Volume 95, Issue 26

Thursday, October 18, 2001
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The international volunteer experience

Kenya adventure

Mali: A warm, welcoming village

Starting the search

The international volunteer experience

By Leena Kamat
Gazette Staff

Are you sick of working at a job where no one appreciates you? Are you about to graduate and have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life? Well, there has never been a more perfect year to begin your volunteer career.

The year 2001 has been declared the International Year of the Volunteer by the United Nations. Volunteering in the local community centre is one experience, but volunteering in a community centre in the middle of Africa is a completely different one.

For years, hundreds of Canadians have been travelling to Third World and developing countries to help in projects designed for community development. The jobs range from construction, to teaching, to health care and many other support roles.

Why Volunteer?

"Volunteering is a really interesting and nice way to understand another culture," said Courtney Stephens, a fourth-year kinesiology student and an intern for the Global Youth Network.

"[It] gave me the opportunity to do something worthwhile and help people at the same time," she said, explaining she spent last summer in Macedonia.

"I encourage my students to volunteer locally at places that look at global issues," said Arja Vainio-Mattila, the director of the centre of International and Comparative Studies at Huron University College. "They get to see how organizations work."

Vainio-Mattila did not know how many significant changes students could make in developing countries, but noted the human connections they can make are good for both the students and within the communities they volunteer.

The experience is what is important, she said. "Students have the opportunity to volunteer in London [and affect] global issues. We see the experience as absolutely crucial in preparing [for] a career."

Jared McMillan, a first-year masters student in kinesiology at Western and a Canadian Crossroads International volunteer in the summer of 2000, went to Ghana and worked at a health clinic as a lab assistant, as well as helping develop education programs for the patients.

"I had done a bit of travelling and I was interested in international development. A lot of the health facilities are under-staffed and so I felt I made a difference," he said.

Volunteer Organizations

CCI is a large organization that offers international volunteer programs.

Donna Mackinnon, CCI's recruitment and selection co-ordinator in London, said beginning in 2002, the CCI program will consist of six-month volunteer periods.

The largest program at Canada World Youth is the Youth Exchange Program, directed toward youths 17-20, said Giovanna Panzera, the communications co-ordinator of CWY. The program is six to seven months long, with participants volunteering in a different part of Canada for half the time and in a foreign country for the other half. The Canadian team is paired up with youth from the foreign nation and the two groups spend the entire seven months together, she explained.

Aga Khan Foundation Canada has annual volunteer programs in international development management, international micro-finance and micro-enterprise, said Ben Chapman, manager of human resources. The programs include one month training and then eight months abroad.

"We are looking for people who can clearly demonstrate interest in international development," Chapman said, adding volunteers must have a bachelor's degree.

"We want to give solid training and create leaders for the international development sector," Chapman explained. "A number of the participants stay on in the countries and work for non-governmental organizations."

Students who are not graduating or do not want to take time off from school can join programs available for shorter time periods beginning in May.

This year, Global Youth Network is sending teams to Brazil for one month, including one team from Western, said Stephens, an intern for the Brazil trip. The team leader and the two interns are looking for 10-12 team members.

The World University Service of Canada has a chapter at Western, said Debbie Luk, a second-year biology student and the president of WUSC. "We have a couple of big projects planned for the year. We want to go on an overseas trip and raise money to sponsor an exchange student to come and study in Canada."

Luk explained WUSC began at Western because the parent company can only take a few students a year in their overseas program, even though many more wanted to participate. "I want to open [this opportunity] up to students here."

Application Process

Application deadlines vary between organizations, but most of the longer term project deadlines are approaching. CCI's deadline is late January and the applicants should know if they were accepted by early February. "The most important trait in a candidate is being open to new experiences and new cultures," Mackinnon said. "They have to be open to people of other cultures."

Mackinnon said selected applicants must attend a two-weekend workshop that covers a lot of the questions and concerns participants have.

"[CWY] gets up to 3,000 applicants and 500-600 participants are selected every year," Panzera said. Applications are due Nov. 16 for a departure date in July or August. After filling out an application, those still interested participate in a "selection day," which is an opportunity to meet other applicants and for the program directors to meet and pick the final participants.

Costs & Fundraising

The Canadian International Development Agency provides funding for many volunteer organizations due to international development concerns among young people, said Steven Morris, a spokesperson for CIDA.

"Volunteering is a way to get pertinent experience in a student's field," Morris said, regarding the importance of CIDA's funding. "And it exposes youth to conditions in the developing world and shows them what Canada can do to help."

CCI covers 80 per cent of the total costs to send volunteers overseas, leaving individuals to pay the remaining $2,250 through fund-raising and personal savings, Mackinnon explained. "The fund-raising is done as a group. The participants are given an extensive fund-raising manual."

Volunteering in Canada

William Reid-Grunt is in Canada on exchange from Ghana. He worked for an agency affiliated with CCI in his home nation and in the past has helped in the placement of Canadians in appropriate volunteer positions in Ghana.

Now he is in London on his own exchange program. "I felt like I should come to see Canada," he said.

He is here for three months and is volunteering with Big Brothers in their administrative area. "I really appreciate the respect and [recognition Canadians] give to the handicapped people here. In Ghana, it is not like this."

Sylvestre Adjra, a CCI exchange student from Togo, is volunteering at a French immersion school. "My parents are volunteer co-ordinators in Togo and I grew up with the idea to be a volunteer. I came here to gain experience in the development field."

Ricki Justice, a CWY volunteer, agreed. "The main goal isn't to go and work – it's the communication between the two countries. I think I contributed to my host nation's greater understanding of Western culture."

Photos by Amy Caldwell and Simon Wong

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Copyright The Gazette 2001