“I experienced the wonderful aspects of the country and contributed to its people.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Padraic McGrath
Age: 22
Hometown: Dublin, Ireland
Nationality: Ireland
University: The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
Masters: Pharmacy
Languages spoken: English
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Children with Disabilities in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 4 weeks
Start month: June 2016
Claim to fame: Padraic worked as an instructor in an engineering camp, where you teach children to explore the structures of the world, through the use of Lego. We are happy to have you on board, Padraic!

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
As a 21 year old from Ireland with no experience of Vietnam apart from what I’d heard from friends who had been there, this part of the world seemed to be one like no other. Stories were told of the terrific food, friendly people and clean streets. All these things could not have been more true. However, through volunteering in Hanoi, I was allowed to experience all the wonderful aspects of the country as well as contribute to its people. By actively take part as a member of society different from my own, my motivations, expectations and perceptions of life changed with it.

What was your impact on your volunteer project?
My impact on my volunteer project at first was quite minimal, for the first week or so, as I was adjusting to the new environment of the centre and the way things were. It was my first real experience of dealing with children with special needs, which was initially challenging in itself. As the days moved on and my relationship with the teachers and children started to improve, my role in the class started to change. I was teaching the teachers some songs I learned from home and taking part in the recreational time in the afternoons, this is when I really start to enjoy it. The enthusiasm of the children and the smiles on their faces is something I’ll never forget. 

Before I came over to Hanoi, myself and a friend had raised some funds to buy resources for our centre. Our teachers were very open to us buying new toys and supplies for the children, which we were happy to do. We bought new colouring supplies, Lego blocks and electrical equipment for our centre, which really had a positive impact on the teachers and children during class time. For anyone coming over, I would really encourage to do some fundraising, as a little can go a very long way (colouring books cost about 2$).

There was one girl in particular, who I made a particular connection with. She was a similar age to me, 20 yrs old, with impediments in both walking and speech. However, she did not let this stop her expressing her emotions, as I connected with her most was through laughter. Whether it was by making a silly face or just playing a card game, we were always able to share a laugh together. Her courage and enthusiasm for having fun were truly inspiring. Her difficulty walking meant that she needed assistance going up and down the steps to her room at the centre each day. Through helping her with this, I became friendly with her mother, who happened to have a street food stall on our way home from the centre. Most days passing by their stall, she would insist that we sit down and have some of what they were cooking that day, sparing nothing to spoil us. Over the course of a month I had built up a special relationship with this woman, which of course was very difficult to say goodbye to.

What were your major challenges?
The main challenge for me was forming communication between myself and the children at the centre. Each child had their own unique way of communicating and this was something I only learned by sitting down and spending time with them. When volunteering, you can’t go out expecting to change the world, but to learn from it. At a certain point I had to realise that some of these children were never going to be able to communicate with me but that this was ok. I could still help them by feeding them and making sure they were not hurting each other. 

Volunteering is an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in unfamiliar surroundings to help others, which is what made it such an all-round rewarding experience for me. The house I stayed in was a really nice place to come back to and relax. It had such amazing like-minded people and we all got along really well as a group. The friends I made, along with delicious food provided by the chef and help we got from the Vietnamese volunteers made it feel like a home away from home. The time I spent in Hanoi was undoubtedly the best time of my life and I plan on going back very soon.

In a sentence or less, what was your funniest moment?
Definitely partying with the crew members on a boat in Halong Bay!

Related post:
Meet Amanda Bird, a University of Wisconsin-Madison undergrad, volunteers with UBELONG at the caregiving projects in Cusco, Peru.