Live Life Filled With Love: Nelson Interview

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Welcome to our very first Volunteer Interview, where we've had a chance to talk with Nelson Santos, a compassionate volunteer from USAinfo-icon. He's going to talk about the reasons that made him get into volunteering and his amazing and compassionate journey over the world.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, what’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Nelson Alexander Santos, I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, my heritage is of Cuban descent  I’m 33 years old, I enjoy doing yoga, meditation, working out and I have a positive outlook in life. Two years ago I decided to fulfil my lifetime goal and I decided to start volunteering around the world.  My purpose is to show kindness, help the needy, and try to bring hope to humanity.

2. What is your professional background and what did you learn originally?

My professional background has always been in sales and marketing in the telecommunication industry.

3. You have done some amazing volunteering, how did your journey start?

I was first inspired when I was working at AT&T. A lady came in from United Way and gave a short presentation asking us to donate money to their cause. She also showed us a video of volunteers working with the local communities. Shortly after, I was at home listening to the radio when an advertisement came on and it was talking about volunteering, and it mentioned the United Way.

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So I took it as a sign, and it motivated me to take the next step and I signed up with Hands On Miami through the United Way coalition. The following week I found myself volunteering in a farm share program and this became a catalyst that changed the course of my life. I’ve seen so many people willing to help, just out of pure kindness.

There was no other gratification or reward other than just the fact that they were helping somebody else in need, and this inspired me to live a life filled with love.

4. Please, tell us more about your volunteering experiences, what did you do?

Nelson with Buddhist monks.

At this point in my life, I have been doing this for over 10 years, I’ve done various volunteering activities. It ranges from landscaping, to repainting homes to organizing volunteer marches for causes like the AIDS Walk Foundation to going to animal shelters and taking care of dogs. You name it, I’ve pretty much done it all in this span of ten years now.

I can tell you the most interesting experiences now come from my travels around the world. One experience I always like to share was the one I had in Myanmarinfo-icon, where it’s essentially a place of refuge for the people who are sick, dying and cannot afford the basic necessities such as food and housing. They’re welcomed in the monastery, thanks to the monks who collect the alms (food or money) from the people in Myanmar. They give alms to the monks as part of the karma circle.

In short, with the money and the food that’s gifted to the monks, they’re able to take care of all the people that live there. As a volunteer, in the mornings I would walk around with the monks to help collect the alms and in the afternoons I was in charge of washing patients on a daily basis. My first day volunteering I encountered an elderly lady, covered in feces, who probably had not been bathed for quite some time; shortly afterwards, a young girl that was in close proximity started having convulsions, at which time I had to hold her until the shaking stopped, this was truly a breaking point for me, I had tears running down my face.

That was the most intense moment I’ve had thus far. That afternoon I spent the night reflecting on the realities of life and the suffering that we may have to endure. This was a pivotal moment in my life  and a learning experience that has made me emotionally stronger. I know I will encounter these events, if you will, or this kind of suffering again in my life.

This was the precise reason I chose to volunteer at the monastery, because I knew I would be exposed to the realities of life. Volunteering opportunities are more than just rewarding, they’re learning experiences.

They can change the way you look at the world, and the way you look at life.

5. How do you find opportunities and how do you choose the best for yourself?

I usually start looking through keywords (on Google), finding organizations, also asking friends and colleagues who know about volunteering  opportunities. I can tell you it was definitely a learning curve when it comes to international volunteering. You’re really not sure what to expect when it comes to volunteering for a person or organization in a country you have never visited.

I do a lot of research on the organizations, read blog posts from fellow volunteers, and find as much information as I can online. At this point, I’ve networked with quite a few people, I have been fortunate enough where people reach out to me now and I’ve been presented with numerous volunteer opportunities.

So it’s become easier for me, but for anybody who is just starting, it’s entails research, and reaching out to NGOs and CBOs (Non governmental organization , Community based organization). They may not respond to you right away, you need to understand they’re busy and this is probably why they need a volunteer to begin with, patience is virtue like my mom says.  

6. Did you have any trouble with administrative tasks (visa, flights, accommodation)?

I wouldn’t say any trouble in particular, just things that happen in real life. I missed a connecting flight in Indiainfo-icon because of the pollution in the area and had to spend the night in the airport. One time I misunderstood the use of my education visa in Thailandinfo-icon, and I was under the impression that I still had a few months left, however I found out by mere coincidence when I was trying to extend the visa, that I had to leave Thailand right away and my mom was coming to visit in the coming week.

So, I had to make a quick visa run to Cambodiainfo-icon.  When I arrived at the Cambodia/Thailand border I had another surprise waiting for me and the immigration official at first advised me that I would not be allowed back into the country. After negotiating with them for a few minutes the official informed me that my issue could be quickly resolved by handing over 1,500 Baht ($45 USD).

Whether you want to call it corruption, or bending of rules, money seems to do the trick when faced with this kind of situation. It becomes useful at times, whether you agree with the politics of the corruption in government or not.  

As far as accommodation is concerned when you’re volunteering, you go in there thinking the worst, and if you have running water or electricity you’re just thanking God that you have those basic necessities. I am not looking to stay in a five star resort. It’s just not the life I live.

7. How do you finance all your social activities?

As of right now, everything has been self-funded. I fund my travels through the sale of my shirts, my website or through various jobs online as a freelancer. I’m willing to do it all to continue travelling and pursuing my dream of volunteering full-time.

8. What does meaningful work mean to you?

For me, meaningful work happens to be volunteering, but for other people meaningful work could mean something else. Personally, meaningful work it is just something that makes me feel good, something that makes me feel like I’m living my life on purpose.

Some people may say, “Oh, you’re an amazing person,” or, “It’s great what you do.” I do it because I feel this is my calling in life. Currently my life goal or life purpose is building this volunteer community and to continue volunteering around the world.

9. What is the hardest thing about doing pro bono work in a foreign community?

I mean, I wouldn’t say there’s anything hard about it or implying it’s something that maybe I don’t enjoy. All of this is a learning curve. That’s the adventure. Going to a foreign community not knowing the language or the culture. I do come across some some obstacles (opportunities to grow). Everything can be fixed, if you will. I enjoy all of it! It’s just life. The adventure is part of the reason I do it.

10. What are the benefits of doing pro bono work, why are you doing this?

There are numerous benefits to doing pro bono work. For me, it gives me a chance to interact with other cultures and their customs. Many studies have also shown the numerous health benefits that come along with volunteering.  Again, I do volunteer work because it is self fullfiling. It’s as simple as that.

I’m glad that I can do something in life that makes me feel good and that helps others at the same time.

It wakes me up in the morning or rather, it gives me a reason to wake up.

11. What are your next plans?

Sharing the positive energy around people is the way you make positive changes.

Well, as far as my next plans…  I’m am heading to South/Central America, to continue volunteering around the world, bringing awareness to my volunteer community I have developed on Facebook and the next projects that go along with that.

Being able to share the amazing experiences of volunteering internationally with the rest of the world.  Inspiring others to volunteer and expose them to a different form of compensation other than the materialistic. Eventually, I’d like to take this to the next level, building my own volunteering teams where I can send groups of people to do a specific project or task, wherever help is needed.

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Building my brand, Smiling Times  is going to allow me to do this forever and it will help me to expand on the numerous other projects I have in the works. To continue to learn as much as I can in the volunteering spectrum, to be able to make this as accessible as I can for anybody in the world. Show everyone that it can be done , all you need is a willing heart.

If you want to check out Nelson's merchandise and learn more about his adventures, check out his website. If you want to find more volunteer opportunities, check out this Facebook group. Want to connect with Nelson? Contact him on Facebook!

Adrian Sameli founder and editor of
Travel mindfully to meet local people around the world and embrace new cultures. Get inspired and inspire others!