Christmas: Giving and Receiving New Life

Do you want to give new life this Christmas? After 10 years as Executive Director it dawns on me that what Palms does in the lead up to Christmas each year is very apt. It is a time in which we start earnestly preparing volunteers for a new life and we prepare requesting communities for receiving new life.

Perhaps supporters also will find meaning in giving new life in the form of a volunteer to a requesting community. While some communities provide the volunteer with a basic living allowance and accommodation most cannot afford to cover the recruitment, preparation, airfares, insurance and ongoing management of volunteers. Most volunteers depart after the January Orientation Course so if you have a Christmas gift that might cover such costs it will be put to use very quickly.

The volunteers are giving the biggest gift. They give over some control of their lives and the comfort and familiarity of home. In just monetary terms it may be somewhere around $70,000pa of lost income. Your Christmas gift then will help deliver a much bigger gift to the host community.

We also know that a volunteer’s new life will involve receiving, and we hope passing on gifts to Australian community supporters. Even with globalisation the world is fortunately left with some of the cultural diversity necessary for developing alternate responses to life’s situations. Receiving such gifts from people of a culture different from our own can bring unexpected surprises.

We can become distinctly uncomfortable, even fearful of unexpected surprises, as is evident when boatloads of refugees are on the horizon. As givers we often prefer to remain comfortably in control. Even those of us happy to give the refugees a home may not be ready to engage the diverse ideas for living that people of difference have to offer. Palms mission requires that in giving we let go of control and in receiving we let go of fear.

Our values statement tells us that achieving solidarity with deep peace is dependant upon such letting go. It gives some hints as to how we might get to this state by living justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly, all of which are embodied in the new life we are invited to share at Christmas. But, letting go is not so easy for us mere mortals.

“If you have come to help me,
You are wasting your time.
But, if you have come because
your liberation is bound up with mine,
Then let us work together.”Lilla Watson
Qld Aboriginal elder, activist and educator.

All, including volunteers, who bravely offer themselves as gifts, and those who give to support the placement of a volunteer, need more than wise platitudes to open our arms and receive the gift of the other. Palms now invite both volunteers and supporters to the Orientation Course, because all givers need to learn how to keep the relationship mutual; how to maintain dignity and how sustainable development can only be achieved when givers understand the culture in which it is to be applied.

The course prepares one not just to understand, but also to stand under the ways of living in the host’s environment. Volunteers and supporters can be equipped to listen to the needs as expressed by the local management and workers, rather than looking to change things that appear to us to need changing. Palms counsels volunteers to spend at least six months in placement patiently waiting to see why systems operate as they do before suggesting any particular “improvement”; to realise that their own experience is culturally bound and to be sure that ideas suggested are not simply to make the system work better for the volunteer’s, or donor’s comfort, rather than the expressed needs of the community.

Palms Australia’s pre-departure preparation program, including both correspondence units and the residential orientation course, is the most comprehensive cross-cultural preparation available to Australian development volunteers. Putting time into building relationships with volunteers and supporters in this way also helps Palms’ staff to learn how to approach the unwrapping of the gifts they offer. It helps us provide a better fit for the community organisations requesting the volunteers, both prior to departure and during the placement.

This is also why we are very keen for Australian support organisations to attend the course particularly those sessions, field trips and simulations on crossing cultures and development. Perhaps the most important Christmas gift you give this year will be to help a receiving community to support the volunteer who comes to assist sustainable poverty reduction. If so, please ask us about joining the short section of the Orientation course from January 10th — 14th. It’s a wonderful way to prepare for letting go and being open to new life.