“I feel lucky that I was able to be present in their lives.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Meredith Yung
Age: 22
Hometown: Corvallis, Oregon
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (intermediate)
University: Oregon State University
Degree: Psychology
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Orphans in Cusco, Peru
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: June 2015
Claim to fame: Meredith worked with the migrant farm worker community to learn more about their immigration experience.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to become a volunteer for various reasons.  The two primary reasons being that I love to travel and I have a passion for helping others.  Luckily, those two things come hand in hand quite often.  My desire to help others was instilled in me throughout my high school experience.  Each year we were required to fill a number of service hours and finish a project presenting each experience.  Although at the time I resented having to complete service for a grade and often left my projects to the last minute, looking back I can see how much I took away from each experience.  How much I learned.  How much I grew.  Last fall, as I was beginning my last year of college, I realized how I craved more of the feelings and lessons I obtained from my past service experience.  But this time I wanted something bigger.  I wanted something challenging, something that put me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one, something that made me use the Spanish I had been studying for 12 years but had not once truly used, something that allowed me to see new things and with new eyes.  I had not studied abroad and, since I was graduating that option was out anyway.  So I looked into organizations that allowed me to travel to South America and volunteer in some way.

This is how I came across UBELONG.  I was instantly drawn to UBELONG because, unlike many volunteer abroad websites, UBELONG’s website was easy to navigate, attractive, and informational.  What drew me in further were the locations available to me.  I immediately felt an attachment to the Cusco, Peru location.  I was attracted to how readily available information was and the information seemed to answer any question and calm any potential worry I had.  For example, most other organizations only gave me the option of living in a homestay situation.  I worried that that would make it too hard for me to adjust and contribute to feelings of being alone, especially after volunteering each day.  UBELONG gave me the option, even encouraged the option, of living in a hostel with other volunteers.  When I read this, my housing worries were quickly eased.  It was also attractive to me how much less expensive UBELONG programs were from any other organization I had found.  This was a huge reason for choosing UBELONG.  All in all, everything I was wanting out of my experience came together as soon as I found UBELONG website and began planning my trip.

What was your impact on your volunteer project?
The biggest and most important impact I had within my project at the boys’ orphanage in Cusco was the relationships I formed with them.  I was at that project for two months and I would not have it any other way.  For most of the time that I was at my project, I really did not feel I was doing anything.  The boys did not seem to care whether I was there or not and most of them preferred spending time together rather than with me.  It was not until my last two weeks that I realized that I really had created a bond with those boys.  Mainly because I was one constant on a very short list of other constants.  In my last weeks in Cusco, I found that a trust had in fact been built between myself and the boys I spent time with because of my consistency and patient love for them.

I found that I was one of the only volunteers that stayed over four weeks at this particular location.  I am glad that there is a four-week minimum stay for this project but I cannot help but feel that even that is not enough time.  There were volunteers from other organizations that only stayed for one to two weeks.  That was the hardest part about volunteering with the boys.  Every week new and novel volunteers would come in with new toys and play with the boys and then leave the following week.  Most, if not all, of these volunteers had only the very best of intentions but it was hard to watch each week turn into a zoo of volunteers wanting to give attention and love to the boys but not teaching them anything and distracting them from the few hours of schooling they had each day.

I feel lucky that I was able to be present in their lives for two months. In that way I was able to determine what they truly needed. Of course they needed love, but they needed structure to that love.  Each day I encouraged them to share and clean up after themselves – two things that a volunteer there for only a week didn’t see the need for. I worked hard to accommodate, follow along with and support the school and homework routine already set in place before I arrived.  Most importantly I tried to give each of the boys a space that said it was okay to care about and make a connection with someone. I pray that someday they will find more constants in their lives.

What did you take from the experience?
Much like how it took me a while to realize what I was actually contributing to the lives of the boys, it took me just as long to realize what the experience was doing for me. It was not until after two tough weeks of struggle, wanting to go home, lacking motivation, and feeling like I wasn’t having an impact that I learned my biggest and most important lesson – always try your hardest to keep an open heart and mind. I didn’t learn this until after frittering away a week of wishing I was home and then waking up and all of a sudden it was my last week in Cusco, my last week with the boys. It was that morning that I truly decided to show up and be fully present. I put aside the fact that I was ready to go home and chose to give my last week all of the heart I had.  I let go of my frustration of feeling like I wasn’t having an impact on the boys and told myself to be vulnerably available to them anyway. I finally fully let go of my fear of speaking Spanish and not being understood. And guess what? By deciding to show up, deciding to be present, deciding to let myself be vulnerable, and deciding to open my heart – I was opened up to and rewarded with an immensely strong sense of love and belonging.

On top of all of that, I learned so much about myself.  I learned how I lead, how I recuperate and recharge, how I give, how I take and, most importantly, how I love.  I learned how to ask important questions and I learned how to make my own decisions.  Finally, I took away and still carry with me a number of amazing friendships that provided a support group of like-mindedness and compassion.  I am so thankful for the people I met on my trip.  They encouraged me to be myself and to be open throughout my time in Cusco.

What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
First and foremost, always try to keep an open heart and mind. This was the biggest thing I learned, even on the tough days when I didn’t feel like putting myself out there; it was on those hard days where it was most rewarding to make myself vulnerable.

Secondly, challenge the boys to share with each other and play together as a team, it is hard to get them to do this because it didn’t seem to be something that was stressed to them but I found I got closer to them by teaching them these things.  Along that line, there is often not a lot of structure to the daily routine at the orphanage; this was a huge obstacle for me as I had to come up with my own routine when I had no prior experience of lesson planning/daily activity planning.  Try to have some structure to the day.  As it is hard to get pre-teens to participate when they speak your own language, let alone a language different than yours, try to come up with some sort of prize system to get them to participate.  But it is also okay not to have all of them participating at once, that is how I got to know a lot of them – when I had one on one interaction with them.

Lastly, there are other volunteers that come in from other organizations almost on a week to week basis – try your best to befriend them, many of them have great ideas and are fun to brainstorm with.  They also might be provided materials by their organization. On the note of other volunteers, many come in for only one to two weeks so the turnover can be disruptive to you and, most importantly, the boys at the orphanage.  These volunteers have the best of intentions but tend to come in with activities that the boys see as new and novel.  Try not to be discouraged by this but take it in stride and try your best to include some sort of educational factor in the activities.  For example, a few volunteers wanted to make a paper maché volcano and set it off with the boys.  Before we set it off we had a brief 5 min. educational Q&A about volcanoes.

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Related Post:
Meet Sydney Lalancette, a University of Vermont student who volunteered with UBELONG in Cusco, Peru on the Kindergarten Teaching project.