Confessions of a Serial Humanitarian #6: How to be a Humanitarian

After seeing so many disaster zones, you begin to rely more and more on your roots to guide you. Desensitization sets in, cynicism can slowly infiltrate your mind and blur your vision, but your roots remind you that exercising your compassion will ultimately help you win the day. This mentality has helped guide me through the lows that creep up. 

Making a disaster zone your office, whether paid or volunteer, is exhausting. Here’s why:

  1. You will almost never feel in control. Say goodbye to your comforts from home because chances are you won’t find them where you’re going. If being in control is an element to your personality, then consider being more flexible. Programs expand, they shrink, they shut down, they open, they re-open. The sooner you let go of any urge to control, the better you will handle this environment. You can, however, sneak a bit of control through leading teams. This is an excellent way to build interpersonal skills and put your little stamp on the project.
  2. It can be very thankless work. Volunteers get thanked a lot so this doesn’t apply for most of what I do. This is more of a mind game for paid staff members though. They are the ones that have to do damage control/put the fires out and people rarely notice purely because they are getting paid. This weird expectation arises when people get paid. In my mind, volunteers have shown me to be some of the hardest workers out there. This might be because as a volunteer, you typically stick to the tasks you want to perform. In a paid position, there will be things you like to do and things you do not like to do that are part of your job description. The one constant through thick and thin is that staff members do a lot of thankless work in the gutters. Give them a hug once in awhile.
  3. Your entire operation can be shutdown at the whim of a penstroke. Sometimes it seems so unfair, but other people make those decisions. This also ties in with never feeling in control. Money makes things happen. When organizations are perennially poor, creativity in spending is a desirable asset. Obviously non-profit organization look to make the biggest impact possible over the longest period of time. Impact over time is directly influenced by budget allowances. Look into creative ways of fundraising, like building a boat.
  4. You are always on the treadmill of saying goodbyes to communities, fellow volunteers or influential people. At first, this is a shock to the system, but gradually you get used to it. If you are someone that gets emotionally invested in people in a matter of minutes, this could be crushing. Tackle this by leaving things open ended. Perhaps a ‘see you later’ is more fitting. I have run into so many familiar faces again, that the word goodbye has been pushed out of my vocabulary I’m pretty sure.

But it’s not all negative. And it’s not all exhausting. In my opinion, being in the world of disaster response is your best chance at giving yourself a chance at winning. And I mean winning at life. Not winning financially. You will probably never be financially secure. Put it this way, if being rich is important to you, this field is a questionable choice. You’re probably curious how i make this happen financially. Since we’re on the topic, no I am not a trust fund kid, I spend my summers in different parts of Canada in the silviculture (treeplanting) industry. I’ve progressed from being a treeplanter, to being a crew boss, to being a logistics manager. It’s freaky how transferable the skills are between a treeplanting camp and a disaster zone. I don’t know what that says about a treeplanting camp. So back to winning at life:

  1. It’s your chance at being on the right side of history. You do this by showing selfless devotion to a cause without any or marginal financial gain. It’s unbelievably easy to get defeated while listening to the news and hear the umpteenth thing going wrong in the world, I definitely struggle with this. But you can fight back and be part of a movement of positive change. When you are open and willing to be part of a movement like this, great things will happen to you and you’ll never understand how or why.
  2. It’s your chance to inspire others. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me about volunteering, or about how to get involved, I wouldn’t have to tree plant anymore. The outpouring of interest is beyond what I expected and that’s awesome. More people are waking up to the possibilities.
  3. It’s your chance to test out your education. So tree planting never stimulated me academically. I was on the hunt for something that could both satisfy my hunger to expand my knowledge and experience base in a disaster-prone world, and something to satisfy an urge to get my hands filthy. The organizations that I have volunteered with have been pretty spot on with that balance. The field of disaster relief work keeps you on your toes. The future of disaster relief looks promising with independent volunteers working alongside with smaller NGOs and both of those parties working alongside larger INGOs. Sure the aims and the methods of execution will vary greatly and may cause friction, but having an arena where all players can cooperate on some level is exciting and gives me lots of hope.
  4. It’s your chance to test out everything that would make your average person uncomfortable. In my mind, this is the bread and butter. A comfort zone exists to let us know we are human and that certain things are risky or dangerous. I’m not advocating that we should all strap on our flying squirrel suits and become base jumpers tomorrow, but what I am saying is that maybe it’s time to have a look at your comfort zone and to see if you can nudge yourself slightly past it. Staying within your comfort zone is the status quo. That is completely ok if you don’t get anxious about how you may be limiting yourself. If you do get anxious, and are looking for potential avenues to to expand your comfort zone, then drink up everything i just wrote in this blog series and see you in the field!

What will I be doing next? I have no clue. My tolerance for uncertainty has increased 100-fold since volunteering. Sudden-onset disasters don’t just forecast themselves years in advance. I do know that I received an open invitation to go to Puerto Rico to assist with the clean up efforts after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Cleaning up after the floods in Peru or checking out what is coming out of Bangladesh and the Rohingyas fleeing Rakhine province in Myanmar may be a logical next step. I’ve toyed with the idea of returning to Nepal or Greece again since those areas are still quite active. I’ve also considered being a logistician with MSF since a few friends have gone that route and have told me their tales. I have too many things I want to accomplish. I do now know, through lots of trial and error, that pacing myself is a skill, not a weakness. So spending some time in Canada with friends and family, is exactly what the doctor ordered for right now.

Patrick McBride, Guelph IDS graduate (2011), reflects on his life in multiple disaster and crisis zones in the Philippines, Greece, Nepal and the United States over the last four years. In this six-part series, Pat shares his unique experiences rebuilding homes and hope in some of the worst crises of our century. If you have questions for Patrick, he can be reached at, or follow his adventures on Instagram: @sea.nugget