“I learned that a big smile can go quite far!”


Melissa Fulton is a professional from Vancouver, Canada working as a business analyst for a communications company.  She has engaged in local community service, including assisting at the local Salvation Army House and mentoring elementary school children in her community. In November she spent two weeks teaching English in our volunteer project in Peru. It was her first time volunteering abroad and travelling to South America. We recently interviewed Melissa to learn more about her inspiring story.

What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Peru?
I wanted to volunteer abroad for some time but I didn’t know how to make it possible. You guys reached out to me on Facebook and after talking extensively to Cedric [UBELONG Founder], I found my comfort zone and decided it was time to do this. Flexibility was particularly important. I have a full-time job so I needed to make it fit around that.

In terms of why Peru, I’ve always had an impression of Peru being a mystical place with friendly people.  It was definitely on my list of top ten places to visit, so I felt very fortunate that UBELONG offered projects there that were appealing to me.  Also, being from North America, you could say there are certain stereotypes about South America. I felt it would be worthwhile for me to experience Peru firsthand so I could form my own opinion. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?

I don’t speak Spanish so I was a bit concerned about that.  On a personal level, I felt the language barrier was the only thing that prevented me from having a deeper engagement with the people I encountered on a daily basis. However, the project in Peru has an amazing support system so I always had somebody around who could help me communicate. Also, Peruvians are so welcoming and inquisitive that they were very understanding and would make the effort to communicate with me in broken English or through hand gestures (and I quickly learned that a big smile can actually go quite far!). The children were especially wonderful. With the younger ones I could use gestures and with the older ones I could speak English.

From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First, an open mind because you have to realize you’re in a new situation and you have set notions but things might not be as expected. Second, enthusiasm. You have to want to see new things. I was in the teaching English project but I sat in on the French and Spanish literacy classes just to experience something different.  I also took the initiative to play sports with the kids, and that was very rewarding.  Third, optimism. You can’t come in and feel sad about the local situation. You have to look for the positive sides. People are happy and the kids show up to class every day smiling. They want to learn. I was especially impressed by the older children. At thirteen, they’re already working to help support their families. Nonetheless, they want to come to class everyday and be active and that’s very inspiring.

What kind of impact did you have on the community?
I’d like to think that I left something behind, even though I was there only for two weeks. I really enjoyed playing sports with the kids. I brought enthusiasm and helped to bring the children together by teaching a few new activities. I really hope I was able to generate interest to formalize a sport project in Peru as this is something I am quite passionate about.  I feel that children can develop great skills, values and work ethic through sport.  Finally, I hope I made some impact with the other volunteers. Forming meaningful friendships with such amazing people was very rewarding for me.  I’m very happy to have discovered the international volunteering community as it has provided a platform to engage with like-minded people. It’s wonderful to be a part of that community now.

[Driven in large part by Melissa’s enthusiasm in bringing a sport project to Peru, we will be offering one in the coming weeks. Thank you Melissa!]

How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?

The impression I felt was that the project has successfully integrated into the community and I, like all the volunteers, felt completely welcomed. People looked out for the volunteers and made sure we were doing well. I felt a personal connection with the locals, like I really belonged.

What did you learn about yourself during your experience?

I learned that I’m capable of communicating better than I thought without the local language skills, even though I’m very talkative and social. For example, we did a field trip to the zoo with the children and two of the little girls just wanted to hold hands with me the entire time.  The excitement they felt was quite electrifying, and the connection we had in sharing that experience was very gratifying. This trip also made me realize my desire for personal improvement. I have enrolled in Spanish classes here in Canada so that I am able to enhance my experience when I volunteer abroad in the future.  I appreciate the importance of learning a new language as it truly empowers you.  I surprised myself, being in my 30s is not going to limit the possibilities I set for myself. You can have a “real” job with a laundry list of responsibilities, and yet still find it possible to pursue a personal dream. You’re never too old to make a difference. You’re never too old to learn something new. That is the whole point of UBELONG: you can go out there, make a difference and have an amazing experience.

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Related post:
Read Melissa’s words after she came back from her second UBELONG Volunteer Abroad program, for another 2 weeks in Peru.