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Bologna, Bosnia, & Bonner Scholars
Bonner students may be eligible for summer funding to participate in the Summer of Service. Prior Bonner Scholars have acquired 200 + hour of community work while participating in the Italy Center’s summer session.
The photo was shot during the Italy Center’s Social Justice Tour to Bosnia. Pictured is Bonner Scholar Roy Colicchio, a Senior at The College of New Jersey. The forward thinking Bonner Foundation supports service and community-based research initiatives on 73 campuses across the United States. A number of Bonner schools have turned to the Italy Center for an overseas social justice experience for their students. Read Roy’s perspectives on service below.
Padre Marella, a shelter I have been volunteering at here in Bologna, has offered me the amazing opportunity to meet some people with life stories almost impossible for me to comprehend. I have talked to young men who had to flee a war-torn country, forced to leave behind all families and loved ones. Others have had to trust in luck, or fate, or God, while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a raft. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHRCR), more than 1500 refugees and asylum seekers drowned crossing the Mediterranean in 2011 alone. Still others whom I have met describe hanging onto the bottom of a freight truck overnight to cross a boarder and to reach a better life. Thankfully, my Italian skills have improved, many refugees have a good command of the English language, and interpreters are readily available at the centers to assist.
Since my freshman year at The College of New Jersey, I have participated in the Bonner Community Scholars program, logging hundreds of hours at The Rescue Mission of Trenton, a local full-service center for homeless and addicted local residents from the impoverished Trenton community. I’ve become comfortable with people and environments that are unfamiliar to most of my peers from the small, middle class and mostly white suburban community where I grew up. I chose the Spring Hill College Italy Center as my study abroad destination specifically because of its social justice and service-oriented focus, and I was confident that my experience over the previous years would set me up for a fairly easy transition into the Italian non-profit charitable community.
This, in hindsight, was not only foolish but also arrogant. When I first arrived in Italy, I didn’t know a word of Italian besides “Ciao.” By the time I first volunteered at Padre Marella, I had probably just about quadrupled my vocabulary. As if this wasn’t enough to make me nervous, I quickly was confronted with a volunteering culture entirely different than that with which I had become accustomed. In America, at least at the places I have encountered, volunteering is usually a very hands-on experience, such as going to a soup kitchen and serving meals in one’s free time. In Italy, my experience has been quite different and it’s made me reflect on the meaning of service.
The first thing that struck me was the difference in the populations served. At home, the primary clientele for the agencies where I have volunteered typically consists of people born and raised in the local community who have fallen upon hard times often related to drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and criminal behavior. In Italy, at least at the two sites whereI have volunteered, I encountered something entirely different. Most of the people looking for help are refugees, fleeing their home countries often because of war or political reasons, and seeking asylum in Italy. The countries and cultures where these people come from vary greatly, and I have met refugees from Africa to Asia to Eastern Europe. Perhaps it is this distinction that results in a different approach to service delivery. Here in Italy, it seems that the clients often define and direct the delivery of services, asking for specific aid rather than being told to enroll in this, that, or the other class or program.
While the clients I have encountered in Italy have not, by and large, been presented with serious substance abuse or mental illness, in many basic respects the nature of the service efforts were similar whether serving the homeless in American cities or refugees in Bologna. People need to be fed. People need a place to sleep. People need jobs. People need clothes. The ways to accomplish these basic goals are generally the same, even if the geography and culture are different. Looking back, I don’t know why I, or anyone, would be surprised by the similarities. Basic human needs don’t change because people have different backgrounds. A homeless man in Trenton requires many of the same things as a homeless refugee in Bologna.
My advice to anyone looking to volunteer abroad would be to not expect to see anything too “different.” While you may encounter different service strategies and different cultures, the needs and the goals are, in many ways, the same. You will get to know people who have been through some unimaginably difficult experiences and who continue to struggle on a day-to-day basis for survival, and you often won’t be able to do a thing about it but sit and listen, and maybe give them a hot meal a couple of times a week. And, just like you may have experienced while volunteering in America, the experience will leave you depressed by the state of our world, but also inspired–inspired that there are people all over the planet dedicating their lives to helping others. Inspired that people all over the world are struggling to improve their circumstances. I’ve learned not to refer to people at these centers as people “in need.” What do they need that you don’t? Do you not need food and a place to sleep? So come to Italy, learn, and do what you can to help. But don’t hang your head when you find the same problems here as you do at home. Don’t whine if your service site doesn’t offer you more ways to appease your conscience. Just get involved and take the opportunity to meet people, hear their stories and maybe help them in some small way to improve their circumstances. You won’t regret it.