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Traveling for transformation
Students make an impact by volunteering abroad
November 1, 2017
When worlds collide
Senior Clara McKay connects with refugees in Austria
When most people think about volunteering, they picture digging trenches, building houses, and planting trees in poor communities in developing countries.
But this is not always the case.
Over the summer, senior Clara McKay traveled to Linz, Austria with her church’s youth group. In Austria, they took on a different type of volunteer work, one that doesn’t necessarily revolve around the traditional model of what most people consider “volunteering” to be.
McKay, along with other members of her church, worked to bridge cultures and build relationships with refugees and expose them to a new perspective of Christianity, something that McKay sees to be just as important as typical volunteer work.
“Volunteering doesn’t always have to be physically doing something, it can be building relationships,” McKay said. “If you just go spend time with people and get to know them, that’s the good stuff.”
Volunteering there, she worked with refugees to bridge cultures and give them experiences they wouldn’t be able to partake in otherwise. Together, they rode bikes, took a boat tour, played games and created an “International Cafe.”
The American volunteers clearly made an impact on the refugees, but especially on one grandmother in particular.
“The boat ride/bike day, she said, was her favorite day that she had spent in Austria in the two years that she had been there,” McKay said.
This same grandmother grew up in Afghanistan and had an arranged marriage when she was just thirteen years old, McKay said.
Working with the refugees let McKay realize how alike they were to the refugees, even though they came from completely different worlds, especially with fellow teens.
“They’re just like us. They have Snapchat and Instagram and stuff,” McKay said. “They like clothes, style and cute boys, so it was really cool to see how universal it was. They’re just like us, but they’ve had to leave everything that they had.”
But with these similarities came differences. The refugees led very different lives than McKay and the other members of her youth group.
“To get to Austria, they go through crazy situations and experiences and so not only did we get to see how similar people are to us, but we also got to see that our lives can take so many different paths,” McKay said.
One aspect of these different paths came from religion. Most of the people found refuge in Austria after fleeing countries in the Middle East, notably Syria and Afghanistan, and were Muslim. McKay and the rest of her youth group were all Christian.
Christianity plays an important role in McKay’s life, one that she hopes the refugees can see and benefit from.
“I just hope that we were able to show the refugees what Christianity really is like… and they were able to get an exposure to Christianity that is loving people no matter what,” McKay said.
Just like McKay and her youth group worked with the refugees to understand their stories, the refugees also wanted to learn about their American ways of life. With the recent political climate, the refugees were especially curious to learn about our anti-refugee president.
“When we went, everyone was asking us about Trump,” McKay said. “They understood more about us and that we’re all not huge, giant supporters, like we don’t all believe in everything he’s doing.”
Even with these fundamental differences, McKay bridged cultural gaps and built relationships that are sure to be remembered.
Map courtesy of Creative Commons. All other images courtesy of Clara McKay.
More than just a funny story
High school student Savannah Henry finds place volunteering with orphaned kids
The minute Savannah Henry stepped foot onto Honduras on her very first volunteer trip abroad four years ago, she was hooked.
Since that trip, Henry actively volunteers. She traveled back to Honduras the next summer, to Quebec with her church and volunteered extensively throughout the United States.
Henry first travelled to Honduras when she was fourteen years old. She arrived into a developing country unlike anything she had ever seen before.
“[Honduras] was so culturally different, and at first it was so overwhelming, but after a few hours it was like ‘whoa, this is so cool,’” Henry said.
Henry volunteered through a program called HOI, or formerly Honduras Outreach, Inc. While in Honduras, she participated in a variety of different types of volunteer work, including working with animals, constructing mud houses and building toilets.
Her biggest takeaway from the trip however, was the time she spent with the local Honduran children. Henry volunteered primarily in the summer school programs and the vacation Bible school, spending most of her time in Honduras with the kids.
“Being with the kids in Honduras,” Henry said, “I just remember how light my heart felt because they’re so pure and genuine. They don’t really have anything bad to say.”
Traveling abroad exposed Henry to unique differences in culture, and she certainly saw differences in the lifestyles between American and Honduran life. During her trip, Henry saw some children from the slums that were asking for food. She shared part of her brownie with them, but then she noticed how dirty they were and offered them some wipes.
“I handed [a wipe] to one of them and he smiled and he hugged me and thanked me, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He had never seen it before, so one of the security guards explained it to him, and he got really happy and could wash himself off,” Henry said. “It was really funny how he had no idea what they were. It was just such a cultural difference. Here, even a little kid knows what baby wipes are.”
This open-mindedness toward the American volunteers seemed to be consistent in Honduras, and both sides benefitted from the work done. However, Henry thinks it is especially important to remember that when volunteering abroad, Americans are there to do the work with the locals as opposed to doing the work for them. When volunteering abroad, Henry stressed, one also has to keep in mind the difference between sympathy and empathy.
“They’ll explain it to you on the first day of international volunteering. Don’t be that person who’s just there to take Instagram photos. Be there for the sake of being there,” Henry said.
Henry’s experiences in Honduras led her to her next adventure, her gap semester later this school year.
Henry feels that volunteering is life-changing.
“The term, ‘you learn more from them more than they learn from you,’ it’s so cheesy but it’s so true,” she said.
Henry certainly found her place in volunteering abroad despite the challenges it presents.
Map courtesy of Creative Commons. Other photos courtesy of Savannah Henry.
Building friendships one translation at a time
Sophomore Fiona Moore-Keish gains lasting friends in Central America
Differences often drive people apart, but when sophomore Fiona Moore-Keish first met the Guatemalans she was volunteering with, unlikely friendships started.
“Even though they spoke zero English, and I spoke limited Spanish, I’m still in contact with them over the phone,” Moore-Keish said. “They became some of my closest friends, and I spent more time with them than I did my friends from America.”
Moore-Keish first traveled to Guatemala to volunteer through an organization called the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, or CEDEPCA. The time Moore-Keish spent with local Guatemalans will not be forgotten.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” Moore-Keish said.
During the trip, Moore-Keish visited a small, rural town called Cantel, Guatemala. There, Moore-Keish participated in volunteer work of all different categories. She helped cut down vines with machetes to plant trees and painted a school and church, but the most important part to Moore-Keish was the time she spent with local girls.
Within the group of Guatemalan girls Moore-Keish volunteered with, she met Yaneth Garcia.
The two became fast friends. They played clapping games together, went to a local pool together and, of course, volunteered together. After, they exchanged phone numbers and still keep in touch.
Garcia enjoyed the time she spent volunteering with the Americans.
“I liked all of it,” Garcia said. “There was a lot of excitement.”
The American girls and the Guatemalan girls bonded over the work they did together.
“We were able to [paint the school] in the big group,” Moore-Keish said. “It started raining and we got completely soaking wet and covered in paint, but we continued…it was absolutely amazing.”
The positive feelings the Americans, especially Moore-Keish, had for the Guatemalans were certainly reciprocated.
“I liked that [the Americans] were collaborators,” Garcia said.
Part of volunteering abroad and connecting with others includes knowing the background and culture associated with the country, Moore-Keish observed. The experience made her realize that in the United States, key events necessary to understanding other countries’ cultures are often left out of history lessons.
In Guatemala, American fruit companies were perpetrators of a more than thirty year long civil war, named the Dole War after the American fruit company. In America, hardly anyone is aware that their fruit companies caused a war nor is much information published about it.
“It left a huge impact on how people perceive Americans,” Moore-Keish said. “It’s crazy that in our American schools we aren’t taught about the thirty year civil war that occurred in Guatemala by the American fruit companies, but it still has a lasting impact on the country.”
Though it was up to Moore-Keish and her American friends to overcome the negative image associated with this war, they clearly succeeded in fostering new relations between the two countries.
“They can relate a lot, and they are very nice people,” Garcia said.
Although lifestyles, languages and cultures separated Moore-Keish and Garcia, their friendship will stand the test of time.
Contact the writer, Gwynivere Schooler, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Map courtesy of Creative Commons. Other photos courtesy of Fiona Moore-Keish.