Once a month in Houston, Texas, a nonprofit called Baker-Ripley opens its doors to help people who are navigating the complicated path to gaining US citizenship. I signed up to volunteer my time because Baker-Ripley is known for supporting underserved neighborhoods around Houston. I also signed up because my mother had just gone through the same process. I felt a connection to this need, and I had time and skills to offer.

I have volunteer experiences that I look back on and think, “Did I make a difference?” My experience with Baker-Ripley is one that sticks with me because it not only changed my thoughts on the value of volunteering, it changed my entire way of thinking.

By Irem Tunc

How I went from Tourist to Traveler

If you’ve worked with Realized Worth, or if you follow our blog, you’re likely familiar with the Tourist, Traveler, Guide” model we use to describe and understand different kinds of volunteers. Like all new volunteers, I started as a tourist; I was volunteering to try something new, to contribute to a need that resonated with me, and to feel good about doing something positive in my community.
The first time I volunteered with Baker-Ripley, I arrived on a sunny Saturday morning at 8:00 am, coffee in hand. There was a long line of seemingly exhausted people extending as far as the eye could see around the corner of the building. Confused, I walked past them and went inside to start my training.
A young woman stood up and went through the agenda for the day, and just as my neighboring trainee was about to fall asleep in their chair, I noticed a man walking to the front of the room. He stood in front of us to speak and everyone perked up because, as it turned out, he was a state congressman. He talked about his parents’ journey to the US, their struggles in settling into their new country, and how welcoming Houston was to them because of people like us. An impactful speech that made us feel good about ourselves and the work we were getting ready to do that day.
The young woman stood back up to speak.
She explained that the people I had passed on my way in had started lining up at 4:00 am – waiting to come inside and take the next step on their journey towards citizenship. They could not afford the luxury of hiring a lawyer to do all this paperwork, so we would be doing it for them. Another story that made us feel even better about ourselves. After successfully completing our training, we shuffled into another room to start volunteering. I felt eager to help.  
One man, about 55 years old, was ushered over to me. We exchanged simple pleasantries and began. 
“Name, address, birthday, green card information?”
Next, we started in on the questions. I was moving as quickly as I could because I wanted to help as many people as possible.
“Sir, have you ever been a prostitute? Have you ever procured anyone for prostitution?” and, Have you ever been a member of a terrorist organization?”

He was getting very uncomfortable, visibly shifting in his seat and, in that moment, I realized I was feeling the same discomfort. All I wanted to do was reach out and hug him and tell him everything would be ok. It was amidst this wave of emotion that I found clarity. My privilege had been checked.

I realized this experience wasn’t about helping as many people as I could. It was about this person sitting across from me, and that we are no different from one another.

Why Volunteering is more than just Volunteering

In the end, he was the only one I helped that morning. When we finished the paperwork, he shook my hand gratefully, thanked me, and I wished him luck. I had to stop myself from crying. He got the help he needed, but I felt like I had received so much more. I went in looking for an experience that would let me pat myself on the back, and I left with a whole new perspective. There was no more separation in my mind between myself and the person I’d helped that day. There was no me” and you” it was just us.” And I realized that we” are all we’ve got. That day, I shifted in my behavior from that of a tourist who was casually curious, into that of a traveler, interested in meaningful discovery.
Volunteering is a safe space. First-time volunteers can interact with unfamiliar issues and with people (beneficiaries) they may not ordinarily cross paths with due to so-called invisible” social and economic barriers. In and out groups exist for many reasons, but often they exist because people refuse to interact with the unknown; and unknown” often translates to people who live lives less fortunate or very unlike our own. If first-time volunteers are given an experience that feels meaningful, that challenges their perceptions, not only are they more likely to keep volunteering they begin to understand they are an important thread that makes up the fabric of our society. They begin to see that volunteering is not just about helping, it’s about belonging: to our communities, and to one another.

Download this resource on the Journey of the Volunteer to learn more about the three stages and the behaviors associated with them.




Irem Tunc
Director of Finance & Administration
Connect with Irem on LinkedIn

Realized Worth is a global agency that specializes in employee volunteer training, program design, and employee engagement. Call us to discuss opportunities for your company, or shoot us an email. You can also reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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