Name: Jennifer Toutant
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Nationality: United States
University: Virginia Commonwealth University
Degree: Theatre Pedagogy
Occupation: Education Director at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Languages spoken: English
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Light Painting and Renovation in Quito, Ecuador
Duration: 1 week
Start month: August 2016
Claim to fame: Jennifer’s work is in making a difference through the art and she understands the importance of being sensitive to other cultures. She’s currently working on using the arts to empower residents in a challenging neighborhood to celebrate the positivity of the neighborhood through inter-generational programming. The program is a true partnership. UBELONGers always make an impact!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I became a UBELONG volunteer because it seemed like an incredible opportunity to do a small part in making the world a better place while retreating away from my every day world. I had some challenging times in the past year and I was looking for a retreat, but wanted something that would be more meaningful that just lying on a beach somewhere. My cousin put this opportunity out there on Facebook and I jumped on it. This was exactly what I was looking for. A way to give back to the world while allowing myself the space and opportunity to work on myself.
Additionally, when I started researching UBELONG, I was impressed with the organization and quality of the programs offered. I knew this was the right choice for our group.
What did you find most rewarding from you volunteer experience?
This volunteer experience took an unexpected turn for me, so this is a bit challenging to answer. My dad has had severe heart problems all year and two days before my flight to Ecuador, he was hospitalized. I wasn’t sure if I should be getting on the plane but felt reassured to go after speaking to his cardiologist.
The trip was a whirlwind of emotions. I was so happy when I learned that our project was painting at a day care. I love painting murals. It is something that feeds my soul and beautifies space for people to enjoy. Every day at lunch, I would walk back to the volunteer house for lunch and to check my messages from home (my sister and aunt promised daily updates) and I almost had to leave twice. One day my dad was given an emergency surgery when they were draining fluid around his lungs and accidentally punctured his heart. By the time I received the message, he was stable and I was told I should stay. The next day I learned he went into a diabetic coma and they were not sure whether he was going to come out. By the time I received the message, he was stable again and was once again told I should stay. I broke down at the volunteer house several times thinking I lost my father. The host family was incredibly supportive as were the other UBELONG volunteers. Even the pet dogs at the volunteer house gave extra cuddles when I needed them the most.
Every day, we would walk to the day care and were surprised at the progress we made. I focused on one wall, hoping to design and paint a mural that would give children joy and spark their imaginations as they played. It was healing. I’ve always found art healing. I could not have requested a better project.
Aside from the emotional roller coaster I experienced, there were simple moments of purity and joy that were the highlights of the volunteer experience. The owner of the daycare, Josefina, was a gem. Watching her light up as her space became transformed was amazing. I showed her a sketch of the mural I wanted to design and she started dancing around while she visualized how the kids would use the space. Then the final day of our volunteer experience – there aren’t adequate words to describe this day and how thankful I was that I was able to stay. Josefina made us graduation certificates as a thank you. She expressed to us that her husband had died years ago and this daycare was their dream. She didn’t keep up with the maintenance required since his death and she said she found little joy. And that we had once again brought her joy. Her energy was renewed and it was apparent that it would reflect on the experience she would provide children when the daycare started up again.
In the end, I’m not sure who helped who more, but I believe it was an equally satisfying and rewarding experience for each of us involved.
My dad is okay, by the way. He had an LVAD surgery done two days after I returned home. He’s still recovering, and will soon go on a heart transplant list. I am grateful that I was able to stay in Ecuador and be home on time for his surgery.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a future UBELONG Volunteer?
- Keep an open mind and an open heart. See and feel everything. Be present.
- Do try to learn some of the basics of the language. There were times when it was definitely needed when purchasing supplies or trying to communicate with the owner of the volunteer site.
- Get to know your host family. Another one of the most rewarding parts of the trip was establishing a relationship with the hosts.