Name: Riley Frackleton
Hometown: Peabody, Massachusetts
Nationality: United States
University: Commonwealth Honors College, University Of Massachusetts, Amherst
Degree: Natural Resources Conservation
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (intermediate)
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Forest Conservation in Amazon, Ecuador
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: December 2015
Claim to fame: This past semester, Riley joined his school’s triathlon team and his athletic goals have now become team oriented.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
As I sat in my dorm room this past November daydreaming about traveling and combing through various inspiring travel blogs, I said to myself that I was finally going to start to fulfill this dream. But I had also for a long time wanted to couple my traveling desire with an interest in volunteering. I had done various short term volunteering projects in the past, but nothing abroad. I wanted something more immersive. I wanted something that I thought would help me develop as a person and allow me to truly engage with others that were both very different from me and somewhat similar to me. Amazed at how affordable UBELONG’s projects are, I applied, not thinking I would be accepted given how last minute it was. When I got the acceptance letter, the journey began!
What is your favorite memory?
My favorite memory comes from our New Year’s Eve celebration with the local Kichwa community. Lunch that day was shared with the locals, and the elder of the community, a wonderful man named Gabriel with a warm smile that lacked a few teeth, told us volunteers that we had become part of his community. He spoke on behalf of all the community members how appreciative he was for our work that benefited the well being of his family and friends in his community. This was so heartwarming and encouraging because I went into this project asking myself how much of a difference I was actually going to make. Gabriel’s genuine appreciation assured me that I certainly did play an important role as a volunteer. And as my time passed with these people, through sharing more meals, and a lot of dancing and singing, I felt more and more accepted.
What did you take from the experience?
In terms of traveling in general, I now know that it’s true most people are nice and do want to help you. Yeah, I may have been majorly screwed over by one taxi driver, but I didn’t hold that against anyone else. I gave everyone in Ecuador the benefit of the doubt and it was worth it, because just about everyone I encountered was very kind, especially those I had the opportunity to get to know more closely.
This trip also served as a huge lesson in communication. It’s true what all the travel bloggers say about it — know the local language or not, there are multiple ways to make genuine human connections and it’s really quite amazing to witness and experience this.
Lastly, in terms of conservation, which was the theme of my service project and my major at my university, there is one takeaway that is most important. I applied to this project because Ecuador has always intrigued me but also because I wanted to explore my major, one that I adopted only less than a year ago. What I learned is that conservation in countries like Ecuador is not a concept too widely taught. It seems that the people of Ecuador do not understand the concept of simply throwing away trash (especially plastics) into the garbage. What I found is that if there isn’t a trash can conveniently nearby many will just drop it on the ground or throw it out the car window. The negatives of these behaviors are not enforced and this made me realize how important the education and outreach side of conservation really is.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
Don’t expect to know what to expect and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Even with all of the resources that UBELONG gives you, and all the talks you’ll have with worried relatives, and all the research you’ll do on your own, you’re going to experience things that you would never have expected. Not everything is going to go perfectly according to plan, but that’s not a bad thing. Even the worst or most uncomfortable experience will at least make for a good story!
Cultural immersion is an amazing experience that yields inspiring human connections that will help you grow as a person. Expect to change. Expect to be amazed by not only the people around you but also by yourself. Whether it be a knack for speaking another language or just starting a conversation with a stranger, you’ll discover the ease to be your most comfortable self. And lastly, in your role as a volunteer, expect to give as much as you can. Not material possessions, just genuine caring help. You’ll be amazed by the warm appreciation you receive in return.