|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, August 23, 2003 - 10:07 pm: Edit Post|
Taking Volunteerism Seriously
Taking Volunteerism Seriously
On assignment in the United States and abroad, seven 1999 graduates have volunteered segments of their lives to serve the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. Not all of the seven lived in thatched-roof huts without running water, but a few have. All of them however, seem to live for making a difference in people's lives. Whether their assignments take them to Africa, to Central America or to areas within the United States, it is clear that there are needy people worldwide. So why not try to help?
A bit of the bad comes with the good in volunteer service. Existing on paltry stipends and focusing on improving others' lives makes for both rewards and challenges. The worst of it is that these alumni miss their friends and family in the United States, say Mike Berens, Aric Larson and Ben Futransky, all Peace Corps volunteers. The best of it is making that "difference" in the lives of the people they serve.
Rachael School workedwith children in Maryland.
Berens and Larson live in the bush of Zambia, Africa, about 20 miles apart. They travel by bike, speak the native language of Kaonde, and work to help locals build fish ponds and promote fish farming.
"I feel very good about what I am doing here," says Berens of his work in Africa. "The average income of rural farmers is $80 per year and with fish farming this can be increased substantially. Increased nutrition and income is a wonderful thing to bring to these areas," he says.
Futransky lives in Juigalpa, Nicaragua, a city of 50,000, where he supports and promotes small businesses. He enjoys luxuries such as discos, cable television, "good" restaurants and "nice" parks. He speaks Spanish and travels mostly by bus and bike. "I feel really positive about my work," says Futransky, who teaches junior achievement classes to kids in a local school and gives business seminars to clients of a community-run bank. Additionally, he works on a project to clean up litter by placing more garbage cans in Juigalpa.
Ben Futransky waits by the side of the road hoping for a lift to his next destination.
Closer to home, 1999 graduates Stacie Hackel, Rachael School and Johnna Varner, all AmeriCorps volunteers during at least part of the two years since graduation, say they've gained a broader view of the world through their experiences.
Hackel worked in Oshkosh, Wis., as a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) volunteer with the Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program which helps low-income individuals save money for buying a home, making major home repairs, paying for higher education or starting a business.
From her base in Southern Washington, D.C., School undertook a job-readiness program in a homeless shelter and built houses and trails. "My service was physically and emotionally challenging," she says, but "I learned more in my 10 months of service than I could ever learn in a book. I did a lot of 'talking' in college; this was my opportunity to put my thoughts into actions." School is now a community outreach coordinator for the Food Bank of Delaware in Newark.
With AmeriCorps, Varner focused on tutoring "at-risk" children at Lamont, Calif., Elementary School. A Title I school, Lamont's student body comes from mainly low-achieving, low-income families. The majority of the student body is Hispanic, says Varner. "I have become less self-centered in my view of the world, I have started to change my value system and I now have a career," she says of her experience. Varner is now a first grade teacher at Lamont.
But, as rewarding as volunteer work can be, this type of service isn't for everyone, especially when dealing with another culture. Rachel Thompson trained for one month in Guarumbaré, Paraguay, before deciding not to carry out her Peace Corps assignment. "Training was slow," she says, "and I had no contact with my family in the States other than letters." She maintains that the lack of communication with loved ones was minor when compared to her lack of independence. Being a woman, Thompson could not go anywhere without a male escort. "I have never experienced having to be escorted everywhere," she says. "If you are alone, you will be 'hit on.' If you are with another woman, you are considered alone, and you will be 'hit on.' It was hard not having my independence," she says.
Thompson is now in San Diego, Calif., working with severely emotionally disturbed children at New Alternatives child care facility.
Rachael Thompson helps her Paraguayan "nephew," Gabe.