This article was originally written by Winrock International.
Cliff Wener is a food service, food processing and hospitality expert from Winnetka, Illinois. Over the last 12 years, he has lent his time and expertise to Winrock International and other organizations on more than 20 different volunteer assignments around the world. Most recently, Cliff volunteered with Winrock’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in Bangladesh, where he worked with a local food processor to improve food handling and safety practices, introduce new products and recipes, and increase overall productivity and profit. By strengthening food processors, volunteers help create better markets and income for farmers and new jobs for the unemployed. Winrock staff talked with Cliff about his past experiences and passion for volunteering. Some of his thoughts are included in the following interview.
What keeps you going back to volunteer?
It’s an opportunity to make a difference on a very personal level. Despite what you read in the newspapers about hostilities between one country and another, the everyday person just needs to get up and go about daily living of providing for family and raising children – just like me in the U.S. It’s really a good opportunity for people to show one-on-one that whatever you read in media, Americans are good people. And for me, I can come back and say, “Okay, the average people from [X country] are good people trying to get through life and make things happen.” People-to-people is what it is all about. My [volunteer] experiences are so rich for me personally, and being able to share the experience with family and colleagues is wonderful thing.
How have your assignments made a difference in your own life?
From a personal point of view, it is an unbelievable opportunity to see what the world is all about. There are approximately 160 million people living in Bangladesh, and up until a couple of months ago, I had no clue. The world is a big place. But now I see things related to countries I’ve been to, and it makes me a better citizen and helps me understand the world and U.S. politics better.
Do you keep in touch with your host organizations? [Host organizations are the organizations that receive volunteer support]
Sometimes I keep in touch with my hosts, and that is a great part of this. It is great if you can see where the host is going, what they tried, what they didn’t try, what has been successful, what hasn’t been successful. Once in a while I’ve gone back to the same country and worked with or visited the same host, and it’s great to see how they are doing. Even if they took one out of your 100 ideas and are running with it, it’s good to know.
Have any of the assignments caused you to do anything differently once you returned?
Never assume. This sticks out [to me]. Everyone comes to the party with different experiences and assumptions. I do a lot of food safety training. Everyone in the U.S. is concerned about keeping clean, and everyone has hand sanitizer, and the grocery store has wipes. And then I come to another country, and I’ve been on assignments where I haven’t had hot water. Coming from the U.S., we have a whole set of assumptions. In my life, when I approach trainings, I talk about what happens in other countries, and I think that presents a more sensitive case on problems and different solutions to the same type of problem.
What advice would you give someone considering volunteering?
Number one, you have to be flexible. A lot of times, the hosts don’t know what their own problems are, or what they say is the problem is not really the root problem. You need to take a 360-degree viewpoint when you come. Recognize that it isn’t necessarily going to be exactly what you thought was going to happen or what you prepared to do.
Why should people consider volunteering?
I think it’s an opportunity, one on one, to make a difference. People really appreciate it. From a personal point of view, it’s a rich and rewarding experience, and if you like to travel, it’s a great way to do so. The saying “teach a man to fish” is trite but still meaningful.