Learning to Listen: My Volunteer Story
Laura Manni started as a volunteer with CMMB in New York and eight months later took on the job of manager of community engagement and communication. Here she shares her volunteer story and how she learned that the only way to make a real difference is to listen first.
A Brother Who Changed Everything
My brother has played a significant role in shaping the person I am, and the choices I have made. He’s a big part of who I am. Due to a lack of oxygen at birth, Franco did not develop like a typical child – he didn’t start walking until he was 3, he never learned to speak, and he still relies on others to meet his basic needs. I was almost 3 when he was born, and my older sister and I quickly adopted him – he was like a doll to us! We learned pretty early that the world did not revolve around us. As we grew up, we learned the values we lived. Gratitude, appreciation, and support in the service of others became themes in our lives.
There are many reasons why people choose to volunteer. Some people are motivated because they need to build up their resume, others because of an affiliation with a faith-based organization and many are moved to act because of an injustice or tragedy in the world, or their personal life.
For me, the two most significant volunteering experiences of my life have been prompted by personal challenges and tragedies. I came to CMMB as a volunteer because I lost my way. Uncertain of what to do next, I was invited to the office to offer help to the storytelling team. Writing had always been a passion, so the opportunity was ideal.
The most significant and life-changing volunteering experience I’ve had, however, was my involvement in setting up a school called Mukwashi Trust in Zambia,
Mukwashi Trust School
How did this happen?
I was living in the UK, engaged to Greg, working at the Institute of Education, University of London and making plans. Then, without warning, on the 10th of March 2006, my 29-year old, healthy fiance collapsed, and nine days later, after moments of hope and despair, he died.
The months following his death are a blur. I traveled haphazardly, found it hard to breathe, and felt broken. I could not find my way out of the darkness – part of me didn’t want to.
And then the opportunity to move to Zambia to help set-up and open a school was presented to me. At that time, I couldn’t locate Zambia on the map – but it didn’t matter because I wanted to be gone from where I was. Anywhere was better than where I was.
My plan was to spend three and a half months at this new rural school in Lusaka west. But seven years later I was still there. I learned a lot – but the most important lesson was about listening. It is easy to think we have the answers and to know what people need and want, but the only way to know for sure is by asking and listening.
You aren’t helping if you aren’t listening.
While I didn’t consciously know this at the time, Mukwashi Trust School brought me back to life. I think that’s what happens when you devote your time and attention to someone or something other than yourself. Without expecting anything in return, you get something you didn’t even imagine possible, something you maybe didn’t even know you needed.
A few months ago, a friend filmed an interview with Sekai, one of our Mukwashi Trust students in Zambia. All he said was, “Tell us about Laura Manni.” And she did.
I watched it back home in Canada – thousands of miles from Zambia. That’s when I realized that you can never really know the impact that you will have on the people you meet. Volunteering is not a one-way street. It is impossible to help someone without helping yourself. That is the true beauty of living a life in the service of others…or at least giving back.
The power of volunteering can be described, but the truth is that it’s best felt.