Name: Katie Reese
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (intermediate)
University: University of Alabama
Degree: Fashion Merchandising
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for the Elderly in Cartago, Costa Rica
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: May 2015
Claim to fame: Volunteered in Costa Rica with her grandmother, Glenda!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I looked at many different programs and after reviewing various blogs, websites, and reviews I came to the conclusion that UBELONG was the best program out there. The online information that was available on their personal website and third party websites, including Facebook, made it clear that the organization would enable me to accomplish all of my volunteer goals. Also, the prices of the available programs played a part in my final decision.
UBELONG offered its services and international connections for a reasonable cost. Many of the other programs I looked at were much more expensive and I feel that participating in a volunteer program should not force you to stretch your funds. I love the idea of a home stay. I have traveled around the world and stayed in various hotels, hostels, and camp sites but I had never experienced a home stay. Needless to say, it did not disappoint.
What did you take from the experience?
The importance of serving others and the importance of respect when entering a new culture. Costa Rica taught me the meaning of service-over-self. I have volunteered a lot but it has always been helping the youth but in Cartago I served the elderly. It was such a great trip and by the end I could easily say that I formed concrete bonds with every person involved. Every day when my grandmother and I would walk in to the day care center, we were personally greeted with hugs and kisses on the cheeks. By the beginning of the second week we were getting “I love you”s with the goodbyes. Differing from my volunteer experiences with the youth, we were the ones that were being encouraged to learn. The elderly at the center were genuinely concerned with our knowledge of the Spanish language. I am not fluent, I hold conversations with people about various aspects of their lives and whenever I would mispronounce something, I would be told. The feeling of further education was mutual. Whenever I would ask what a word was in Spanish they would tell me and then almost always ask what it was in English.
Looking back and comparing experiences, assisting youth is more actively hands on. You participate in many activities with them such as playing soccer and hide-and-go-seeking. The elderly were mostly unable to perform such activities and the majority of your time is spent in conversation. Many times it was evident that they just needed someone to listen to their story. It was rewarding knowing that I could be making their day in a way that seemed so simple but yet meant all the world to them. Volunteering at an elderly day care center showed me a different way of volunteering, and I loved it.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
Do not go into your chosen program with any nervousness. Being submerged in a new culture is amazing because everything you thought you knew about the world and how its people operate is overshadowed by this new and wonderful culture that is completely different from the one you have grown up with. Learning through experience in a new culture while volunteering is a beautiful thing. Having had said that, it is important to know what you want to accomplish while volunteering in your chosen program. Once you have thought about what you want to see out of yourself after your experience it is easier to choose which program is right for you.
Based on our aspirations, my grandmother and I chose to volunteer in Cartago, Costa Rica at an elderly day care center. We wanted to have a positive impact on a group’s lives, experience a new culture, and I wanted to better my Spanish skills. We chose the elderly day care center over other offered programs because we knew that would provide a better environment for our goals. The elderly were more concerned with us learning their language and culture then young children would have thought about. It was so cool to tell stories from America to native Costa Ricans in Spanish! Lastly, enjoy yourself but don’t lose sight of why you are there. Remember that you are there firstly to volunteer and that the receivers are just as excited as the givers.
In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Arrive with eyes and heart wide open.