“I decided that I would let go of all the excuses that stopped me in the past.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Nikki Chapman
Age: 21
Hometown: Heath, Texas
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (advanced)
University: Southern Methodist University
Degree: Accounting and Spanish
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Forest Conservation in Amazon, Ecuador, Elementary School Teaching in Cusco, Peru and Forest Conservation and Sustainable Farming in the Galapagos, Ecuador
Duration: 5 weeks
Start month: June 2014
Claim to fame: Nikki worked with children through babysitting, being a full-time nanny, and leading freshman orientation at SMU for two years. Way to go, Nikki!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Growing up, I had always wanted to go on a mission trip with my church. However, I allowed excuses to get in the way – the cost of traveling, lack of time to fundraise, excessive time devoted to academics and athletics, etc. I enjoyed volunteering in my hometown through assisting a Bible study at the local nursing home and cooking breakfast for the homeless early Sunday mornings. During college, my roommate Carissa inspired me to take my passions outside of the local community. She highly recommended UBELONG. Carissa traveled to Quito with my university’s Alternative Break group and worked with a UBELONG organization while she was there. After researching UBELONG, I decided that I would let go of all the excuses that stopped me in the past. After graduating college, I had three free months to do whatever I absolutely wanted to do, so I started raising money to head to South America where I would support the rain-forest and teach English.

What was your impact on your volunteer projects?
I have volunteered in three different projects in South America with UBELONG. Last Summer, I traveled to the Galapagos Islands to work with an NGO in forest restoration. While there, we used machetes to cut away invasive species (mora!) that were killing the native plants. My favorite part was working with the larger-than-life tortoises in the Galapaguera where we fed, cleaned and weighed these precious creatures. During this trip I learned the importance of organic farming and protecting the environment and all the creatures that live in it (including large spiders and cockroaches).

This Summer, UBELONG was very generous to extend me a credit to finish my trip to the Amazon and Cusco (I had to cut my trip short due to personal reasons back at home). The work in the Amazon was similar to the work in the Galapagos. During the first two days, we worked intensively to clear brush to make a walking trail for the community of Misahuallí, Ecuador. One of the workers, Max, just recently messaged me a photo on Facebook of volunteers finishing up the trail. Hopefully the people of Misahuallí have already started to enjoy this new pathway that allows them to stroll through the rain-forest.

In Cusco, my project consisted of teaching English to sixth graders. However, the public school system in Cusco tends to lack organization and my project took a different turn, but I learned to adapt just fine. The students learned a bit of English through games like “Duck-Duck-Goose,” “Simon Says,” or “Hangman” and the “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes” song, but I mostly tutored the students in long division and multiplication of decimals.

What were your major challenges?
Mosquitoes! The Galapagos and Amazon were filled with them (more so the Galapagos). At one point I had 27 mosquito bites on my face and neck alone and would take Benedryl at night to help soothe the irritation and fall asleep.  At times it was very difficult to maintain a positive attitude and focus on my purpose of being there rather than how much my body itched. Thankfully, other volunteers were in the same boat and we made the most of the situation.

While in Cusco, my patience and flexibility were greatly challenged. The children do mean well, but sometimes can become overwhelmingly rambunctious. By seeing me as a friend rather than an authority figure and by being accustomed to the lack of organization, the students had difficulty with listening to me, especially when the professor left the room (which did happen unexpectedly and often). One day, Hermanita (the religion professor) walked into the classroom and left immediately because she was so appalled by the chaos. I was so embarrassed, but did not know what else to do to grab the attention of 36 sixth graders after trying everything I could. In the end, I learned that all I can do is show the kids that I care by listening to them and answering their questions. Not everyone is perfect (including myself) and not everyone will like me, but I must never give up on loving and showing compassion for others.

What is your favorite memory?
My favorite memory while volunteering happened when one of my students, Adrian, presented me with his artwork (I have attached the drawing to this interview). The day before, the students were assigned to draw a Spring setting. Many of the students copied a realistic image posted on the bulletin board. However, Adrian took a different approach. Instead of drawing a more realistic setting, he used a more modern, cubism approach. The flowers, rainbow, tree and boy all became “robot-like.” Adrian told me that after he turned in his drawing for a grade, the professor had told him that his artwork was bad and not realistic. I reminded Adrian that it is better to think outside the box. Whether or not the students will remember all the words to “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes” or the tricks that I gave them to remember where to place decimals during multiplication, I hope that I inspired them to not fear drawing outside the lines and seeing where their potential reaches.

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Related post:
Meet Maria Abad, a Broward College undergrad volunteered with UBELONG in the Galapagos, Ecuador on the Forest Conservation and Sustainable Farming project.