Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Nichola Villiamson on her social project in Vietnam working with street children

Picture:Nichola with the children she was looking after
Well where do I begin with this description of my first volunteer project at the age of 37!Perhaps a good starting point would be with the months leading up to the project as this [I believe] assisted in the whole success of the project. Well here goes……

Once I had decided to undertake a project I had to perform the daunting task of a web search to find a suitable organisation. As can be imagined the search found hundreds of thousands of sites. For me important factors included a friendly organisation and one that when I emailed or rang them were always there to help me and to answer any of my concerns. Spending a weekend with the organisers and other volunteers was particularly useful. I had the opportunity to talk to people and found that we all had the same concerns and excitement about planned projects. Learning about other projects on offer was very good also and being able to talk to host organisers gave me confidence to think of other countries that I had perhaps at first thought best to avoid. The weekend definitely gave me a taste of things to come (but can I stress only a taste as nothing can truly prepare you for the actual work experience).

Travelling alone at first seemed exciting but as the day approached I experienced waves of nervousness if not nausea! I did not really want to travel alone but when it came down to various people who wanted to come with me on the project but unfortunately did not end up committing in the end for various reasons: it was a case of ‘go on your own or not at all’. I am so glad now that I did this first project on my own as I believe this made the whole experience unique and I developed people skills that at my age I didn’t think I had!!!

The journey itself was long and tiring! I wish I could put into words how nervous I was the days leading up to my departure from the UK. The feeling of being many miles away from my family and friends and going to do something I had never done before was overwhelming. How many times I had gone over scenarios in my head typically starting with the words “what if”!!! Travelling on my own was a whole new experience to me also but to be honest I met so many people on my journey to and from Vietnam that I believe I wouldn’t have spoken to if I was travelling with others. I quickly discovered how many people actually travel alone and are eager to talk to you. The planning of my journey involved some form of ‘mental’ criteria being met and I was glad I planned well. For example I made sure I landed in Hanoi during the day and not at night. I had arranged with the host for collection from the airport and I felt reassured when I saw the taxi driver with my name on a card. Unfortunately when I arrived at the youth house there wasn’t anyone to meet me. I no this is a negative point to raise but is something that other volunteers from other organisations had experienced. A positive point was that we just got on with it and were fine. In fact that first night we sat eating scones, butter and jam that I had brought all the way from England (trust me it was a great ice breaker!!)

Being immersed in the true culture of Vietnam was out of this world. We see poverty portrayed in the media etc but to truly understand how this must feel is something else when you are actually living it. It was hard to get accustomed to such poverty but you would be surprised how quickly you adjust and definitely having a positive outlook on life and the experience helped. Also appreciating that our way of life is so different to other communities and not expecting too much of our very indulgent lifestyles to be upheld on our chosen ventures!! Days of no running water certainly makes you appreciate what we have here!!

My project was working with street children but I was fortunate enough to have met a Vietnamese teacher who took me to a Pagoda housing 55 orphans. This was great as any free time I had I went to do some work there too. Praying with Monks was something else and so many tiny babies to cuddle. The general organisation of my work load and timetable was structured by the host lead. It was reassuring that the teaching sessions and daily job allocation was written on a wall planner. This gave all the volunteers the chance plan ahead. Working with the children that involved cooking or teaching was so wonderful. The children were so great and accepted us into their lives. Emotionally it was exhausting and involved periods of tears falling and bursts of laughter but each night reflecting on a truly unique magical experience.

I thought I would end this paper by trying to reflect on a question that I have been asked so many times and am still struggling to answer. “Why volunteer in the first place” answers that I had read from other volunteers included “do good work”, “to be able to give something back”. For me I don’t know why I wanted to be part of this other than I wanted to do something useful…..even if it was for only a short period of time. I truly believe I contributed to something unique in this mad world. The emotional journey I went through in two weeks was extraordinary and I learnt so much about myself and other people. I now feel inspired to take on more projects and I am keen to involve my sons too.

For more information on our partner in Vietnam, click here.

Click here for a country profile of Vietnam

Barney Smith's volunteer experience in Macedonia and Greece

Picture: Barney and the other international volunteers in the monastery in Macedonia

A bus to a town distinctly off the beaten track, another bus to an even more remote town, a car ride to an extremely remote village and finally a steep climb by car along a winding road to an isolated monastery perched on the top of a mountain….. I began my international volunteer project in Macedonia, as with every volunteer project before, with the feeling that I was stepping into the unknown as I took on this new challenge. I looked forward to discovering a new culture and meeting so many different people; for me, this is what makes these volunteer projects so interesting and so enjoyable. As I walked through the gates of the Monastery of St. Jovan Pretaca, near the village of Slepce, this sense was as strong as ever. I knew that I would be living and working in a completely new environment with people as yet unknown to me. This, my twelfth international volunteer project, was also an intensely emotional experience for me personally. My last project - last August in Turkey - was interrupted by the devastating news that my mother had been rushed to hospital and was critically ill, an illness which would lead tragically to her death nine months later.

As I tried to deal with grief and bereavement for the first time in my life, the setting of this project seemed particularly fitting. Living and working in a monastery, high in the mountains, was for me an immensely therapeutic experience. The group, also comprising volunteers from Croatia, France, Hungary, Serbia and South Korea, was ably led by two Macedonians. Our work consisted of gardening in the monastery grounds, renovating a nearby picnic area, and clearing vegetation and litter from the side of the road leading up to the monastery. We made the most of our free time, with visits to a convent and to the Monastery of St. Naum, as well as guided tours in the towns of Krusevo, Bitola, where we also watched a rock concert, and Ohrid, where we also went swimming in the lake. We ate well: we cooked some of the meals ourselves, others were cooked by the monastery staff and sometimes we ate in restaurants. After all our hard work, we felt we deserved it!

Although Bitola, the nearest transport hub, is only a short drive from the Greek border, crossing into Greece was not as straightforward as I had imagined. Relations between the two countries are frosty: some Greeks object to the name Macedonia which they assert implies territorial claims on the region of Macedonia in northern Greece. The Macedonians understandably resent the suggestion that they should be bullied into changing the name of their country and ask how the Greeks could possibly feel threatened by their much smaller neighbour. Alluding to the Greek name for their country (Hellas), some Macedonians have gone so far as to dub the road from Bitola to Florina, the nearest Greek town, as "the Road to Hell"! I saw firsthand the inconvenience caused on a practical level by this political dispute. There was no public transport across the border, so my only option was to take a taxi to Florina. "The Road to Hell" was all but deserted and the border crossing almost eerily quiet. "We feel like Palestinians going through an Israeli checkpoint," whispered one of the Macedonians in the car with me, as we went through Greek passport control. "Only joking!" she added quickly.

Greece was the fifth country I was visiting for the first time this summer. During my trip I had flown from England to Croatia and travelled through Montenegro and Albania before crossing into Macedonia. Greece was the last country on my list, although I was not ready to go home yet: after visiting three Greek cities (Thessaloniki, Igoumenitsa and Ioannina) it was time for another project. From the relative comfort of a Ioannina hotel (albeit a cheap and very dirty one!), I was soon on another bus to another remote village, the location of my next volunteer project, Pentalofos.

I had already received from the excellent two Greek camp leaders a list of participants; this was my introduction to the other fifteen volunteers who came from a wide variety of countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Spain. The first part of our work consisted of uncovering a stone path dating from the 19th Century: we used tools to remove the earth and vegetation from the stones. Guided by a local specialist, we also built part of a new stone path. In our free time we went to festivals in Pentalofos and the surrounding villages, visited a local monastery, walked in the mountains and went swimming. After the strain put on my waistline in Macedonia, the exceptionally good Greek cuisine presented a new challenge: on this project we ate almost all our meals in restaurants and the food was superb. As a result we always started work feeling refreshed and knew we had a delicious meal waiting for us at the end! In every international volunteer project the hardest moment is always saying good-bye to the other participants, and this one was no different.

Now that I have arrived back in my adopted home, Kuwait, where I teach English in one of the British schools, I feel like I have stepped into another world. I often think back to my summer in Macedonia and Greece. I think with a smile of my attempts to learn a few phrases of the local languages, and how I did my best to help the other volunteers with their English. I think of how we lived together and worked together. I think of the new people I met and the good times that we shared. I cherish every moment and every new friendship made, and value my new skills and experience. Every volunteer project overseas is for me a life-changing experience, and no summer would be the same without it.

by Barney Smith

Picture: Barney and the international volunteers in Greece

MKYCCBT01-08 SLEPCE was hosted by YCCB Macedonia from 21/07/08 to 31/07/08.
CIA-03-08 PENTALOFOS was hosted b y CIA Greece from 04/08/08 to 20/08/08.

Click here for pictures of projects in Macedonia
Click here for pictures of projects in Greece

Click here for a country profile of Macedonia
Click here for a country profile of Greece

Laura Meadocroft's volunteer project in the USA

In the picture: Laura and the other international volunteers.

The Hilton-Winn Farm, Maine, USA – July 2008

Three South Koreans, two Japanese, two French, one Swiss, one Swede and a Brit. Location: two weeks on a rural farm in Southern Maine, USA in July 2008. One rainy day in February I decided to sign up for a Concordia project, thinking that it would be a good way to spend time in the USA and help out in a local community. However, at that time I didn’t realise quite how much I would learn from this project, not only about the USA, but also about other global cultures and about myself.

The Hilton-Winn Farm Youth Enrichment Center is located in a beautiful area of Maine, near the towns of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport. The main goal of the farm is ‘to provide a country farm experience to enrich the hearts, minds and spirits of children’ and the restoration and maintenance of the farm is carried out by volunteers. The farm welcomes many school groups, including children from inner-city areas who may have very little, if any, experience of a rural environment. During the summer months, weekly activity projects also provide an opportunity for younger children to experience the farm during their summer vacation.

For myself and the other 9 volunteers our main tasks over the two weeks were to help maintain the farm and we completed a number of projects, including helping to build a chicken coop, clearing a large area of brush to enable building work to take place and general upkeep of the garden area. There was a strong sense of team spirit amongst the volunteers and a definite feeling of accomplishment as we worked together to finish projects. Aside from this we also joined in with some of the children’s activities which included going on hikes, picking wild fruit, arts and crafts activities and attending presentations by representatives from a local wildlife sanctuary. As someone who has lived largely in a city environment, I never thought I would be willing to touch snakes and turtles!

During the two weeks we were really made to feel at home at the farm and the kindness of the project leader Nancy and her friends and family helped to make our time so memorable. In addition to working we took part in various social activities in the evenings and at weekends. Highly competitive international games of football, volleyball and badminton took place on a regular basis, as well as camp fires and trips to the beach. In the second week there was also a Community Barbeque, which provided a great opportunity for volunteers to interact and socialise with members of the local community.

For me, one of the best things about taking part in this volunteering project was definitely the relationships that developed between the volunteers. Despite coming from a variety of different backgrounds and cultures everyone came together and was always willing to learn from one other. From learning how to count up to 10 in Swedish or how to make an origami dragon, to sampling a Korean omelette, the level of cultural exchange was fantastic.

When the two weeks were over, everyone was reluctant to part, but I know that we will all stay in touch. I think that the Hilton-Winn Farm is an amazing place for children to come and experience the natural environment. My time there made me realise the importance of taking time to learn about wildlife and our environment, especially in a world which is today so dominated by materialism and technology. I will definitely never forget the first two weeks that I spent in the USA and the people that I met here. To anyone considering taking part in a volunteering project abroad I would recommend it one hundred percent!

Laura Meadowcroft

More information on Concordia's overseas parnter in the USA here

Click here for pictures of projects in the USA

Click here for a country profile of the USA