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“It’s a very multi-cultural environment and you realize that there’s many different ways of looking at the world than what you’re used to.”

UBELONG

Shawna Clement and Alex Brauer are a young couple from the U.S. living in Nebraska. Shawna is a recent graduate from Doane College who is working as a pet care technician. She has volunteered in Africa before, and also traveled to Colombia and various countries in Europe. Alex majored in international studies and natural resources at the University of Wyoming, and has experience working with environmental groups in the U.S. He also spent a year living in Germany as an exchange student, and has travelled to various Eastern European countries. In May 2012 Shawna and Alex spent three weeks in the “forest conservation and sustainable rural development” Volunteer Abroad in the Amazon. They proved to be excellent volunteers who were friendly, hard working and open. We are pleased to introduce you to them here.

What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in the Amazon?
Shawna: I have done some short term volunteering in Africa and had great experiences. So, I had a good understanding of the challenges of being a volunteer beforehand. However, this time I wanted to go to a completely different place and, since I had never seen the rainforest, felt this was a great opportunity to not only see it but also be a small part in helping to preserve it.

From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
Alex: First, work on your Spanish. You don’t need to be fluent, the people on the reserve and locals in general are very friendly and communicating with them comes naturally. However, if you know a few basic words beforehand it’s helpful.

Second, on a practical note, bring twice as many clothes as you think you’ll need. It’s a very hot and humid environment, and clothes take a lot of time to dry. So, bring extra.

Third, be open-minded. You’ll meet a lot of people from all over the world. We had Europeans, Australians and Americans with us, as well as the local Ecuadorian staff. It’s a very multi-cultural environment and you realize that there’s many different ways of looking at the world than what you’re used to. Be open to communicate and meet new people. It was one of my favorite parts of the experience.

What kind of impact did you have on the community?
Shawna: We did a lot of different types of work, which I found to be very enjoyable. We saw a lot of different areas. For example, we maintained saplings, worked on trail upkeep and were involved with various planting projects. Because the work was so physical, we could see the tangible product of our work. It’s not enormous change, but it’s still significant and a reminder that conservation is slow and takes a lot of work, but possible.

I also fell in love with the local people. Even in just our day-to-day lives on the reserve we met fascinating people and made great connections. The cook for example did not speak English and my Spanish is not great, but we were still able to get along really well. We had a lot of fun, and it shows how you can overcome cultural difference and connect with people just on the basis of being human.

Alex: Everything was so immediate. You’re working really hard and you see your blisters, wet clothes and sore body as direct results. It’s tough, but it’s also an amazing feeling to know you can go through that. At the same time, you see the change you’re making on the environment. It’s gradual change, but it’s noticeable. It makes you understand how you’re part of a much bigger process.

I also found that the education component of our work was important. We ourselves came away knowing the issues much more, and, just in speaking with the locals we could spread information about the environment as well as learn about them. For example, Quichua culture, which is the culture of the Quichuas, the indigenous people from that part of Ecuador, is fascinating. But it’s being lost with time, and I found it very valuable to be able to help preserve it by learning about it.

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Related post:
Meet Christian Petroske, a New York high-school grad, who volunteered with UBELONG in Ecuador on the Conservation project.

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