.

I arrived back at the village last week with Salaheddine Zekri, our Country Coordinator for Morocco, who works with our partner in Ifrane, Al-Akhawayn University. So after greeting Ito in her home and joining her in a customary pot of mint tea, it was time to talk business.

We have two "unofficial ambassadors" for Tarmilaat village this year, Phoebe Shelor and Andradene Lowe, both of them leading a French language program that they'll design for about 20 of the village's children.

But before we could talk about them, I had to ask: "So, last year, how did our people do?"

Ito speaks in darisha, the local Arabic dialect, of which I know a little but not enough. Salaheddine translated.

"She says it was wonderful to have them here," he reported. "The women benefitted a lot from what Rachel had to show them, working with them, and they're very grateful for her help. And with the kids, she says what you have to understand is that although they have their teacher here during the school year, normally very few people from outside the village really take an interest in the children and their lives. They often have nothing to do here. During the summer they are not learning usually. And they are always pushed to the edges, to the margins. So having the volunteers here last year and again now it is great for them and they are very thankful."

I smiled.

Ito smiled.

For me, it was one of those moments that brought home the real value of what it is we do at AUA, the lives volunteers touch and the impact we can all have in places like Tarmilaat if we choose to go abroad. Then, as an aside, I mentioned we had a male volunteer who might be interested in visiting and maybe even serving in the village.

It was an important issue to raise before bringing him there. For a long time, the village placement has only been open to women, a cultural point Ito set down firmly on that first meeting long ago because she was concerned having an outside male presence around during the day, at a time when the men of the Tarmilaat are out working, might be disruptive.

"She says it's okay now," Salaheddine translated. "After last year, she says there is a good relationship here. She trusts you."

It's easy to get swept up in the idealism of volunteering abroad and the notion that all of us can be agents of change in places that need assistance. There's truth to that, of course. But it's another thing entirely to understand that the impact volunteers have doesn't occur in a vacuum. Instead, it depends on the support and trust of the people they're serving. Without it, you might as well pack up and go home.

So that smile was no small thing, not to me, and certainly not to the volunteers who will continue to serve at Tarmilaat in the years to come.