My Advice to HelpX Volunteers
I arrived on a sunny Tuesday I didn’t know what to expect other than it was a permaculture home. It was my first time volunteering on a family’s permaculture home. You don’t get to choose your brother’s and sisters unless the profile that led you here mentions you’ll be ‘one of the family’. It was time to found out how this family volunteer works and if we click.
Families have their habits and rules and my stay with Hemon and Katie in New Zealand was no exception. Some habits are hard to get used to, like limiting m internet to the daytime and no streaming. Breakfast would be muesli & porridge, lunch would be sandwiches, dinner would vary. Aside from that, I’d work at least five hours every day for two weeks.
The house is located near the Motueka river surrounded by mountains in a quiet eco-village. They have a garden and more land than they can get to. The house they designed themselves and helped with every stage of constructing it, while all living in a single room connected to the garage. Every aspect of the house was carefully weighed. It’s a north-facing house allowing it to capture as much sun as possible throughout the year. It’s inside living room walls are made of red adobe clay, which captures the day’s heat and releases it at night. In winter, the wood oven circulates the heat evenly throughout the floor of the entire base of the house. The roofs are angled with solar panel mounting in mind. In their pantry, they aimed to store several months worth of foods to be able to sustain themselves off the grid.
From there I started with the grimy work, pulling out gorse on a steep, hot hill. With every gorse I pulled out, I uncovered or spotted another hidden drove. With no end in sight, the first two days were exhausting and after each meal, I’d still be hungry; I’d supplement with my own food. Furthermore, I was expecting to learn something through this, and for the amount of work, I was doing. I was growing less appreciative and not too optimistic about this homestay. It didn’t help that my job on the third day consisted of menial tasks prepping the deck-to-be, collecting stakes and pouring concrete. I came here to learn about permaculture, not get stabbed by gorse and wet with concrete.
I almost left that week. Had I not gone for a walk the third night, stared at the gorgeous sun setting over the blue hills, this epiphany wouldn’t have hit me: Even if this homestay continues as it has, this is the perfect setting to teach myself if I were more ambitious. I made the decision to look at my first two day’s of work as the starting point of a larger project in my time here. What can I learn from those days, and where can I take it from here? The place was designed with permaculture in mind, and there are hundreds of potential projects to choose from, depending on what I want to learn.
I realized if I want to maximize my experience, I need to not only commit but to take the initiative. I began looking at this house as if it were my own, where would I devote my time?
With a sudden mindset change, everything became a source of learning. The neglected compost bins in the back which stood overgrown with cooch. This became my first project. The carpentry work needed for the patio project became another. It was challenging finding uses for the mountains of gorse I chopped down. Instead of seeing my first two days of pulling out prickly gorse as an unrelated side task, I saw it as the prep work for my contribution to come. Instead of asking the family ‘How can I help’, in order to earn my stay, I began asking what can I learn from? I don’t live as they do, but for two weeks I could.
I don’t know if they noticed, but to me, there was a drastic change. Maybe it was just my perspective. The work continued to be just as intensive, yet more fulfilling and I feel like they became more understanding and opened up to me. Since I told the family of my new plan, it opened the door for them to offer to teach me skills like using table saws, tile cutters to cut stones, bushwhackers to cut grass and carpentry tools. In those two weeks, I taught myself how to compost by experimenting on their bins, I started an experiment growing plants to stop a steep hillside from eroding, weaving gorse to keep the topsoil long enough for small plants to grow from seed.
I realize I could’ve had a completely different experience had I continued with my original expectations. My advice to those interested in volunteering: know why you’re going, for education, for food and a place to sleep, or whatever. Don’t beat around the bush, let your hosts know before you arrive. Take your experience into your own hands. If you’re there to learn, take the initiative, ask questions, and offer alternatives. If you find you’re not getting what you went there for, and your hosts are holding you back from it, then accept that not all hosts will be a good fit and leave early. Your time is valuable, value it!