Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Joe Hams and I’m a 20-year-old college student at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. I study Spanish, psychology, and Latin American studies. I am the youngest from a family of five.
My passions, in no particular order, include Spanish, traveling, working with immigrants and refugees, cycling, and learning about other cultures. For all of these reasons, with the exception of cycling, I decided to study abroad in Lima, Perú.
Congratulations on your interview with the Daily Nebraskan on your community involvement! We’re curious to learn more about your work with the Lancaster County Jail inmates. How’d you first get involved with Lincoln Literacy?
I first got involved with Lincoln Literacy about 2 years ago. For a long time I had been passionate about immigrants’ rights, so during the summer I decided to sign up to work with Lincoln Literacy. One day they called me asking if I’d be willing to work at the county jail. Apprehensively, I said yes.
Luckily for me I said yes, because volunteering with Lincoln Literacy and teaching English to students at the jail has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Fate always puts you in the right place at the right time.
Working at the jail is extremely interesting because of the learning dynamic. Many people believe that inmates are helpless – that they don’t have the will or ability to learn. From my experience at the jail – that belief is dead wrong. Most of the inmates that I’ve worked with are extremely hard workers and love to learn. I think it’s safe to say that most of them have been dealt a fairly tough hand in life and they just need a little bit of help. In my opinion, it’s our duty as human beings to help them.
Why did you choose to do international service-learning in Lima, Perú?
One of the reasons I chose Lima was the wide variety of service-learning opportunities available in the city. I knew I wanted to work with a human-services organization, but I didn’t know which one.
The Labor Rights Support Center, La Casa de Panchita, called my name and it was a huge factor in my decision to study in Lima. La Casa de Panchita is a non-profit in Lima that works with domestic, in-home workers to protect their rights. They also work with children that have worked as child laborers, or are in danger of child labor.
If you had to describe the city of Lima in 140 characters or less, what would you say?
Lima is intense, confusing, disorganized, and hectic. More importantly, Lima is beautiful, kind, fascinating, worth the effort, and able to steal your heart.
How was serving at La Casa de Panchita different than your community service and community involvement in Lincoln? How was it similar?
Serving at La Casa de Panchita was, of course, different in many ways, but it was also very similar in many ways. I like to concentrate on the similarities because it helps us to appreciate both groups.
To start, both populations are in extreme need of resources – social services, community support, education, and employment. With that said, both groups are very grateful for the provided services, and they’re most definitely both equally deserving of our help, love, patience, and understanding.
The women and children I served in Lima and inmates at the Lancaster County Jail have one more thing in common – they’re practically voiceless. It’s extremely rewarding to give a voice to the voiceless.
Many people in the United States haven’t heard of, and therefore don’t care about women and children in need in Perú. These same people are probably the ones that don’t care much about inmates in our jails back home either.
It’s just a question of spreading the word, letting people know about these two vulnerable groups, and inspiring others to help those in need. In most cases, lack of caring probably doesn’t have much to do with negative thoughts and opinions directed towards these two groups, but simply a lack of knowledge.
Were you able to apply what you’ve learned volunteering at the Lancaster County Jail to your volunteer work at La Casa de Panchita?
Yes, of course! Sometimes it takes a lot of patience to teach little kids long multiplication, especially after a long day at school when all they want to do is play outside. You have to go about teaching them with the same patience and understanding as when you’re teaching an adult English. First, you let them know that you’re there to help. Second, you get to know them a little bit. Third, you find out what they’re interested in. Finally, you take what they’re interested in, and apply it to the material you’re trying to teach.
Were there any big ‘aha’ moments that you had during your time in Lima? Would you care to share?
The biggest ‘aha’ moments for me weren’t actually singular moments, but rather a series of small ‘ahas’. The biggest series of those, though, was figuring out the transportation system in Lima. Lima’s transportation consists of tens of thousands of taxis, tens of thousands of buses, one metro train line, and one metro bus line. Learning how to connect those four modes of transportation to get to my service-learning sites, university, downtown, the beach, friends’ houses, whatever, is the most liberating feeling one can ever experience. To be able to confidently navigate a city of 9 million is quite empowering. The ISA staff, host families, friends, kind women and men on the street, and police officers are always there to give you instructions.
Some believe that volunteer work should be conducted in one’s local community and country in order to effect real change. This Opinion Documentary from the New York Times is a great example of this point of view. As someone who volunteers in his local community in Lincoln and someone who has volunteered internationally, do you have anything to add to this discussion?
He brings up some excellent points. Why go abroad when there are problems at home you could be working on? Why not leave it up to the locals to be the voice? Let’s be honest, would we expect Peruvians to come to Nebraska to help us with the immigrants and refugees that are flooding in?
I like to call the idea he presented “voluntourism”. It’s a really dangerous trend that Americans are into. Actually, it’s an issue that I really considered before going to work in Lima.
I asked myself, “Who is really benefiting here?”
If the answer is just the locals… Don’t do it. If the answer is just you… readjust your priorities and try later. If the answer is both… Go!!!
It’s worth it to take some time, look deep inside yourself, and decide if you’re going to be a help or a hindrance while volunteering abroad. Nothing is worse than spending four months causing problems for a foreign non-profit.
It’s also worth taking the time to volunteer for a while on your own before you leave. Even if it’s not a super closely related field, it’s still valuable to have at least developed some skills. You need to grow before you go. Sorry for that annoying rhyme, but it’s true, though. You can’t give what you don’t have.
The learning curve is steep. Don’t waste time trying to get comfortable. Just go for it! The quicker you find your way around town, learn the necessary vocabulary, figure out peoples’ names, and identify your main goals, the less time you waste, which means you can really maximize the experience for others and for yourself.
So, before deciding to volunteer abroad, you really need to think about who you’re going to be serving – Others? Yourself? Both? You need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. The most important thing is to get ready to be challenged and have a blast!
What takeaways that you learned at La Casa de Panchita have you been able to apply to your volunteer work back home?
Upon my return home I’ve been able to apply what I learned while teaching English to Peruvians. I learned a lot about the common problems they have with grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, and I’m able to better teach Hispanics back home.
I also learned a lot about teaching kids. Kids take a special amount of patience, love, and understanding, but at the end of the day, the smiles on their faces are more valuable than anything you can imagine.
Most importantly, I came home with a profound feeling of thankfulness. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have gone abroad and help those wonderful people, for the memories I have, for the friends I made, and for their love and support.
Now that you’ve returned from abroad and you’re back on campus, what’s next for you?
Honestly, the possibilities are endless. After graduation I may go back to Lima, go to grad school, or get a job somewhere in Human Services field, but for right now, I plan to keep studying Spanish and Psychology, keep working with Lincoln Literacy, and keep advocating for immigrants’ and refugees’ rights.
The World Awaits…Discover it.