Volunteering in Europe’s poorest country: Moldova My first project involved taking care of stray dogs at a local shelter located on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Chisinau. “Casa Katherina” houses over 150 amazing dogs, and gives these guys a second chance. There is a significant problem with stray dogs in Moldova, and almost no funding or education about getting dogs spayed or neutered. So Casa Katherina is one of a few grass-root organizations that make an effort to help the local animal population. The shelter recently located to a nice grassy area near the airport where the dogs have room to run and play. There are several dog houses to protect the animals from inclement weather, and of course lots of dog toys to keep them busy. Keeping the area clean and feeding the dogs is a lot of work, but well worth it. Upon reaching Casa Katherina in the morning, I was greeted by barks and howls of joy. All of the dogs are friendly, some of them beyond friendly in fact! My other project was to volunteer to train English teachers at the State Pedagogical University in Chisinau. With resources being scarce in Moldova, education suffers because teachers are underpaid and undertrained. Furthermore, local schools are fraught with high student absenteeism, lack of parental authority, and a lack of moral. These conditions amount to a dismal situation for many of Moldova’s schools, where grades are arbitrary and supplies are absent. I taught two seminars for the local English teachers: “How To Create an Engaging Lesson” and “Classroom Management 101: Policies and Procedures.” I hope that the teachers will use some of the tools I shared with them to make their classrooms a more student-centered and effective place. One of the local principals who was in attendance was gracious enough to meet me afterwards and invite to visit her school to conduct further training with her teachers.
Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand: I had never realized the plight that these amazing creatures face. In countries bordering Thailand, logging is big business, and elephants are used to carry the heavy lumber. The problem is that the elephants are severely abused in the process. Elephants from a young age are “torture trained” with sharp hooks and whips in order to break their spirit and become slaves for the loggers. They are then forced to carry ridiculously heavy amounts of material up and down mountains, often causing injuries to their back or legs in the process. In addition these elephants are often injected with amphetamines which exacerbate the risk of injury or death. Along the logging trails elephants face the gruesome prospect of stepping on landmines.
This is how the elephant Sri Pai was injured in Burma, but thankfully she was rescued by the Elephant Park. With love and care from veterinarians and volunteers, Sri Pai is able to really thrive and roam free despite having a severe limp as a permanent reminder of the nightmare from which she was saved. Jokia is another one of our elephants with a remarkable story. While being forced to carry heavy lumber, Jokia gave birth at the top of a mountain. Sadly, the offspring tumbled off of the cliff and died. Jokia became severely depressed and refused to work. As a result one of the loggers shot her eye with a sling shot. When Jokia still refused to work the logger returned with a bow and arrow and shot out her other eye. Thankfully Jokia was rescued and lives happily in the Nature Park. Jokia’s new friend Mae Perm helps to act as her eyes and ears and they go together for a swim every day in the river. Even when Mae Perm is not around Jokia gets by well enough because she is able to use her sense of smell and vibration to help her navigate. Jokia is a very sweet and gentle giant, and clearly holds no grudges against people. Aside from logging, many of our elephants come from a background of “entertainment”. They are abused in the process of being forced to give rides to people (“elephant trekking”), or they have suffered severe neglect in some of other form of entertainment (i.e., city begging, circus work, or painting). Going on an elephant ride, tipping elephant handlers in cities, or watching elephants paint all might seem like a good time, but in the end it only encourages an industry that is rife with neglect.
Of course caring for our beloved behemoths is not a simple task. The day starts at 7AM and goes until 5PM. Some days we plant and harvest corn or banana trees. Believe it or not, the dozens of elephants we have at the park easily devour 300 bushels of corn every day… and that’s just their lunch! Each elephant has its own individualized menu designed by veterinarians in order to account for age and health requirements. Delicacy treats for the elephants include banana and melon balls. These are quite fun (and messy) to make! Of course the fruit that we feed them has to be cleaned, and in some cases peeled for those elephants that are old or sick. Aside from food, the roaming lands are enormous and require upkeep everyday. We collect elephant manure and use it for fertilizer for our amazing organic farm. Also, we plant trees to give the elephants food and shade, but then we need to build barriers to protect the trees from being run down by the elephants.
Volunteering with BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association): The town of Ubud in Bali is reputed as a center for yoga, art, and spirituality. I soon discovered it is also home to an incredible charity that helps some of our favorite four-legged friends. One such lucky pooch that I met was Mia, a blind lab mix who was found helpless in the street when she was just a puppy. Now Mia has a wonderful home, warm food, and friends to play with all thanks to her friends from BAWA. The other volunteers at BAWA come from all over the world, and some of them have been volunteering there for over two years. Duties include feeding, cleaning, and walking the dogs. Because I don’t have my rabies vaccination I couldn’t walk the dogs, so instead I collected supplies such as blankets, eggs, and rice (dogs have an interesting diet in this part of the world!). In addition to taking care of dogs on a daily basis, BAWA also has a 24 hour doggie ambulance and vet clinic to rescue sick dogs (and cats too!). One great success story from the clinic is “Yoga”, a puppy who was thrown off of a bridge and was stranded in the middle of a river for five days. Although shivering and suffering from malnutrition, she received all the love and care she could have hoped for at the clinic, and after a full recovery, she was adopted to a loving home! The saints at BAWA also have a spay/neutar program that helps keep the local animal population under control. If you want to help this outstanding organization, please visit http://www.bawabali.com/
Volunteering with The Red Cross Lifegaurds: After the youth training in Balusbos, I volunteered with the Red Cross lifeguards in Boracay. These men and women are amazing, they work every day to keep people safe and save lives. And it is dearly needed too as many people in the area do not know how to swim, yet thankfully there have been many occasions when these heroes have been there to save a life. In addition there is an ambulance to respond to emergency calls and that keeps the crew busy 24 hours a day. In addition to life saving there are a slew of community projects in which the Red Cross is working on, currently we are collecting and distributing children’s books for local schools, so if you have books please send them to our address here at the Red Cross:
Philippine Red Cross Boracay-Malay Chapter
Manocmanoc, Boracay Island, Malay, Aklan, Philippines, 5608
At lunch I would eat a hearty meal of chicken with my Red Cross family and then it was off to our station at the beach (Station #1 across from Epic). Training included some very challenging swimming exercises because the Red Cross team needs to be incredibly physically fit to respond to emergency situations. They’ve already had several successful saves this year, and I was proud to be part of a team that is making such a difference in the community and saving lives. I will miss my Red Cross family, thanks to Joe for taking me on the rounds during beach training, you can swim like a fish and even years ago during my lifeguarding hayday I couldn’t dream of swimming so fast. Also Joe, good luck with the dragon boat race it was an honor to be part of your crew if only for a short time. Thank you also to another lifeguard, Kaine, for taking me around the island and seeing things most visitors never get to experience. Thank you to Janna for all of your tireless work with training the youth in Malay, and making me feel part of the team. And finally thank you to the Red Cross Chapter Administrator Mr. Marlo Schoenenburger for trusting in me to help join with the Red Cross as a volunteer; with Marlo’s vision and outstaning leadership the Red Cross Boracay-Malay is growing into something absolutely extraordinary. Thank you as well to the rest of the team, although I may be gone from the island, none of you will ever be forgotten!
Volunteering with The Philippine Red Cross: There are no words to describe the kindness and warmth of the people of The Philippines: I arrived as a stranger but in the end I felt like I had made friends to last a lifetime. Philippinos are so down-to-earth, quick with a smile or a joke, and always looking to to help. Such was the atmosphere with my new-found family that I met while volunteering with the Philippine Red Cross. The first thing we did was travel to the mainland in Balusbos to run a youth training program. Many of the youngsters on the mainland lack education or job skills, and it was our aim to help restore their confidence and teach them some skills. Our program was extremely rigorous, but in the end, the ones who made it through learned leadership skills, communication skills. In addition, they learned CPR and first aid training. The young people we worked with were so kind and appreciative of our time, and I felt very lucky to have been a part of this amazing experience.
Helping in the Colombian Barriio: Leaving Colombia with my heart in my throat. It was really hard to say goodbye to the kids in Oasis Barrio. I’ve been volunteering with Mariposas, a grassroots NGO that tries to help educate the disadvantaged in the barrios of Santa Marta. The Barrio I have volunteering in one of the poorer Barrios called Oasis. On any given day the kids will come to class either dirty, hungry, or thirsty, or all 3 at once. I found it helpful to bring bananas and water for them as Mariposas hasn’t been able to afford to build a bathroom or have a sink with running water. So a little water and bananas go far. I also brought the kids “regalos”, or gifts if they did their best during class. The kids are truly adorable but some of them, since they come from tough backgrounds, can be unpredictable. So I figured any motivation would help. It was incredible to see how such young kids could be so interested in learning English … even when I told them I had no more “regalos” for them. One day I brought in some books for them to learn English, the kids went nuts…. I was never excited to get a book when I was little, but these kids are a different story. So other than learning English the kids are big into art, they love drawing, singing, anything creative. Their other passion is sports day which we do on Thursdays…. The girls play jump rope and the boys play soccer. As the kids got to know me they became really attached, when they saw me walking up the dirt road to greet them in the morning they would all run to give me a hug… and at the end of the day it was the same, some of the little ones didn’t want to let go. Aside from teaching the kids I also met with a group of young women in the Barrio to teach them about issues related to women’s health, family planning, and disease prevention. Health class was my favorite class growing up so it was awesome getting to teach it for the first time! For more information about The Mariposas Foundation please visit http://fmacolombia.weebly.com/
Volunteering with SAVE! in South Africa was atruly epic experience. My day started early in the morning when I would meet the other volunteers to make sandwiches for the kids’ lunch that day. Then some days we would take the kids from the settlement to the pool for swim lessons, other days we would take them to the beach as a reward for staying in school. By the way, some people have asked me, what exactly is a settlement, cuz I use this term all the time to describe who it is we are helping. Well basically it is a small community which is very poor and lacks basic stuff such as sewage or electricity. People in settlements live in shacks made out of either wood, pieces of plastic, or metal. Other days we would work with the children at the outreach center and teach them English, sing songs, play games, and teach them basic skills such as washing hands or brushing teeth. Providing basic living supplies is another important part of the program so we would often head to the settlement and bring them things such as toothbrushes, clothing, and food. The people in the settlements were very kind, and the children were so sweet and really appreciative of every little thing that we sometimes take for granted. I made a lot of great friends in this program, people from all over the world such as USA, Holland, Germany, UK, and Scandinavia. http://www.southafricavolunteerexperiences.org.za/volunteer-projects/settlement-projects.html
Volunteering with lions in Africa: This is an amazing bucket list experience. I’ve dreamed of living with lions but never thought it possible. But here at the Lion Park http://www.lion-park.com/ in South Africa anything is possible. OK, its not all fun and games playing with lions, of course there is lots of work I do as a volunteer to take care of the lions, but trust me it’s so worth it!!! We wake up early, stumble out of our tents and get to the nursery by 8AM. From there we prepare the food, it could be simple things like chopped up meat for the big lions, or for the lion babies it is bit more complicated because we actually have to prepare a formula with milk and eggs that the little guys can drink out of a bottle. Then of course there is the cage cleaning in both the nurseries as well as for the big cubs and juveniles. We work on shifts looking after the lions until either 5PM or 6PM. During breaks its super fun hanging out with the lions, they’re super amazing creatures. For sure lions are a lot more social than I would have imagined, and in fact they are the most social of all cats. Lions build bonds with people and this can take a few days or, more generally, a few weeks. For whatever reason a lot of the lions must think I’m a gazelle,out of all the volunteers I get pounced on, clawed, and chewed on the most. But working with young lions it’s all in good fun, these guys only like to play and don’t mean any harm. Over time the lions have gotten to know me better, they recognize me by both my face as well as my scent. The more they know me, the more they trust me, and its such a great feeling when they see me and come bounding up to give me a giant lion hug and kiss (they do this, it’s amazing what social creatures they are). So where do these lions come from? Sadly our lions were abandoned or rejected at birth by their mothers. It’s part of nature that a percentage of lions will be rejected due to their size or disposition, or possibly the mother’s lack of experience. And that’s why its such a great feeling to know we are here to help these lions, in so many ways be surrogate parents! Over time the bonds these young lions make with people is incredibly strong, it’s something that has to be seen to be believed!!! Of course at the Lion Park there’s more than just lions, we also volunteer with hyenas (yes there is a baby hyena I take care of in the nursery), and also giraffes and giraffe babies, meerkats, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and ostriches. The cheetahs are super awesome, I wouldn’t have expected it but they can be really social as well with people, although some days with other people I’ve heard they can be a bit moody. The meerkats look small and cute but they can bite your finger off so I’m always careful around them. Sooo, back to the lions, when they get to be adults we move them to another part of the park where they can roam freely with their pride. By the time they get there they are massive, when you first see a full grown lion from a distance it can easily be mistaken for a horse! We mix human-raised lions with wild lions, so it’s best to be on your toes with the big cats.
Educational Outreach in New Delhi: It’s been a blast working with the Vidya Grants crew. I’ve seen them work tirelessly to make sure 9th and 10th grade kids are able to afford an education in India. And affording an education in India is not as easy as it sounds. In fact most kids drop out of school before 9th grade! The government schools lack funding so they don’t have chairs or textbooks. Also there is family pressure on kids to leave school and work to support the family. One option is private school which delivers a much better education but is out of reach to most kids because of the cost. But Vidya grants finds the kids who are really motivated to succeed in school and gives them a scholarship which can be used to pay for tuition or books. One of the Vidya scholars I met is named Akash. His dad drives a rickshaw and the family makes less than $10 dollars a day. His entire family lives in one tiny bedroom. But thanks to Vidya Grants, Akash can afford an amazing private school. All these Vidya scholar winners were so kind and motivated to succeed despite their tough economic circumstances. I also met their parents who are incredibly proud of them, and rightfully so. Meeting these Vidya scholars was inspiring, and I am proud I had a chance to work with Vidya Grants to do outreach to local schools in Delhi’s impoverished neighborhoods. For more information about this incredible NGO that is really making a difference visit http://vidyagrants.org/