The Revolving Door of Volunteers

One of the bookshelves in the Jesuit Volunteer house in Tacna. Handprints from past volunteers are painted in different colors on the wall behind it.
Hand and footprints of past Jesuit Volunteers decorate our little library.


About three months left of my time as a JV here in Peru and my students act as if I’m leaving tomorrow. 

In fact, sometimes they act as if I have already left: 

“Miss, ¿Cuando vas a regresar a visitarnos?” – When will you return for a visit?

Sometimes a fourteen-year-old will ask me something like: “Miss, will you come back when I’m grown and have my own kids here, in Miguel Pro?” In my head ten years will flash before my eyes and, suddenly, here is my student standing before me as an adult, with the same goofy, shy grin on their face. Tears will come to my eyes as I imagine this future before me and I am lost in a place of “what-ifs” and endless possibilities, transported to a time when I can visit this beautiful place once more—and then of course the same fourteen-year-old decides to tackle a larger fifteen-year-old and reality comes crashing back in as I pry them apart from each other. 

The students of Colegio Miguel Pro grow up with foreigners just like me in their school. From the age of three, they are exposed to heavy accents and foreign faces. They can tell me countless stories of Jesuit volunteers in the classroom, teaching, learning, and failing spectacularly. They delight in revealing volunteer’s most trying moments, which have often ended in tears of frustration and exhaustion (the volunteer’s, of course) when no control could be had over 30 rambunctious twelve-year-olds. In some ways, it’s challenging for anyone in this community of Miguel Pro and Habitat to imagine a reality without volunteers in their midst. You can stop the majority of the inhabitants of this neighborhood and ask them, “¿la casa de las voluntarias?” and they’ll point you to the correct block, and the little house with it’s shedding blue paint, and tenacious “plant” (weed) growing in the dirt beside it. 

Three generations of Jesuit volunteers stand around Faith and sing her happy birthday as she sits at the kitchen table. There is a fruit tart with a lit candle in front of her.
Three generations of JVs celebrate a birthday!

 There are legends in the neighborhood and in the school, names of JVs past who have left a deep imprint on the memories of Habitat’s inhabitants, often because of their distinct personalities— anything from driven, intense natures to bubbly laughter and contagious joy. It’s beautiful and inspiring, and at the same time you can’t help but compare your own presence in the community to those who came before you. 

Am I doing enough? Am I being present?… Yikes, volunteers before me achieved more than I ever will during my time here… Will someone remember me when I am gone?

We are a revolving door of volunteers. We give two years of our lives and just like that we are gone. It is easy to begin questioning your own worth and feel replaceable when you know you are just another grain of sand on the shore or one more drop in the bucket. But what of the people we leave behind? 

One student shared with me that the hardest part of knowing the volunteers is saying goodbye.  They can’t stand that we come and go as we do, perhaps never to be seen from again. To us, this may be a two year stint, but to our students? These can be the most important and formative years of their lives.  We, as volunteers, come ready to give every ounce of love we have inside of us, safe in the knowledge that this intense experience is only temporary. 

“I will have no one to talk to when you are gone, Miss Camila”

“Someone else is coming, more divertida, who will love you just as much,” I usually reply.

“Yes, but it won’t be the same”

It won’t be the same. Not for this student and definitely not for me. It’s only two years, I thought to myself when I arrived, so little time. But Tacna grabbed me by the soul and hasn’t let go. Where once there was a revolving door, spinning out of control, I see something else. Now there is a tree that inches its way out of this dry, Tacneñan earth. Its roots are the very first homes built by Peruvian hands with the Habitat for Humanity project. Its trunk is the mission of Padre Fred, JVC, and my neighbors. Out there among the branches and the leaves are the countless generations of volunteers like me, intertwined with hundreds of faces of Miguel Pro students and others who have been formed and shaped by our inexperienced, yet passionate, hands. We are a living and breathing legacy. The volunteers come and they go, but no one in this experience—neither Peruvians nor foreigners—remains unchanged.

Hannah and I walk with neighbors during the via crucis, the stations of the cross walk around the neighborhood. Hannah helps carry the giant cross.
Taking part in the neighborhood tradition of vía crucis.

The cyclical nature of a volunteer’s service time is what keeps this rich and profound experience alive. Those who came before me once wove their leaves into this canopy of memories and history. Right now, they may just be a name written on a wall or a face in a photo album, but when they were here, they lived just as intensely as I do now. One day soon, I too will only be a name, a memory of what once was. While change may be difficult, and goodbyes are always a challenge, transition is what keeps the energy and vitality of the JVC program alive here in Tacna, Peru. 

I cannot wait to embrace the next step as another leaf adds itself to this tree and a new volunteer weaves their way into this rich tapestry I call Habitat. 

Originally published at

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