Sincronía Summer 2001

On becoming a social worker: The impact of my travels and volunteer work in Central America

Rich Furman, MSW, ABD
Colorado State University



Volunteering and traveling through Central America, I learned many lessons about what it means to be of help and service. These experiences directly led to my becoming a social worker and social work educator. More importantly, the impact of my nine months   spent as a young man in this beautiful yet tragically war torn isthmus continues to shape who I am as a person. Poetry is interspersed throughout the narrative to help the reader understand these experiences on an emotional level.

Key words: Becoming a social worker; Volunteer work; Central America



It is hard to pinpoint the start of one’s social work career. Does one’s first paid social service position mark the moment when one can define oneself as a social worker? Does it start upon graduating with one’s MSW? Some feel that they have been social workers their whole lives, and that formal training only codified and expanded their innate skills and sensibilities. Perhaps for each person it is different. I am not sure when I can say that I crossed that mythical line and could call myself a social worker. However, I learned many invaluable lessons pertaining to what helping and social work means while traveling through and volunteering in Central America in 1986. While other factors certainly have led to my developing the personal sensibilities, personality characteristics, and skills that have made social worker and social work education my career of choice, the magical period of 9 months I spent in Central America was perhaps the most seminal experience of my life. During this time, I learned many lessons about caring, service and change. In this narrative, I will document the internal subtleties of this life transforming experience. Along with narrative descriptions, I will intersperse poetry to help the reader understand these experiences on an emotional and symbolic level. While other methods are able to facilitate such an understanding, poetry is one of the most effective means of exploring such issues.

Choosing a journey or a journey choosing you

Some of the most important events that have occurred in my life have been complete surprises. Such chance occurrences lend shape to our dreams and notions of what is possible in the world. They challenge our narrow conceptions of existence, lending mystical and mysterious qualities to our day-to-day grind. They are our guides and teachers.

On a crisp and clear San Francisco night in the winter of 1986, I found myself one evening sitting upon my rooftop marveling at the view of the city I adopted as my home. My view was spectacular, a panorama as diverse as any one could imagine. Depending on the direction that I stood, I could marvel at the lights over the bay, the  long shadows caste by remarkable skyscrapers, the many hills dotted with old Victorians, and other wondrous vistas. This night, however, none of these marvels had much appeal to me. I was consumed with a line from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn that repeated itself over and over in my head. It demanded repetition; it linked itself to every neural loop that I could access. While the years have perhaps robbed me off the exact words, the sentiment remains is permanently etched in my consciousness. To paraphrase, the line that felt like my mantra that evening was: When you come to the limit of what is demanded of you, you reach the same problem, to be yourself.

These words had special meaning to me that night. They taunted me, daring me to look at that which I was not yet conscious of. A deep part of me knew that the life course I had mapped out for myself was not one which would actualize the person I was meant to be. Six months later I was to move back to Los Angeles, where I had grown up, to finish my degree at a college for professional photography. I was to learn how to be a studio photographer who would be able to land accounts from large advertising agencies. At the time, I worked as an assistant for several photographers, worked part time in a graphic arts house, and had many short-term jobs when money became tight. When I was not working, friends and I would wander the streets for hours photographing. My love was the photo essay. I had recently had a show of my best work, "The people of a neighborhood bar," a photo essay of dark rich shadows that portrayed the friendships and moods of working class San Franciscans. While my show received some critical acclaim, my family had convinced me that if I wanted to make a living as a photographer, I should attend a commercial school and do my "art" on the side.

I considered these things, the context of my life, as I stood on the roof.  My mantra again demanded recitation. Suddenly, it became clear that to be myself, I could not live the vision others had for me. I realized that I would not be moving to Los Angeles, would not attend the glamorous photography school, and would be coming to the end of a clearly demarcated period of my life. I knew that I was finished living in San Francisco, and that my days as a photographer were coming to an end. I did not know why any of this was so, but I knew these thoughts were pure truth.

I lay down on the roof, closed my eyes, and allowed unknown possibilities to dance in my head. I had I visions of myself wandering a countryside, speaking a language that was not my own. I had a strong visual memory of a recent peace demonstration I had attended in solidarity with the people of Guatemala. I smiled to myself; I knew I would be there in a matter of days.


The worst of all

My one-day jobs

Was for Time/Life

Selling "interest books"

-- Or so they were called --

Subjects:  life,  the wind, the wild west,

Shoot out at the o.k. corral,


(I suspected they had

already written WW3).

By noon I sold six sets,

A first morning record.

Leaving for lunch

Feeling just short of dangerous

Having manipulated

The lonely, the miserable

The jobless, the sick

Midmorning gameshow fans

Into buying trash they hoped

Would be their ticket to sophistication

And the good life.

I sold them denial and sadness

Cash on delivery,

Wasted trees that would lie

Dead on cracking formica coffee tables.

I walked into the crisp San Francisco breeze

Through the crowds on Market street:

Everyone looked so alive.

I called to have my morning commission

Sent to my P.O. box.

Jobless and free

I packed my bags

And left for Mexico

The next morning

Before sunrise.


Movement towards the border, movement towards myself

Riding buses from one end of Mexico to the other gives one lots of time to think, and think I did. The main train of thought was this: how do I actualize this sense of being true to myself- what would this truly mean? While I knew that much of what it meant to be a photographer was not to my liking, there were aspects of it I found immensely fulfilling. While I enjoyed the artistic aspects, and the craft of long hours spent in the darkroom, I easily could leave these things behind.

Another aspect had a far greater appeal. During the months that I had photographed the folks in Antonelli’s bar,
I had felt a deep sense of connection to them. I thought back to the laughter, the hours of sharing jokes and tales of our lives. I remembered a man approaching sixty confessing his struggles with his wife. In my mind, I still could see the look on his face- total resign to his own frailties and shortcomings. I recalled buying someone dinner for their birthday, and the gentle wink of thanks he gave me.

Riding on a bus just north of the Guatemalan border, I realized that it was the people and my connections to them that made photography such a gift. As a photographer, I was invited into the lives of others to which I normally would not have had access. People shared with me when I photographed them. They seemed to tell me things they were not willing to tell others. I had thought that it was a function of the safety of my being a stranger, of being an "other" sufficiently distanced by a box of metal and glass. I had always thought that somehow my being only transient in their lives allowed the safety of disclosure and revelation.

I realized though, that I had been wrong. It was the fact that I had cared for them more than I cared to take their picture. I found their stories and lives more interesting than their images. I found their pain, and their willingness to share it, more inspiring than my craft. Their strength to overcome life’s hurdles filled me with will to labor   long hours in my darkroom. Somehow, I realized, I wanted my life work to be about this kind of connection. How this could happen, I still did not know.

The Border

When you cross that mile stretch

Of brown sterile earth,

Lifeless save for yucca and anorexic dogs,

When your mind flips between visions

Of Mayan mystical gurus

That might heal your sickest seeds

And the desolation that shifts under your feet,

The desolation of everything you left behind,

Between photographs of the death squad disappeared

(Black bars over cigarette burnt eyes)

And eternal volcanic cones

Reaching towards a point of pureness

That doesn’t seem to exist below,

And each step brings you further

From what you thought was you

And closer to what you thought wasn’t

You,  passport clutched

Like a life vest to your chest,

Your shots, visas, travelers’ checks and dreams

Don’t prepare you

For confronting the emptiness you feel

As you approach the hill

Towards the border.

Mexican blues become Guatemalan vapor.

The dirt covers your shoes

Your shoes are your heart

You clutch your travelers’ checks.

It doesn’t seem to help.


Early in my trip, I visited the great Mayan ruins of Tikal. Located deep within the jungles of the Peten, Tikal was one of the great Mayan civilizations, mysteriously disappearing long before the conquest of Spain. Even the most jaded of traveler stands in awe of the grandeur and vastness off Tikal's towering structures. Not only are the sheer beauty and magnitude of its pyramids breathtaking, but its setting seems otherworldly. Sitting on the top steps of one of the largest pyramids, I was able to see for miles. The jungle overwhelmed each of my senses. The smells, sounds and sites of this mystical place triggered deep feelings and a profound sense of oneness with the world. In my mind, I compared the splendor of this view to the one I described atop my old roof in San Francisco. Both magnificent, both so very different. Yet, as I sat on the worn, ancient rock steps of the great temple, I realized that in a very real sense, the beauty and magic of each was depended on how I viewed them. Had I been sad or depressed, the jungle could easily have seemed to be a lonely, empty place.

In this moment, I stated to learn the key tenant of constructivism, a theory that has been one of the most impactful in my social work career: We see the world not how it is, but how we are. A famous quote from Zen also expresses this sentiment well: Wherever you go, there you are.


Watch out below

The trees covered with green vines

Formed ladder steps of jungle dreams.

You climb to the roof of the jungle, the ceiling

Of the universe, it seems.

Each careful stop taking you out of yourself,

Into the void you have forgotten.

Parrots, bright flapping emeralds, fly by

As common as pigeons,

Or monkeys.  Lions roar

As often as city dogs.

The tops of the palms form a bushy horizon

Extending forever.

There are no desk jobs  here

No fast food burgers

Or styrofoam flavored coffee.

No artificial flavored life

Or add water and mix existence.

No need for thought

Or fantasy.

The call of humans below imploring me to descend

Sounds insane.

The siren of reason

Casts death hand long shadows

Masking the face

Of what really is.

Nicaragua libre, yo libre (Free Nicaragua, free myself)


I spent three week in a small town in Nicaragua on a construction brigade. It was organized by a Swiss relief agency. Some Swiss students I met while taking a bus across Honduras invited me to spend some time working with them. They were constructing a school for a small village in the north of the country, close to he war zone, and welcomed any help they could get. They assured me that my lack of construction skills would not be a hindrance, that additional labor was always appreciated.

The leader of the project noticed my muscular build, of which he took full advantage, along with my earnest desire to help. I sent hours each day moving bags of cement, wood and other building materials. This was all that was expected of the volunteers, some hours of honest work. For this, I daily received the most heart-felt thanks from the locals, who treated me like a hero. I usually stopped to take a siesta after a late lunch, and rarely worked past my nap. In the late afternoon, the locals and those with construction skills would work on putting up frames and walls for several hours more.

I would sit in the town square and play with the children. I sang to them the few Spanish songs that I knew. I told them stories about growing up in Los Angeles. I described what it felt like to  dig sand crabs at the beach and wiggle one’s toes in sand. I told them about Disneyland, which caused their eyes to widen with wonder and joy.

They would ask me questions about the United States, which seemed as unfamiliar as Mars, yet as close as the TV reruns that they periodically saw. They wondered what life in a large city was like. Trying to describe to them what it was to live my life, to be me, was infinitely difficult. Our worldview and frames of reference were so radically different. I spent many hours learning who they were, learning about who they wanted to be. What they saw as possible for themselves was based upon what they learned to value as important, and possible.

As I listened to them, I paid witness to the voices in my own head. I found myself wanting to give suggestions and advice based upon my life experiences, not theirs. I found myself wanting them to stay in school, to set limits and boundaries with their parents, to follow their dreams and visions. It became painfully clear to me, that the filter through which I viewed their developmental struggles was that of a profoundly American, deeply individualistic, young adult. What was the relevance of my solutions to their lives? This was a painful, and sobering question. From this experience, I started to learn both the power and difficulty of true empathic understanding. To help one change, one must understand what it is like to be the other, to think, feel and live the way they do. To suggest change, or even suggest conditions that might be changed, without deep understanding only leads a sense of being judged.

Nicaragua Libre

Remember sleeping on a wooden plank

They called a bed

Each morning stiffer than death

My days in Nicaragua Libre

Roaming the countryside

More hope than I had ever had

More dreams than I ever allowed

And it was good

Quiet enough to hear my heart

Being just past twenty alone and

Sad but so alive and so desperate

To find something real

Holding others'  triumphs so close

That I forgot they were not mine

Singing songs I barely understood

Borrowing heroes

For the blistering head

Walking miles under revolution’s sky

Soldiers passing me

As I walked from to town to town

They waved and danced and sang

They seemed so much

Younger, or maybe older,

Than I

And at night

When the parrots sang songs

Teasing me with olive goddesses

Igniting my world aflame

It seemed eternal

Time stood still

For us to laugh in the face

Of never

To cry from merely

Looking off into the wind

So clear about the truth

So certain

My team

Was going to win the game.

Antigua, Guatemala

Rosy Conde was the director of the school where I studied Spanish. Rosy was one those few, special people who are truly "all heart." Kind and generous to a fault, Rosy gave and gave until she was spent. When she was done giving, she gave more. She saw being the director of Escuela Arco Iris, a Spanish language school in Antigua Guatemala, as the vehicle through which to support her true love, the children who lived at Hospital de Pedro Hermano. The hospital was the home of disabled children who had either been abandoned by their families, or whose families were  not able to care for them. While Rosy said that she gave ten percent of the tuition that she received, I suspect that she actually gave considerably more. The school also served the function of providing volunteers to help feed and clothe the children. When a new student was enrolled, Rose rushed them to hospital to meet the children long before they even had their first lesson.

I remember walking into the hospital for the first time, through the heavy wooden doors, into the plant covered Spanish style courtyard where older children played ball. I remember my being afraid, not of what I was going to see, but of what I was going to do, of what my role should be. Was I there to help them? What could I do for a child with one arm and one leg? I recall feeling highly self-conscious of my own relative wealth. What I could make in a year could feed many of these children for a lifetime.

Both moved and disturbed by what I saw and felt, I felt compelled to return to the hospital each day. I played soccer with several of the boys, fed some of the more disabled children, and taught English to a teen that loved to learn. Each day that returned, I felt more at ease and had fewer questions in my mind about my own utility. As I became humbled and comfortable with the fact I would not magically transform any of their lives, and that this was not what was expected of me, I began to relax and was able to be more myself. I began to joke more. I began to rely on the wisdom and healing of laughter. I believe I learned to recognize the true meaning of enlightenment: to lighten up.

I spent countless hours with many different people during those four months. I would make rounds and spend time and help whoever seemed to be in the most need that day. Who was in pain? Who was lonely? Almost never did anyone ever express these needs to me directly. Instead, teenage boys would playfully tease me. The more needy they were, the more acerbic were there words.

Of all the children and adults that I had spent time with, I spent the largest part of my time with two in particular: Leo was a 35-year-old paraplegic, and Juanita, a six-year-old girl with polio. Leo had lost his legs to infections when he was a child. After his mother died when he was in his early 20’s, his father, who had developed a severe problem with alcohol, dropped him off at the hospital one night. He sent his time lying in his gurney, playing cards and socializing. Leo took an immediate interest in me. What a difficult time he had understanding how I could give up my work as a photographer. He seemed concerned for me, as if I would never again find another job. He was also concerned about my traveling alone, my not being married, and my having not communicated with my family for some time.

Through his expressions of concern, Leo taught me much about himself. His concerns for me were a mirror of his own personal concerns and struggles. Leo viewed his own life as presenting few possibilities. He was profoundly lonely and possessed a deep desire for intimate contact. He also deeply missed his mother, and had strong, complex feelings about his own family. I slowly learned to pay attention to the undercurrents and subtleties of communication. Leo taught me that in order to express one’s pain to another demands a great deal of trust and vulnerability.

Instead of confronting Leo on these unresolved conflicts, I engaged him dialogues about these issues. At first, we focused on his concerns for me. While I understood that in a formal helping relationships my life clearly could not be the focus, I realized how valuable it was for someone to be able to be able to discuss their pains at a safe distance, approaching them slowly and with care. It became clear how important one’s defenses are to their well being, even their survival. I also realized that at times, self-disclosure is essential, as it allows those we are helping to experience our humanity. We become far more authentic, real, and trustworthy.

In time, I also came to put aside my fantasies about helping. I was humbled by the complexity Leo’s problems, problems that I was not trained to understand or work with. Slowly, I let go of the protective façade of knowledge, and embraced the humility of being guided by human needs. I slowly learned the powerful social work principle of starting where the client is.

As previously stated, I was also deeply moved by the time I spent with Juanita, a beautiful child with soulful eyes and a contagious, loving smile. Instead of telling our story, I present the following poem, which captures the essence of my experience.


I was only 21,

But you called me father, papá in Spanish.

You, Juanita, stricken with Polio,

Your face and limbs

Dangle to the side like

discarded threads,

or the discarded child that you once were.

Each day that I came to visit you,

You screamed Papá,

And asked me to walk with you,

Hold up your frail body

As we made laps  around the decaying courtyard

Of this hospital that is your home.

I fed you each day for four months

Each bite you swallowed down

A painful victory

And reminder of the cruelties of existence.

We never spoke of the future

We both knew all too well.

When it was time for me to return,

To leave,

That the realities of our worlds

Would never be the same.



The impact of my travels and volunteer work in Central America did not stop when that adventure ended. In fact, the impetus for writing this narrative was a recent trip to Guatemala. For ten days, I interviewed people about the impact that volunteering in Guatemala has on volunteers, the people of the country and on the nature of various social structures and institutions. Knowing the impact that my volunteer experiences have had on me, I have long wondered if other volunteers experienced have similarly profound experiences. Also, I have wondered how my volunteer efforts have effected others. While the results of this research are not fully analyzed, and will be covered in more depth in a future article, I would like to share several impressions and thoughts.

I met many people on my last trip who either came to Guatemala to volunteer, or decided to volunteer once they were there. Each was also profoundly impacted by their experiences. Some gained clarity about what they wanted to do, while others learned important values or had existing ones solidified. One woman I met was a peace corps volunteer who just finished her language training, and was about to start on her two year commitment. She is going to work in a nearby town with youth who are at risk for drugs and criminality. She was excited and scared, but hopeful that she can make a difference. I asked her how she would help, and she was not certain, but hoped that somehow she would. She also knows that even if she was not able to help all the children, that she would be able to at least connect to a few. This reminded me off an ancient expression from Judaism "She who saves one life, saves the world." She was also certain that the experience would change her. There was a depth to her face when she said these words. She reminded me of myself many years ago. There is an openness that comes from such a radical shift in one's life. Far away from home, without any concrete plans for the distant future, the foreign volunteer is open to all the possibilities that the universe has to offer. Sitting next to her, on a bench in Antigua’s lovely town square, I looked up at the Volcano that towered above us. I thought to myself, whatever she learns and does, there must be something good that will always come from such openness and wonder.

I know that a place and a time will never again affect me as that first sojourn to Central America. While I can never go back and recapture the experiences and adventures that I had, I can remember the lessons that I learned as I reflect on them. I can try to embody them in my daily work. Mostly, I can smile and thank that lovely isthmus and its remarkable people for helping me become the person I am today, and the person I will become tomorrow.

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