Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember hearing mentors at NYU Abu Dhabi say that the golden rule of volunteer work was to be flexible. I was prepared, or so I thought.
Before arriving to the Future Centre For Children With Special Needs in Abu Dhabi as a volunteer intern, I attended a lengthy orientation led by experts in special needs education for children, read touching testimonials by previous student volunteers, and was full of energy and ideas. What could go wrong?
I was beaming as I stepped off the shuttle and through the gates of the center but as I walked into the classroom I felt instantly overwhelmed. My extensive preparation was rendered instantly useless. It was loud. Children were arguing. The teacher's assistant was frustrated. I did my best to adapt during the first couple of hours but couldn't help but feel like a colossal, useless nuisance.
You may not feel it, they may not be able to express it, but you have touched a child’s life.
That was then (a few months ago) and now I can't help but smile. The teacher and I are good friends, I know each of the boys by name, voice, and can quickly sort them by reading and arithmetic capabilities. I know what makes certain children laugh, who needs to be reminded to chew his lunch better, and who requires more of my praise and attention.
I smile because nothing sounds sweeter than the sincere, “Thank you, Mr. Sharif!” I receive every week.
All my early turbulent feelings are but a faint memory now and I wanted to tell this story as a reminder that you can never be fully prepared for anything in life, especially when volunteering with children with disabilities.
But now I know it's possible to make a difference, no matter how small it may seem. You may feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in the way of helping the child with their phonics or spelling, arithmetic or reading, eating or drinking, but trust me, you have left a mark that is more beautiful than words could ever hope to convey.