“Your impact in the program will be as great or as little as you choose.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Kevin Nagle
Age: 29
Hometown: Little Falls
Nationality: United States
Employer: Starbucks
Job title: Flagship store manager (former)
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (advanced), Portuguese (beginner)
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for children from poor backgrounds in HCMC, Vietnam
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: August 2014
Claim to fame: Has traveled to 56 countries!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I was fortunate enough to have a little over a year off, set aside for traveling. The second half of my trip was traveling throughout Asia and there has always been something that has drawn me to Vietnam, following a short two day visit to the country around 10 years ago. I began researching different volunteer organizations and finally chose UBELONG for a few reasons; much more so than any other organization I saw, the program fees were very reasonable and the usage of these fees was fully transparent. Then, after discussing different volunteering options with my advisor Barbara, I realized how dynamic my two months in Vietnam had the potential to be. While I’m sure a very straight and narrow structured program was also possible, I appreciated the flexibility and diversity of programs that would be available to me in Ho Chi Minh City- and the ability to contribute to more than just one of them. I was fortunate enough to work at three programs while I was in Saigon. In the mornings I taught English to young teens at two shelters and in the afternoons I worked in childcare at an orphanage in one of the local Pagodas.

What was your impact on your volunteer project?
It’s very clear as soon as you begin volunteering in a program like this that your impact will be as great or as little as you choose. One of my students, Nam, was in an awkward position in his shelter as he was the oldest (15) there but his English level was poor and on par with the younger kids. The shelter always had the children split into a high and low level English class, of which I taught the higher level. It wasn’t realistic to put Nam in the lower level because of his age, so three days a week I would stay 30-40 minutes after class with him and go over basic concepts in line with what I was teaching the class as a whole. Nam had always been a bit shy, but after a few weeyks of the one-on-one time he began to volunteer to read or complete sentences in class more and more. Sometimes he didn’t even understand the material he was reading, but at the time, that didn’t matter. From the time that I spent with Nam, he did tighten up his verb tenses and vocabulary a bit, but the greatest impact was the emergence of his confidence- which put him on a track to actually integrate into the basic material of the higher class. I believe that a child’s confidence is something that can single handedly change their lives. Children, teenagers and young adults on the street many times become ‘at risk’ because they aren’t confident in themselves- in their ability to make a worthwhile life for themselves. The attention I was able to give Nam and many other of the kids I know will have a lasting impact because I was simply giving them the tools (and the confidence) to do better for themselves down the road.

What were your major challenges?
First off, I am not a teacher by trade, so there was a slight learning curve with that- but most of the challenges were related to my teaching programs and readjusting my expectations on multiple levels. The expectation of needed teaching materials, the ability to communicate with the students, what they were actually able to learn- all of these needed readjustments in my mind. I had to learn to take baby steps in everything that I was doing, which simply put things into perspective and helped me contribute as much of myself as I could. The other major challenge (more of a frustration) is the lack of infrastructure available to teens from the shelters after the age of 16. Vietnam, from what I have experienced, has put into place a comprehensive shelter system for children under 17 that does actually work well, but once they turn 17 their futures are a big question mark. This being one of the reasons I will be returning to Vietnam in a month to see what further impact I can have on that end. In line with my prior work experience, I’m hoping to open a cafe that deals directly with the vocational and employment needs of this niche group of at risk teenagers so that Nam and others like him have one more opportunity to choose a better path for themselves.

In a sentence or less, what did you think about the food?
Vibrant, fresh and oh so cheap!

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Related post:
Meet Mun Hong, a University of Wisconsin-Madison grad who volunteered in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with UBELONG teaching English.