Paying It Forward

Feb 12, 2018

By Britt Toksvig Jorgensen

"I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy."
– Rabindranath Tagore

I have volunteered alongside my clinic hours pretty much since I qualified as a CBP. First, it was an organization in London called Kids Company that supports unprivileged kids. The branch I was at educated kids that had been kicked out of all other schools. The clinic room had a panic button for my safety and often the police were called out. I was there one day every other week. I worked with kids, highly pressurised staff, and sometimes parents.
 
I have also made two trips to Rwanda. The first one was to teach Access to the staff in a women's organization and run sessions with orphans and women. During the second trip, I had the privilege to teach the same staff to teach outreach Access to the beneficiary women.
 
At present, I work in a medical clinic for refugees once a week in my current hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, together with my colleague San San. (At left, Britt is seen treating one of the children at the clinic.) This work has given me so much, and I would like to share some tips about volunteering and some of my experiences and reflections in the hope that it may inspire more of you to volunteer.
 
Tips on Volunteering

1. Reflect on why you want to volunteer

I strongly suggest reflecting on what you are looking to get out of volunteering. At first glance, the answer may be "I just want to help" but it is helpful to look beneath that. It will give you a better understanding of what makes you tick, but perhaps, more importantly, it will help the energy exchange that we know is so important in BodyTalk. I would even claim that being clear about what you get out of volunteering makes the sessions more powerful.
 
It may be that you would like experience with specific symptoms or a certain segment of the population. Maybe you are looking at specializing in cancer patients, adolescent mental health issues, prenatal care, animals, etc. Or, perhaps volunteering would offer you an opportunity to do some research or track results in a particular way. Or it might give you the freedom to try out certain techniques or simply give you the experience of having a fully packed-day of sessions.
 
Maybe you feel it would be good for your business to demonstrate social commitment. In certain parts of the world, corporations have Corporate Social Responsibility programs; working with the corporations can pay off from a purely financial point of view, thanks to the Public Relations value. Nothing wrong with that.
 
What I personally get out of it?

I used to work in the NGO sector before I ventured into BodyTalk full-time. (NGO, or non-governmental organization, is any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level.) Maybe that's why it always has been natural for me to volunteer. I generally feel passionate about bringing BodyTalk to people and communities that wouldn't otherwise find their way into my clinic. BodyTalk is not limited by language barriers in the same way as most other healthcare practices; we don't need any particular equipment, and BodyTalk works so well with traumas even pre-language, which makes it so perfect for volunteer settings. The usual private paying clinic set-up comes with its own set of expectations, and I like to sometimes be free of that.
 
I am learning a huge amount about the human psyche in extreme situations and have gained experience in working with deep traumas. I remember working with an Iranian woman in London who had been imprisoned and tortured under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. Working with active memories from her torture episodes led to a deep fear of giving up secrets, places or names that by far exceeded her fear of dying or pain. That was the fear that still haunted her all these years later, not the fear of death. After that particular session, I felt that if all my BodyTalk training till then were just for that one session, it still would have been worth it.
 
I enjoy the creativity and the freshness of not knowing what to expect when I show up. My volunteer work is more unpredictable and varied, and it forces me to "get out of the way." I like that challenge. I feel it keeps my mind open and present and allows for precious moments of connection or healing to bubble up. The unpredictability means that sometimes our interpreter gets pulled away for an emergency and we are left depending on gestures, or it swings from hectic packed days to very quiet days. Often, it means working in a loud, noisy crowded environment with an entire family packed into a small room. Free clinics can be noisy places with the risk of violence and heightened emotions and very ill adults and children. This could not be more different to my calm, oil-diffused, fairly predictable home clinic environment. I have yet to have anyone peeing or vomiting in the corner of my home clinic.
 
I enjoy meeting people that I wouldn't otherwise be in touch with, especially now that I live with my family in Kuala Lumpur, where it is easy to stay in an expat bubble different from the majority of the population.
 
By far, my most challenging Access talk was with the teenagers in London. Kids were rolling up my cortices fold-out cards and pretending it was a joint even before the talk started. During a cortices demonstration, one boy commented on the brand and value of my watch, like he was contemplating stealing it. Later, a fight broke out and the staff had to be very physical with the two boys and bar the door with a table afterwards to keep them separated. It was also my shortest presentation to date.

2. Be prepared to work with chaotic organizations

Most NGOs are, to various degrees, underfunded and therefore mostly under-staffed and under-resourced. This frequently leads to a lack of structure and communication which can be hard and frustrating to navigate. Also, if you only are there a few hours a week or month you may inevitably be one of the last to know about changes in the organization.
 
I have showed up to find a closed door more than once as people forgot to inform me about staff training days, odd holidays etc. Also, room allocation and translators have been an issue where I have volunteered. This is not personal or a reflection of how important your work is to the organization and/or the beneficiaries.

3. Be patient with finding the right organization

You might think there would be so many takers if you offered free BodyTalk sessions, right?! I charge xxx per session and are now prepared to give it away for free, people must be lining up... But, it can actually be more difficult that you would think. I remember having a rather cooling experience when trying to cold call a large jail in London as a freshly baked CBP. In my pre-BodyTalk NGO work I remember the volunteer requests, and how it can be hard to always say yes because of the time and commitment it takes from the organization's side.
 
I suggest making a request for a good match in your MindScape workshop. This worked wonderfully for me when I initially went to Rwanda without any contacts at all (not that I recommend doing that, but on this occasion, that's how it happened). On the first afternoon of my trip, I went to the pool of a hotel with my kids and ended up chatting to two young Danish girls who were volunteering at an SOS orphanage. They promised to put the BodyTalk opportunity to the management. The next morning, after dropping off my kids in the school they were at for a few weeks, I happened to pass the SOS Village sign and drove in to say hello. I started the following day.
 
I also did my research on NGOs and sent emails out to organizations to offer my assistance. Some I didn't hear from at all, and most wrote back to say that they couldn't fit me in. But one lady, founder of a women's empowerment charity, Aspire Rwanda, wrote back and I went for a meeting the following day. Her name was Peace, we got on like a house on fire and she invited me to come and teach Access to all her staff members, and also run sessions for the beneficiaries and staff there. This ended up being an important relationship, and with the help of the IBF, I was able to go on a second trip there and teach the staff to teach. I wrote articles back in 2014 to share my experience:
 
"Tales from Rwanda," May 08, 2014

"Feedback from sessions during first visit," August 15, 2014

Rarely have I felt more in sync with the universe than on my two trips to Rwanda. It was such an honor to experience that flow.

4. Look after yourself and use your colleagues

The organization I worked with in London was set up by a psychotherapist. It was mandatory to come for monthly group supervision sessions, and there was a counselor on call. That is rare, and usually the responsibility of looking after yourself will fall on you.
 
Make sure that you call or go and see a colleague if you have experienced something that you need to talk about, and of course, as always, make sure you get your own sessions. There are no medals for soldiering through difficult situations alone. Additionally, it can be interesting to look at what this brings up for you.
 
I remember speaking to a pediatrician at the refugee center and she said that after three years, she still cries on the way home most days.

5. Set your boundaries
 
How far do you want to stretch yourself? Financially? Time and schedule wise? Are you willing to compromise on who you prefer working with? These are important considerations to have early on because in many charities there is a bottomless demand for support, and it can be a slippery slope. Boundaries are a very individual matter, and often the more you get involved, the more you get out of it.
 
In the refugee center, I decided not to attend any volunteer or clinic meetings. I read the meeting notes, but do not take the time to go. Perhaps there could be a stronger sense of belonging and engagement to the organization if I went, but this is the boundary I defined for myself.
 
I also choose not to contribute financial support on top of the sessions. It is hard when sitting in front of parents who can't afford glasses for their children, or people with toothaches who can't afford the dentist bill. It is tempting to lend a financial hand, but I try to get more comfortable with the inequalities of the world (or more comfortable with my discomfort with the inequalities). I grew up in Scandinavia where everyone looks the same, earns the same, and where poverty means not being able to go on a skiing holiday. It does mean that the Starbucks coffee, that costs the same as the daily food budget for at least one refugee, doesn't always taste the same on the way home.

6. Honor your commitment
 
Some voluntary work will be one-off volunteering opportunities (for events, fairs, etc.), but if you engage with an organization on a regular basis, make sure that you are ready to commit and stick to it. Often the beneficiaries that you work with have experienced plenty of let downs in their lives, and a lack of reliability on your part would only mean adding to this. I also find that it is important to show the organization that I am serious, and I do this by prioritizing my volunteering commitment like any other professional commitment. This is also why it is so helpful to be working with one or more colleagues, so you can fill in for each other if you have to take time away.

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