Written by Nicole Smith
We’ve heard time and again to get out and volunteer, better yourself by bettering others and go change the world – all those cliches. However, when you’re out volunteering, it’s easy to feel like you can’t actually make a difference or that one person can’t change the world. I believe otherwise.
I spent a month of this past summer in Thailand. Half of that time was spent volunteering at an elephant sanctuary. The treatment of elephants in Asia can be terrible. Street performers buy elephants as young as a year old and cart them around bustling, hot cities like Bangkok performing tricks and begging on the streets. Trekking camps offer rides to tourists on platform seats that can severely injure and flatten an elephant’s back. Logging is outlawed in Thailand but when the authorities turn their heads, nothing stops companies from overworking elephants in harsh conditions, forcing them to pull loads of trees up steep hills.
The time I put in at ElephantsWorld, a sort of retirement home for these elephants who have been rescued from abusive situations, was mostly spent doing what could seem like small tasks: cutting fruit for the elephants, planting a field of bana grass to be harvested as food later, building a concrete wall, helping bathe the elephants, and so on. When thinking in the grand scheme of things, it was easy to feel like I was doing nothing to help fix the conditions of elephants globally, or even nationwide in Thailand. All these tasks we were doing were helpful, but were they more beneficial for us as a travel experience than they were for the elephants?
It turns out, even these seemingly small tasks add up. Any volunteer effort is worthwhile. At ElephantsWorld, our time spent washing and cutting fruit allowed the mahouts (elephant caretakers) more time to spend caring for their elephants and bonding with them. Once harvested, the field of bana grass we planted will feed the elephants for up to 4 years. The concrete wall we spent hours sweating over will allow the elephants to spend less time chained up and more time roaming free. When the elephants are not chained up, they sometimes wander into the neighboring farmland to snack – a habit that can be costly as they have to pay for eaten crops. Our time spent bathing the elephants in the river allowed me to create bonds with these incredible, intelligent animals. This bond has inspired a sense of urgency and activism in me, urging me to help make a difference in how they are treated.
It all adds up. All it takes is someone to speak up and take action. If you are passionate about something, get involved and volunteer. Help a cause that you believe can make a difference. Even if you feel at times you aren’t doing anything extremely significant, it does matter. Sometimes manual labor and time is the best gift you can give an organization. Sometimes it’s a voice. You don’t have to single-handedly clean up the garbage from all the rivers to make a difference in the environment.
I went abroad to volunteer through an organization called International Student Volunteers. You can visit isvolunteers.org to learn more about them and what they do. But you don’t have to leave the country to help a good cause. There are organizations such as the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, United Way, and so many more that are doing great things across the U.S. Locally, programs in Bozeman like Eagle Mount, the Gallatin Valley Food Bank, the Boys and Girls Club and Service Saturdays through MSU are just a few great ways to get involved and make a difference. To learn more about Bozeman and MSU volunteer opportunities, visit montana.edu/engagement/volunteer.