Ben Blanchard took some time out of his work with impoverished families in Guatemala City to reflect on his year of humanist service currently underway with Pathfinders Project.
No one who knows Ben Blanchard would be surprised to find him working among disenfranchised families in Guatemala. Service and activism have featured prominently in Ben’s life since grade school, from highway cleanups to peer counseling and eventually environmental and human rights advocacy, including extensive work with the LGBT community.
But it wasn’t until last year that his lifetime of commitment to service meshed at last with his atheism in the form of Pathfinders Project.
Ben learned about Pathfinders when a friend forwarded a blog post about it. He knew immediately that it was something he was going to do. “It was perfect. Since I was young, I wanted to do international service. Pathfinders combined my drive to help others with my desire to learn more about the world, all while allowing me to be an out atheist.”
Pathfinders is the first step toward an ongoing Humanist Action: Ghana, and this inaugural team has done a brilliant job laying that foundation, working in education, human rights, sustainable water, and poverty abatement projects in countries from Cambodia to Uganda to Guatemala.
“The experience that had the greatest impact on me was absolutely spending time with the alleged witches in Ghana,” Ben says. “To see how they continue on after having everything taken from them is amazing. When I think about how absurd their situation is, I feel so frustrated… It drives me to do more.”
He says his most inspiring moment was looking at the Guatemala City dump, where the poorest of the poor work by scavenging for things that they can sell as recycling or second-hand goods. “In this dump, the largest in the country, people routinely die, and more get sick and injured due to the dangerous working conditions,” he says. A few years ago, several families died when an uncontrolled methane fire obliterated the area. Now, hundreds of people work there every day, enduring one of the most difficult lives imaginable to survive. “The fact that people will go to such lengths to survive, and provide for their loved ones, is inspiring to me,” says Ben.
He was also deeply moved by his experience teaching science and math at a humanist primary school in Uganda. “Both subjects require critical thought and exploration, but the educational culture in Uganda is not conducive to that. It’s mostly focused on rote memorization. But after a few weeks, I started getting out-of-the-box thinking from the students. One who was always quiet and struggled asked me a question about space rockets, in a lecture where that question was a tangent at best. But after I answered it, he asked another, and another, and another. An hour-long class discussion of the history and philosophy of science, space, viruses, and more led to a major shift in my classes. They would ask questions, and were more engaged than I had ever seen them before. I know they continued to ask big questions after I left because the director of the school emailed me so that they could get answers to questions like why doesn’t the earth fall into the sun,” he says. “The idea that I was able to bring the joy of science, as a scientist experiences it, to a few dozen children who might otherwise not have ever been exposed to it brings me so much happiness.”
His students are not the only ones who have been changed. “I have definitely learned a lot more about myself,” he says. “I have found personal limits and new ways of coping with stress. I have learned that I am capable of thriving in areas I wouldn’t think I could and learned which luxuries I desire more—electricity more than internet, even more than running water)—and that I am fine without any of them. I also reaffirmed my need for better self care after a lengthy bout of malaria.”
His advice for future participants in the Humanist Action: Ghana is simple: “Enjoy every moment. Enjoy the moments when you are meeting new people, and you can’t understand what they say. Enjoy the moments when you are scared and lost. Enjoy the bad things as much as the good. If nothing else, it will make a fun story to tell later.”
Ben and the other humanist volunteers of Pathfinders Project will talk about their experiences at FBB’s Humanism at Work conference in Chicago, July 18-20. Learn more and register at www.HumanismAtWork.org.