Remembering When…

In the summer of 2002, I was 23 and had been working at very odd jobs for the past 5 years – cook at the Hard Rock Cafe and as an author’s representative for a publisher of plays and musicals. I had dabbled in post-secondary education: cooking school and courses on computer skills, editing and fundraising. I guess you could say I had not yet decided what to do with my life. I was unemployed when I saw the posting for an Office Manager on Charity Village. The mission and vision of YCI appealed to me and after being interviewed by the then-Executive Director, Mark Ely, and then-Youth Program Manager, Shauna Houlton, I was offered the job.

At the time YCI was working in just three countries: Vanuatu, Guyana and Costa Rica. Since that time, we have also worked in Benin and Nicaragua and in 2008 we have projects in Kenya, Ghana, Grenada, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Guyana, Vanuatu, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Not only is that a mouthful, but those countries represent many more languages! Besides English, Bislama and Spanish, we are regularly advising on how a preparing Volunteer can go about learning Kiswahili or Twi or Amharic. All the mail we receive from our partners means that we have a colorful collection of stamps to set aside for Oxfam and mementos from staff visits to these countries has resulted in a very eclectic office decor.

Preparation materials were packaged and sent by mail to selected applicants as recently as 2006. This meant that, as Office Manager, I was the one responsible for photocopying the materials, stapling or binding them and putting the several booklets that made up the Preparation Package into a folder and then into an envelope to be sent out at the end of the week, along with the dozen or so other Preparation Packages. These days we are working with Taking IT Global (TIG) and have Project Pages for each host country. Not only can Volunteers (then referred to as ‘Challengers’) access all the resources they need for preparation, but they can also access a Discussion Board, or connect with other Volunteers heading to the same country. In fact, most recently we have been using TIG technology to allow Volunteers to fundraise via their own personalized fundraising page. Having been responsible for our bookkeeping, I have plenty of horror stories of trying to decipher hand-written cheque submission forms, or needing to send cheques back to donors because they had written the date in the signature field and vice versa!

When Volunteers called for assistance in hosting an information session, I would select some slides that were appropriate for the country they were heading to, slip them into an envelope and stick them in the mail. When we had the occasion to obtain a scanner, we started to scan the photos that were tucked away in filing cabinets and desk drawers and pinned up on the walls. Before long we started to have more and more Volunteers simply e-mail digital images to us, or simply a CD full of their project photos. In some cases, Volunteers are transferring their images to photo hosting sites while still on project, allowing YCI staff to get a personal look into what is happening in the field. I have fond memories of the purchase and arrival of our first LCD projector, meaning that we could finally use Powerpoint, rather than overhead transparencies, during staff meetings and pre-departure training sessions. Out went the slides! In came the ability to deliver multi-media presentations and, very occasionally, watch a movie (educational and related to our work, of course), projected onto our white board, during our lunch hour. Both our slide viewer and overhead projector were donated to Sketch, where they are put to good use.

Back in 2002, our storage closet was stacked with computers that had been recently retired: monitors, keyboard and even CPUs that only had a drive for a floppy disk. Not a 3.5 inch floppy, but an actual old-school floppy. Now the YCI desks have Apple desktops or laptops sitting on them and we are gradually being won over by these nifty machines – iChat, PhotoBooth…oh the possibilities! Our very patient IT consultant does what he can with our older PCs and we donate the rest to Reboot. We have flash drives that allow us to send field staff overseas loaded with resources for the partner organization. Our international program staff now have the ability to take their work with them on visits to our partners overseas, instead of working from an internet cafe or relying on the already-stretched resources of the partner organization.

Perhaps you are a subscriber to our e-news, which is put together by our incredible Volunteer Program Administrator, Laura Gourley. This wonderful example of html coding is a far cry from the Word template that was a nightmare to work with. It took much swearing to coax it into accepting changes and once it was complete, a handful of copies would be printed out using our lone inkjet printer, but also e-mailed as a pdf to anyone in our database that we happened to have a current e-mail address for.

Speaking of e-mail, can you believe that we do not have e-mail addresses for the majority of our alumni? In 1989, when YCI started operations and collecting contact information of applicants and participants, few people had e-mail addresses. As a result, our contact with alumni is fairly limited to those people who volunteered with YCI in the past 5 years. (If you are reading this and suspect we don’t have your current e-mail address, now would be a great time to e-mail Laura with your updated contact information!) Now it’s not uncommon for us to keep in touch with our alumni and preparing Volunteers via e-mail and Facebook and this blog. We can see their photos on Facebook or Flickr and see their videos on YouTube!

I appreciate the chance to share this walk down memory lane with the YCI blog readers. It is truly amazing the changes I have seen YCI go through is just 5 1/2 years!

Rebecca Lee is YCI’s Volunteer Program Manager and also coordinates Volunteers heading to Ghana, Guatemala and Grenada. In the spring of 2005 she had the opportunity to visit two project groups in Costa Rica. However, for the most part, she has been living vicariously through the 967 Volunteers that have come through YCI’s doors (metaphorically, of course) during her time with YCI. She is looking forward to seeing her own daughter, Madalyn, participate in a YCI program sometime after 2023.


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