Tag Archives: Volunteering

Un techo para mi país

9 May

“Wishing you always…
Walls for the wind,
A roof for the rain,
And tea beside the fire.”

~ Irish blessing

TECHO is a youth-led, non-profit organisation that works throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Their aim is to overcome poverty through the collaboration of youth volunteers and families living in poverty.

Part of their work involves constructing transitional housing to meet urgent and priority needs in slums. As stated on their website:

The house built by TECHO is a prefabricated module of 162 square feet, built in two days, with the participation of young volunteers and families in the community.”

However before the construction phase begins, the volunteer team regularly visits the community and interviews families to determine their needs and establish priorities.

As mentioned earlier, I forwent my post-birthday party sleep-in to volunteer with TECHO. About 30 young Hondurans and I piled into a big old yellow bus on Sunday morning and headed towards one of the marginalised barrios (suburbs/slums) of Tegucigalpa.

We divided into pairs (or in my case, a group of three) and were assigned families to survey. We would either be interviewing families for the first time, or conducting second visits. Visiting families for a second time helps TECHO verify facts as well as build relationships.

My group was given an initial survey to conduct. We wandered along the dirt streets under a hot mid-morning sun until we reached our designated house. It was a small 6 metre x 3 metre wooden construction with corrugated iron roofing.

Once the interview started I was amazed to hear that ten people (5 adults and 5 children) lived in that tiny building. It only had two rooms, a kitchen/living area and a bedroom. The bedroom contained two beds and a mattress on the floor.

They had electricity, but no running water. Marina*, the interviewee, pointed over her shoulder up the road to indicate where the families bathed. I’m guessing this means there was a creek or a small river further along.

It was an eye-opening experience. Working at UNICEF I’ve read countless documents about poverty in Honduras, but it’s not the same as seeing it in person or talking to people who live it every day.

Marina explained that when her husband, who was some sort of construction sub-contractor, had consecutive jobs lined up they could expect their income to reach 4750 lempiras per month. That’s AUD$235 per month to provide for a family of four.

The second house we visited had neither electricity nor water and had one wall made of cardboard and old, raggedy tarpaulins. Rosa*, her husband and three children shared the home.

We noticed they had a television in the main room, which seemed a little odd, considering they had no electricity. Rosa explained that each night her husband, who was a taxi driver, would connect the TV to the car battery and the family would watch one hour of TV together.

Any longer and the battery might go flat. The taxi was their sole source of income so more than an hour of TV was too big a risk to take.

Despite their miserable living conditions neither of the families we spoke to seemed miserable. I got the sense they were living each day as it came but were now quietly hopefully things might improve with some help from TECHO.

I was impressed by how warm and welcoming the community was to the volunteers. You could see there was a strong spirit of cooperation. And with a hospitality that demostrated how those who have the least often give the most, the entire TECHO group was cooked lunch.

I’m hoping to do more volunteer work with TECHO before my time ends here in Honduras. I’ll be sure to write more about it if I do.

*Not real names

132 days in Honduras

8 May

AFS Australia asked me to send through a report to let them know how my AFS experience has been up until today. It’s been published on their website, but for posterity’s sake I thought I would cross-post it to my blog too.

* * * * *

I had the good fortune to complete an AFS high school exchange in 2000 to Brazil. I often describe this year as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but that hasn’t stopped me from signing up for another AFS exchange, determined to turn once-in-a-lifetime into twice-in-a-lifetime.

Once caught the travel bug is an itchy little critter, so it was with a huge sense of excitement that I said farewell again to family and friends and headed overseas. This time I’ve landed in Honduras to complete a semester-long AFS Volunteer Abroad program.

I’m thrilled I can combine two passions of mine: travel and volunteer work. The idea of ‘seeing the world with purpose’ is a philosophy that very much appeals to me. An AFS volunteer program was the perfect way to realise this goal.

And Honduras certainly hasn’t disappointed. It’s a fascinating country full of contradictions and extremes. I often find myself surprised, elated and dismayed. Sometimes all three in the same day.

It’s difficult to single out just one or two highlights of my trip so far. I’ve explored ancient Mayan ruins, written press releases for UNICEF (my community project organisation), toured a volcanic island in a mototaxi (the Honduran version of a tuk tuk), visited families living in extreme poverty, been bogged in an airboat, and spent many, many hours lazing in my favourite hammock. And that’s just the tip if the iceberg.

I was also lucky enough to celebrate my birthday here. I had a fantastic party with all my extended host family. As well as tacos, tequila and cake, my fiesta included the violent destruction of a piñata. This was a lot of fun and the remnants made a great party hat!

Piñata party hats

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve lived and travelled in Latin American countries before or because I’m now older (confirmed) and wiser (debatable), but culture shock hasn’t been an issue. I’ve settled into life here with an almost surprising ease.

However making friends can prove more challenging than you might expect. It can be difficult to express your personality when you’re working with a more limited vocabulary. I’m lucky that my level of Spanish is pretty fluent, but I still find it hard to joke around and banter like I would in English.

One of my host-mother’s friends actually thought I got my words mixed up when I told her I was an extrovert. We now have a running joke that I’m only extroverted in English. In Spanish I’m an introvert.

Introvert or extrovert, the way to get the most out of your exchange is to keep putting yourself out there. Always say yes to any opportunities that come your way. You’ll be surprised where saying ‘yes’ can lead you.

I’m really glad I decided to turn this particular travel dream of mine into a reality. Halfway through my 132 days in Honduras and there are no regrets, just lots of great experiences and happy memories.

If you’re contemplating going on an AFS exchange, I only have three words for you: take the challenge! You won’t regret it.

CPO, you had me at hello

28 Jan

“UNICEF trabaja en Honduras sobre la base de un Programa de Cooperación que firmó con el gobierno de la República a finales de 2011 y que se elaboró de acuerdo a la situación de la infancia en el país centroamericano..”

~ UNICEF Honduras website

I’ve been barely able to contain my excitement since receiving my full AFS Community Project Organisation (CPO) details the other week. I’ve known for a little while now that I’ll be volunteering with UNICEF Honduras, I just wasn’t sure in what capacity.

I now know that I will be working with their communication team to support their advocacy and social communication program. The main objectives of this program are to promote children’s rights and to develop communication strategies.

The role will involve office work as well as occasional fieldwork on weekends, where I imagine I’ll be able to see UNICEF’s projects in action. This will be a great way for me to learn about the challenges the country faces and also see a side of Honduras I probably wouldn’t get to explore as a tourist.

The type of work I will be expected to assist with could include tasks such as conducting training, developing communication materials, and supporting virtual networks. I found my supervisor’s UNICEF profile online and I’m really happy that I’ll have the opportunity to work with someone so experienced. I definitely think I’m going to learn a lot.

I’ve deliberately tried to keep my existing work world and the blogosphere separate, however it’s worth noting here that I currently work as a communication and media officer. So to say that the CPO I’ve been assigned to suits me to a T, would be a slight understatement. Hello dream job!

I’m excited about the placement but also a little nervous. I think I’ve got the skills and qualifications to be an enthusiastic and productive volunteer; I just hope I can live up to any expectations the team might have. Wish me luck!


Impatient Em is impatient

30 Dec

“…of all the hardships a person had to face none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”
~ Khaled Hosseini

For those wondering about what sort of work I’ll be doing in Honduras, where I’ll be living and what my host family will be like… Join the club! I’m president, treasurer and secretary.

I’m still waiting for these details to come through from AFS. In an ideal world I’d find out before I leave Australia on 13 February. The program in Honduras doesn’t start until 22 February though, so there’s actually a fair chance I may  already be on the road in Mexico when the details come through.

Which will make for a rather interesting arrival: Hello Honduras! I don’t know where I’m living or what I’m doing, but I’m happy to be here.

I did find out quite a while ago which organisation I’ve been assigned to volunteer with, but I wanted to wait until I had more details before blogging about it. Seeing as I may not have these details any time soon I figure now’s as good a time as any to announce that I’ll be working with UNICEF Honduras.

I couldn’t be more thrilled with my placement. Ever since I found out I have been stalking their Facebook page and website relentlessly to try and get an idea of how they operate and what I might be working on. UNICEF’s mission is to build a world where the rights of every child are realised, so I’ll be happy to help them out in any capacity I can.

The head office is in Tegucigalpa, the capital city, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that this is where I’m likely to be based too. If I’m completely honest living in the capital scares me a little as:
a) I’m a bit of a country bumpkin at heart so smaller cities are my preference, and
b) it’s got a pretty ‘interesting’ reputation in terms of crime.

However I’m determined to approach everything next year with a positive attitude and a ‘let’s make lemonade’ approach.

According to Wikipedia Tegucigalpa (Tegus for short) has a population of about 1.2 million people. This makes it larger than Canberra and Blumenau (where I lived in Brazil) but smaller than Sydney or Puebla (where I lived in Mexico). So on reflection, this could be a good size for me. Not too big, not to small. A Goldilocks city size.

The other great news is that because of Tegus’ high altitude it’s still considered as having a tropical climate but it’s less humid than the lower valleys and coastal regions of Honduras. Considering my aversion to hot weather this could work out very nicely for me indeed.

As soon as I hear anything more about the sort of work I’ll be doing with UNICEF, where I’ll be living and who my host family is, you’ll all be the first to know. For the time being though we’re all just going to have to be patient. *sigh*

45 sleeps to go!

Where in the world is Honduras?

15 Sep

“The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.”

~ Britney Spears

The main response I’ve been getting when telling people that I’m heading off to Honduras, is a quizzical look and the question: “remind me again exactly where that is?”

For those not in the know Honduras is in Central America. That’s the skinny connector bit between North and South America. The isthmus to be precise. Isthmus. I do like that word.

Map of Central America courtesy of worldatlas.com

As you can see on the map, Honduras shares borders with Guatelmala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. It also has coastline on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

¿Por qué Honduras?

When submitting my application, because I’m a grand old lady of 30 years, my (Spanish-speaking) country options were limited to Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina and Mexico.

As I’ve already been to both Mexico and Argentina (albeit briefly) they moved lower down my list of preferences leaving Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras as the front-runners.

I originally nominated Ecuador as my first host country preference because I have been sponsoring a child from Ecuador (through World Vision) for the last three and a half years. I really liked the idea of travelling to Ecuador and helping out another Ecuadorian community directly.

However, I soon found out that Ecuador won’t be running the community service program next year. Jason, the AFS Sending Coordinator, had heard great things about the program in Honduras, so that’s where we submitted my application.

I was very excited to receive advice last week that I have been guaranteed a spot on the Honduras program. Look out Honduras, here I come!

Seeing the world with purpose

12 Sep

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

~ Mark Twain

When I was 17, I spent a year in Brazil on an AFS high school exchange. Not only was it the trip of a lifetime (I could write a whole other blog about the amazing time I had) but it also gave me the travel bug. Big time.

In 2005, when the opportunity presented itself to do a university exchange to Mexico I grabbed it with both hands. Once again I was blessed with a fantastic trip, but that travel bug is an itchy thing, and as soon as I was back home I started looking for the next adventure.

When I first realized that AFS also ran 18+ Volunteer Abroad programs, about 5 or 6 years ago now, I immediately had my heart set on completing one some day. The idea of working on a project that would benefit the community I was living in was really exciting. I’ve done volunteer work previously, including in Brazil while on exchange, and found this to be very gratifying.

I had initially planned on completing one of the Volunteer Abroad programs in 2007 or 2008 but, as with the best laid plans of mice and men, life got in the way and the trip never eventuated.

In June this year I suddenly became single again and ‘temporarily’ relocated to my dad’s house. (Thanks dad!) With no partner, no kids, no lease, no mortgage, and all my worldly possessions neatly packed up in boxes, I realized that if I was ever going to seize the moment and do this, now was the time!

So here I am. Getting ready to set off on what will hopefully be another fantastic overseas experience. I’m thrilled that on this trip I’ll be able to combine two passions of mine: travel and volunteer work. The idea of ‘seeing the world with purpose’ is a philosophy that very much appeals to me.

I’m not 100% sure exactly what sort of project I’ll be working on, or where I’ll be living yet, but as soon as I have those details I’ll update the blog.

More info on AFS Volunteer Abroad programs can be found here.