Name: Anna Dmitrieva
Hometown: Savoy, Illinois
Nationality: United States and Russian Federation
Languages spoken: Russian, English (fluent), French (intermediate)
University: University of Illinois
Volunteer Abroad: Forest Conservation and Sustainable Farming in Galapagos, Ecuador
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: December 2018
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
My UBELONG story began with me frantically searching online for an organization that would let me experience a new culture away from home and do something meaningful. The UBELONG environmental project on the Galápagos Islands immediately drew my attention because I am interested in conservation and sustainability work and because of my fascination with Galápagos wildlife and stories of Darwin’s voyage. I did not know even the basics of Spanish, but I figured that should not stop me.
What impact did you make on your volunteer project?
Our everyday tasks seem somewhat small – collecting and preparing coffee, harvesting fruits and corn, helping the neighboring farmers plant grass for their cows, cutting down invasive plants – but looking back at it, all those little things contribute to addressing the current issues on the islands. From visiting the Interpretation Center in town and talking with Jefferson, I learned that the islands face problems with invasive plants and introduced pests and that local people are working towards reducing their dependency on imports. When I helped a group collect local coffee and local fruit, I was doing a small part in the larger effort to keep the reserve highly self-sustainable, and when we had nine volunteers and cleared out large sections of mora and other invasive plants with our machetes, it felt extremely satisfying. My individual impact was small, but the collective impact of all the volunteers makes a meaningful change.
How did you grow personally during your volunteer trip?
During my trip, I learned the importance of fully opening up to people from different cultures, of living in the moment, and of pausing the seemingly unstoppable life to reflect. From my first day, the project leaders fully welcomed and integrated us into their lives. I joined the neighbors for matches of Ecua-volley; and on New Year’s Eve the project leaders made us a special dinner, danced with all the volunteers for five hours, and shared with us the local tradition of building a human figure stuffed with banana leaves and lighting it on fire at midnight to say adios to the old year.
The Ecuadorians readily shared their lives with us, and I want to try being as welcoming and open with people I meet in my life. I enjoyed many events and moments during my trip and realized that I often think too much about my goals for the future and forget to embrace the present. I now try to think more about the things in my life that make me happy right now, each day. When the Kentucky volunteer group came, we also started a tradition that I have continued since, of reflecting on the day each evening and choosing a rose (favorite memory) and thorn (one negative thing) from that day and a bud (goal or wish) for the next day.
In a sentence or less, how would you sum up your volunteer experience?
During my time in the Galápagos, I played a small role in protecting the islands’ environment, got immersed in a beautiful culture, and found ways to make my life more meaningful.