Samantha Spence is a unique and remarkable young woman with an enormous heart. She is an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston. She has travelled throughout the United States, including moving 13 times with her family. However, when she joined the Caring for Children with Disabilities project in Cape Town, South Africa for six weeks in April, it marked her first time out of the country. Her passion for working with disabled people was kindled in the summer of 2011, when she worked at a camp in South Caroline for children and adults with disabilities. As she says, “to say the camp changed my life would be an understatement”. She proved to be an incredible UBELONG volunteer, and we are proud to introduce her here.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Cape Town?
First as a practical reason, Cape Town was one of the only locations where I could volunteer in an English speaking country. At one point I thought about South America, but the idea that I’d have to speak Spanish all the time was a little intimidating.
Second, and most importantly, I wanted to give back. I’m a college student who has been given many opportunities, and I wanted to make a difference. I felt selfish and wanted to go beyond “me, me, me”. So I felt that volunteering abroad would be a great opportunity to do so, while also discovering a new place. I also wanted to work in the disabled children project. I have an interest in becoming an art therapist, especially with children who are disabled. Too often people forget about them because on the outside they may seem different. They need support and love as well. It’s not always easy to work with children who are disabled and, in fact, my first week at the project was incredibly difficult. I didn’t think I had the patience I had thought I had. But I kept going and it turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life.
The hardest part of actually making this trip a reality was my parents. They weren’t exactly gung-ho for me leaving school for a semester to volunteer, and when they realized I would be doing it all by myself it made convincing them all the more difficult. One day I sat down with my dad and showed him the UBELONG web page, we must have read every word three times, but I knew he felt how important this was to me when he asked, “this is something you really need to do, huh?” From that moment on he was just as involved, and just as passionate about getting me to Cape Town as I was. I have to admit though, I think a major turning point was after he talked on the phone to Cedric. That conversation changed the way my parents felt about the whole experience. They realized how greatly UBELONG cared about its volunteers and the good they were set on doing through their organization.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
I had to rethink my way of thinking. You can’t walk into the project and change the children. They all have serious disabilities and it takes an enormous amount of time and work to make even the smallest changes. So that was a lesson, I can’t just make their lives better overnight. But then I realized how strong they were. Every day they smiled and showed love towards me. They didn’t care what I was wearing or had done the day before. They were so happy to see me. They gave me so much affection. In many ways, and it sounds selfish, but I was the one who needed fixing. I helped to make their lives more comfortable and I gave them joy, but they brought me so much more. It was the best realization ever: To see that while I can’t change the world, I can make small differences that have huge effects on individual lives. And also to appreciate what I have. So many people would look at the children and pity them. But those children laugh and smile more than most people I know and have so much love to give. They give before getting anything in return and they give without expecting anything back. It is truly the most pure and selfless love. It was just the best feeling to be with them and learn from their strength.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First, don’t be afraid. I’m so happy with my experience. When I first arrived I was nervous and maybe even a little skeptical. I wasn’t sure I could trust anybody. I wasn’t so outgoing. But after a couple days I became more comfortable. I saw that fear is merely an obstacle. I stopped being anxious and made every effort to connect with the locals. And they were so receptive, it was beyond awesome. I recognized that fear held me back from fully connecting and getting the most out of my experience. Don’t let fear stop you from getting to know the real South Africa, for it is a beautiful place that has so much to offer. The community will accept you with open arms the moment you let down that wall of apprehension.
Second, do as much as possible. I was there for six weeks and it flew. There’s so much to do, both at your project and at home. Don’t say “no”, enjoy everything and take all the opportunities to do things. While I was there I was busy, I hardly ever had time to just sit still. But now that I’m back I’m so happy I took full advantage of being there. I encourage you to climb every mountain, both literally and figuratively.
Third, don’t be afraid to have your heart broken. I was working with a social worker at the project and at first I kept my guard up. I didn’t want to connect too much with the children to protect myself. But after letting my guard down I fell madly, hopelessly in love with those little children. I became vulnerable and that made it so much more special. I connected with the children in such a real way. And while falling in love with those little souls made leaving harder, so much good came out of our being together. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with everyone you meet on your journey.
What kind of impact did you have on the community?
On the project we became so much more creative. I have an interest in art therapy, and I did a lot of arts and crafts with the children. Some had never done that. One day I mentioned to a mother that I wanted to get her child to paint. She said, “no way, it would be impossible”. But we did! We painted and made a drawing, and together showed the mother anything is possible. She was impressed and touched. It was awesome!
I also met so many beautiful people during the experience, from people at the project to locals to other volunteers from all over the world, including Spain, Brazil and Germany. We impacted each other in so many ways. We learned about each other’s cultures, became friends and connected as humans. Those connections will stay with us forever. Somewhere along the way we all became a little family, and those kinds of friendships don’t mind even an ocean obstacle. I have no doubt we’ll all stay close.
How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
The other volunteers thought I was a little crazy! I was the only American so I got a lot of U.S. jokes, like that we eat way too many cheeseburgers! But they realized that I’m a person too and that we’re all basically the same. We became incredible friends.
And the locals were just incredible. They accepted me like family. I would be the only white person and it would make no difference. For example, one day I went into a flower shop and ended up speaking to the owner about his artwork for an hour. It’s just a small example, but it shows how I was so welcomed and had different experiences on every corner.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
The world we live in praises the shiny, the perfect, the plastic. But, we live in a round about world that looks for beauty in all the wrong places because beauty is not found on a perfect face, it is found in a perfect heart.
I assumed I would walk into my project and change lives, and fix things. Turns out, I was the one being fixed, being changed. The children taught me what real beauty looks like because they love without asking for love in return, they give before receiving and they don’t care what clothes you are wearing or what you’ve done. The children know no judgment. They are the perfect ones. And that is the secret. That is the beautiful secret.
“Disabled”. I have to laugh at that word because I am the one with the disability, not the children. I am the one who has to be taught how to see the world properly. I am the one who has judging eyes, who has to be taught to love without borders. But my project changed that, it taught me to love without wanting anything in return, taught me that love is a language everyone knows, regardless of your ability to walk or talk. Love is universal, and that’s the other secret. Learn to love, and I mean really love, and your life will change, your eyes will change. You will see things differently, you will hear things differently. Your heart grows ten times bigger and the sky is bluer and those children with “disabilities” become children who laugh and smile and play and need love just like others.
Because everyone, everyone is starving for love. And you can never have too much love. I learned I couldn’t look at my project with worldly eyes, otherwise I’d miss the secrets. I would have entirely missed the whole point of my being there. Happiness doesn’t mostly come from things around you, it mostly comes from what’s inside.