Name: Stephen Rousseau
Hometown: Ocala, Florida
Nationality: United States
School: Vanguard High School
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (beginner)
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Children with Disabilities in Cape Town, South Africa
Duration: 3 weeks
Start month: July 2013
Claim to fame: Stephen spent 6 weeks living in Okinawa, Japan with a host family.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to become a UBELONG Volunteer because I had a friend who told me about the company. She was looking into volunteering over the summer and as soon as she was telling me I asked her who she was going through because I wanted to do something like she was too. The last summer I spent six weeks in Japan as an exchange student, which was amazing, but this summer I wanted to do something more and get more involved within a country. Volunteering was the answer; exploring a country while working and learning for a good cause.
Once I got on the UBELONG website I knew that UBELONG was the right choice because of the affordability and flexibility of the programs. Once I read up on the disabled children program in Cape Town, I knew that that was the one for me. I am very happy I chose UBELONG because the program was more than I expected and the staff was always so helpful and kind. UBELONG has made volunteering accessible and enjoyable for all.
What were your major challenges?
One of my first challenges was getting to the country! I had some bad travel luck and ended up in Cape Town a day later than I expected. This challenge of mine turned out just fine, because I was able to contact my very kind mentor Adriana who responded quickly and was able to tell the local staff and even get me into contact with the local team leader Clyde to rearrange my pick up.
One major challenge that I had at my volunteer project was adjusting. I worked at a center for the people with disabilities. Many of which were children and everyone there had varying degrees of physical and mental disabilities. We all sympathize with these people, but most of us don’t really understand what they are going through or don’t really even think about it for the majority of their lives. For me it was shocking to enter such a place because I had never been exposed to people in these conditions before. It was hard to keep my smile up all day and keep a positive attitude.
Then I started thinking about how most of the children were just abandoned by their parents, so I also felt mad and horrible for them. But, one of the staff, Andrew, told me that you just can’t think about that because you cannot change anything; all you can do is be here and make the kids happy because that is what they deserve. It is completely true. I stopped thinking negatively and it made my experience change. I lived for those kids happiness.
It was so rewarding to see smiles on every bodies faces and hear the laughter. I couldn’t change anything about their circumstances, but I could make their lives as enjoyable as they could be and that is all I needed to do to feel happy.
What is your favorite memory?
One of my favorite memories was when Olivia, one of the funniest residents at the center, would touch my face (because she is blind), remember who I am, shout “Oh it’s you” and laugh. She would also always sing and dance to the music whenever it came on. Another one of the little boys would always yell my name for me to come over and play with him as soon as he saw me. It was very nice to be remembered by the residents because to me it meant that they enjoyed me.
Apart from my volunteer work, my favorite memory was when Samantha, Lena, and I (my two housemates) took a road trip along the garden route. We saw so many things, went on a safari, explored the towns along the way, and went bungee jumping. It was one of the most amazing experiences and it was exhilarating. I still can’t believe I did it. Jumping off a bridge was never something I thought I would do, but I’m hooked and definitely recommend it.
This is also why UBELONG is great, they encourage that you go and explore the country that you are volunteering in. I gained many memories and met many people in South Africa at my volunteer project and outside of it.
What did you take from the experience?
Volunteering is the most rewarding way to travel! And everyone can do it. I left this experiencing wanting to do it again. I learned about another country and was able to experience many different aspects of the country and the people. Helping other people is truly rewarding and it made me feel great. I think what I took from my project is that happiness is really all we as people want.
No matter what life we are born into, we all strive to be happy. And I was able to see how far a smile can go; I think when the kids were laughing that they forgot about their ailments. This experience is only the start for me and I have been inspired to continue helping bring happiness to people.