Volunteers For Peace

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I am often asked how I can afford to travel for such long stints of time while having such meaningful experiences abroad AND while not spending ridiculous amounts of money. My answer is this: Volunteers For Peace.

Here’s the truth: the first time I saw the website for Volunteers For Peace (VFP), I thought… this is too good to be true. The sheer number of affordable programs offered in a plethora of countries was a beautiful sight. From social work to architecture, animal care to agricultural work, VFP embraces our span of capabilities as humans and allows us to dabble in a wide variety of fields.

Volunteers For Peace is a non-government organization founded in 1982 whose name fully embodies their aim: promoting peace through volunteer efforts. I find that the volunteer projects reach past cross-cultural exchange and delve into solving pressing problems in this world; VFP grasps ‘the big picture.’

As VFP states in their mission, “We provide projects where people from diverse backgrounds can work together to help overcome the need, violence, and environmental challenges facing our planet…Through the exchange of ideas and international understanding, our projects are practical ways to both prevent and resolve conflict while meeting local needs.”

VFP continues to be my number one choice, because I know I am traveling not only as a volunteer, but as an activist united with passionate organizations who strive to make this world a little better. With over 30,000 volunteers exchanged already, the roots of these projects have taken a stronghold, and they continue to provide solutions for tomorrow.

Ok, so how much is it? The volunteer pays for his or her own airfare. (Fear not, there are some good deals to be had.) The base registration fee for VFP is $350 for every project, no matter how long the project. After that, 40% of the projects (many in the US, Europe, and Asia) don’t have any fees on top of that. However, depending on project location and duration, there may be an additional fee for food, accommodation, and travel. For example, the extra cost for my two-week project in Costa Rica was $150, which included food, location, and some transportation. With everything, I have not paid more than $1,200 for a VFP trip, including spending money, which I think is unbeatable for a month-long experiences in a foreign country. Think of it as saving $200 a month for 6 months. Definitely do-able.

Although some projects have specific dates, there is  a huge flexibility with dates and duration for projects that are offered year round. Furthermore, many projects offer the option of a homestay, which allows volunteers to gain an even deeper understanding of the host culture. When volunteering in Haiti this last summer, I stayed with a family, and it was such and eye-opening experience.

While in Haiti, I also had the pleasure of working alongside Meg Brook, the Executive Director of VFP. Before leaving for Haiti, we had had several skype-in sessions with her, and she was able to prepare the rest of the group and myself for our journey. (Check out the Haiti program info if your interested http://www.vfp.org/explore-volunteer-destinations/volunteer-central-america/haiti )

Because the staff of VFP partakes in projects, they have a true understanding of the projected project goals, and they help to guide volunteers in the right place. They are actively involved in the creation of cross-cultural connections.

Chelsea Frisbee, the international placement coordinator of VFP states, “Travel is such a huge part of my life, and it helps us gain an understanding of the world. We come out as better people, and we develop relationships with people the world.” Their passion and involvement is evident in their work. Chelsea fervently declares, “There’s a lot I love about my job. My favorite part about working with volunteers is seeing them change… When they come back they have a different sense of self, and a different air about them. It’s incredible to see the confidence they come back with.”

Although the VFP staff guides the process, volunteers are always involved in decisions and discussions during projects; we are completely active in the process of problem solving. I love the fact that projects are not micro-managed; this complete, hands-on learning experience is very much volunteer-led. In this cooperative process, we all must work together to create ideal solutions for problems that may arise.

Chelsea states, “We live in a world of so many different people…VFP is about the cultural exchange, becoming global citizens, thinking about the impacts we have on the world.” When I asked her, how important in travel? Her answer echoed my own personal opinions on the subject. “Personally, it’s the best decision I ever made. And I think it’s especially important for young people, and women. And it’s not just about the change, but becoming more aware of what is happening in the world around us.”

Travel in general is a great way to get to know a country and its people; however, volunteering with like-minded volunteers and locals in a cooperative setting in order to achieve a common vision takes it up a notch.

With Volunteers For Peace, I have traveled to Haiti and Costa Rica, participating in education and permaculture projects. (I have several previous blog posts about these experiences, if you would like to read more about them!) I will be participating in another project this summer; I will be working in Peru at a girls home, which aims to strengthen the development and self-esteem of young girls who have been victims of sexual and physical abuse.

If you’re your not looking to go half way around the world, VFP has a new project in Jamaica; volunteers will work to teach sustainability in elementary schools. (Check out the info- http://www.vfp.org/explore-volunteer-destinations/volunteer-central-america/jamaica )

I highly encourage you to check out their site, and volunteer abroad. Their website is www.vfp.org or you can shoot them an email at info@vfp.org. They can always guide me to exactly what I’m looking for; they have something for everyone.

If your still not convinced, VFP gives out 10 scholarships to volunteers, so be sure to check this option out, the deadline comes up yearly in March. These would help to cover volunteering expenses!

Seriously, go scroll through the projects, and sign up for a project now. Travel is one of the few decisions that you will never regret, and volunteering for a cause in a foreign place is when we are truly opening our minds and becoming active citizens of our planet.

Be an advocate and activist for global solutions… Become a volunteer for peace!

Haitian Encounters

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My First official Post! Enjoy reading, and feel free to leave comments/feedback! :)

 As the plane dipped down lower and created that euphoric falling sensation in stomach pits, the entire plane erupted into loud, hearty laughter and then subsequent, jubilant conversations. And this is where the old man next to me, who had no teeth, and couldn’t read or write, smiled at me and handed me his passport and customs documents so that I could fill them out for him. From just these few moments, I knew that Haitians were young at heart, and while they possessed a quiet poise, they were never too proud to ask for help.

Haitians are the most genuinely friendly people I have ever met, and I love that the bonds immediately transcended language abilities. In fact, language itself broke the language barrier. Waiting at the airport in Port Au Prince, I discovered this in less than ten minutes. With my trusty Haitian Creole phrasebook and our new Haitian friend Jameson, I tested out my broken creole, and he would respond back in broken English. We lightheartedly laughed at each other’s silly sentence bits, but praised each other’s efforts and abilities (or lack thereof).

Late that night, we arrived at CODEHA’s home base, the site from which over the next month we would span out into 5 schools across the region of ‘La Vallee.’ It served as the site to which all volunteers return on the weekends to reflect, build fences, create gardens, and work on other projects.

CODEHA is a grassroots organization of Haiti, which grounds volunteer and community efforts in educating the children of Haiti. CODEHA stands for Corde Enfants Haitian, which literally means ‘a rope of Haitian children’.  In a larger sense, when we all work together to educate our children, we climb the rope that pulls communities, and the country, to higher places.

The home base of CODEHA completely reflected this vision. It was a miniature, thriving community with energy of electrifying proportions, complete with guitars and slack-lines. This oasis hosted a rainbow of international volunteers and Haitian leaders, children and families who came together to play, work, love, teach, learn, and to share.

Gody, a middle-aged Haitian man and the passionate leader of CODEHA, immediately and vehemently shared with us that we are not here to ‘help,’ but share in the experience. CODEHA was well known and highly respected because of Gody’s relationships with the community. Although his candor and childlike attitude pushed my buttons so many times, his ever-radiant energy and poignant enthusiasm proved him to be the epitome of young at heart.

He shared with us CODEHA’s motto: Konstwi ak sa nou ye kote. In Haitian Creole, this means build who you are, where you are, and I made this my mission while in Haiti: to build solid connections with those around me, and to relish every experience. Gody, in part, inspired me to do this. He was (is) a role model for being fully dedicated and present to those around him, and he lives for the relationships he so easily creates with people.

He always said, “You are not my friend.” I was taken aback the first time he said this to me, but he continued, “you are not my sister, either, or my brother…

…you are my existence.”

And he said this with such extraordinary authenticity that it took my breath away every time.  This is a true testimony to his character, and it completely embodies the spirit of the Haitians.

They let you in, swiftly.

This held true when we helped the older Haitian women cook. It’s amazing how the little things here can be a great bonding experience. We sorted through bags of grains and corn and picked out bad pieces for hours on end. Very quickly, I learned that this was a delightful afternoon bonding experience rather than a mundane chore.

Haitians can joyously engage in seemingly tedious tasking while completely enjoying life.

While doing this, we became fast best friends with the young Haitian girls by singing Bieber’s hits together. Eager to break the cultural bonds and transcend language barriers, we came up with cool handshakes, braided each others hair, painted nails, and they taught us ‘peche,’ a game similar to jacks, except it’s played with rocks- the Haitian twist. And when we ran out of international pop hits to sing together, it was never awkward to just be silent and bask in each other’s peaceful presence.

It was about being who you are, where you are. It was about sharing in the experience with each other.

Church further exemplified these cross-cultural capabilities. As the Haitians sang, their voices carried a mellow sadness but an even more powerful undertone of hope and optimism, which seemed to cleanse the air of the surrounding rubble and turmoil. Their dark eyes penetrated our souls as the priest openly thanked us for our help and support. His attitude was neither a plea for more help nor an insincere thank-you-but-we-can take-it-from-here. There was no underlying power struggles, no arguments of authority, no ‘us versus them’ mentality. It was an honest moment of the community appreciating that we were willing to share in the experience with them.

I am so grateful that they were willing to let us share in their frustrations, efforts and struggles. Although I may not have carried a burden as heavy as they do, not a day goes by that I don’t think about these vivaciously happy, enduring people with indestructible spirits.

I miss walking in town and continually uttering a friendly “bonswa” to everyone I see. It was always said in return with a genuine, large smile and an excited wave. In Haiti, greetings were always reciprocated with an unparalleled openness, optimism and excitement. (I fear that here in the states, the process of saying ‘hi’ to everyone you saw would be a very daunting and discouraging task.)

At one point, us volunteers and fellow Haitians even shared a bumpy 3 hour ride packed in the back of a cattle truck. The young American volunteers mixed with the older Haitian generation made for a youthful combination of never-ending sing-alongs consisting of nonsense creole phrases. I laughed as the oldest mama sang her heart out to these “joy” songs. Her voice, though wildly off key and hoarse, radiated her lively, youthful spirit. My heart felt so full as I belted out call and repeat songs in Creole, and to think that this is an everyday occurrence in Haiti…

Many people have an erroneous notion that you would have to pay money and attend a fancy spiritual yoga retreat in order to have these insta-connections, but there are some places in the world where duets of fast connections and ever-friendly exchanges are an everyday, ordinary dance.

Haiti is one of these few places.

As Gody would preach, it’s not about “bringing” anything; it’s about the gift-less exchange, sharing in the experience a junto, together.

Always while traveling, we must embrace and cherish the raw, heart to heart, cross-cultural connections; we all have something to share with each other.