Name: Rebecca Stone
Hometown: New York, New York
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (intermediate), Portuguese (intermediate)
University: Hunter College
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Orphans in Cusco, Peru
Duration: 4 weeks
Start month: December 2015
Claim to fame: Worked at a crèche in Vidigal, one of the favelas in Rio, Brazil. Very impressive Rebecca, keep up the good work!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Whenever I have time off from school and work, I like to travel to new places and volunteer. I am studying to be a social worker, so service and social justice are both things I value. I feel that every culture has something worthwhile to teach us, and when I volunteer I try to absorb what the local culture has to offer me about different approaches to a familiar cause, such as child welfare. I like volunteering because it’s a chance to gain a new perspective while being of service. I’ve worked with some great organizations abroad, and some that were very disappointing. I chose to volunteer with UBELONG, because it was well-organized, provided detailed descriptions of volunteer placements, and emphasized local in-country support. I also chose UBELONG, because they offered the type of project I wanted as well as a homestay option in the country I planned to visit, Peru
What were the major challenges?
I think one of the hardest things for me to accept when volunteering is that I can only make a limited difference in a short period of time. I volunteered in a girls’ orphanage, and from the first day I was conscious of the fact that I would only be there for a month—I could certainly bring some laughter and fun into the girls’ day, but at the end of my four weeks, I would be leaving, and the girls’ life circumstances would be more or less the same. In addition to the sadness I felt for the unfairness of the girls’ lives, it was easy to get bogged down by a feeling of powerlessness in the face of their reality. I worked hard to make sure that I came to the orphanage each day with the attitude that the girls COULD be happy and could still do amazing things with their lives, despite the disadvantages that life had handed them. I recognized that it was up to me to set this hopeful, empowering tone for them.
In terms of day-to-day challenges, it took me a little while to find an activity that would be fun for the 4-year-olds as well as the 14-year-olds. I eventually came up with the idea of swimming classes, and I would take ten girls a day to a nearby pool to learn how to swim. It was a great way for the girls to experience conquering their fears, plus it was really fun! I also often found myself in the position of defending the girls’ need for fun and levity to the administrators of the orphanage. It was definitely a bit of a push-pull. I felt really protective of the girls, but I knew that remaining on good terms with orphanage staff was the most effective way to do more fun things. I’ve also studied trauma quite a bit, so it was at times very frustrating for me to witness orphanage staff disciplining the girls in a way that exacerbated their trauma reactions rather than alleviating them.
What did you take from the experience?
Whew…sooo many things! First of all, flexibility. Go where you’re needed, ask how you can help. Don’t wait for people to come up and speak to you, welcome you, invite you to participate. Go up and introduce yourself! I was there to help the girls, but I could be more helpful if the orphanage staff saw me as an ally, not a judgmental outsider who wanted to tell them how to do their jobs. And everyone has something to teach us, if we choose to take that attitude. One of the staff members who I was terrified of the first few days because she was always yelling, also had a fantastic sense of humor. She had the ability to punish girls or take away their privileges without making them feel judged or ashamed. She could punish without being punitive. If I had just written her off, instead of being willing to see what she might have to offer, I never would have learned a super-valuable skill that she had to teach.
In terms of working with the girls, I just feel so lucky to have gotten to know them even a little. They have been through so much, and they continue to live in a place where they don’t necessarily feel safe or comfortable, and they still manage to be children. They still laugh and joke and invent funny playground games and have vivid imaginations. It’s truly a privilege to get to remember them and some of the experiences we had together!
In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Go with the flow…and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, so you learn about the stuff that’s unfamiliar to you!