Alumni Q & A: Cynthia Thomson, Vanuatu 2006

In honour of Vanuatu’s 30th Independence Day celebrations this weekend, it only seemed appropriate to feature an alumni of our Vanuatu program. Cynthia Thomson, volunteered in Vanuatu in 2006. Since then, she has remained engaged with YCI, through the Alumni Mentorship Program. She also represented YCI at the World Youth Bank Open House in 2007. Read on to learn more about what she’s up to now.

Name: Cynthia Thomson

YCI Project: Emua, Vanuatu – Youth Skills Summit, Summer 2006

Why volunteer? I volunteer because I like to use my skills to help others.My passion right now is educating people about climate change and the steps we can take to mitigate it and adapt to it.

How did it all begin? I was sitting in a Methods of Geographical Research class during my third year at the University of Ottawa and I asked a classmate of mine, who was about to graduate, what she was doing after graduation. Her answer was volunteering with YCI in Costa Rica.  I immediately pulled up the website and looked at places they offered to volunteer. I originally thought of going to Guyana because of its proximity, but having always had a fascination with Pacific islands I thought,”If I’m going to do this, I’m really going to do this.” That night I told my dad that after graduation I was going to go to Vanuatu. I don’t think he believed a word I said. A year and a half later I was sitting on an airplane destined for Vanuatu.

Most memorable YCI moment: Really, I have to chose just one? One of the fondest memories I have is the truck ride home from Emua to Port Vila at the end of our project. Our group had ups and downs but we had become very close by the end of our stay. At one point we were all in the truck, the wind blowing through our hair, smiles from ear to ear, the ocean to our right, the lush green landscape to the left.  Everyone was silent, processing the previous five weeks. It was a really good moment. 

What are you up to now? I recently completed an MA in Climate and Society. As part of my research I traveled to Fiji and the Cook Islands with the Red Cross Climate Centre to study the effects of natural climate variability and climate change on the Pacific region. After graduation, I began working on climate change and food security issues. Currently, my interest lies in climate change adaptation strategies at a very small scale.


Q & A: Camille Arkell, Administrative Coordinator

This week marks Camille Arkell’s one-month anniversary at YCI’s head office. Camille is a graduate of Humber’s International Project Management Program. (In fact, she’s the third IPMP grad to join our team in just over a year.) Prior to working with YCI, she also volunteered with CUSO-VSO in Tanzania. Read on to find out more about why she decided to join our Toronto team.

What does your job with YCI involve? A little bit of everything. I provide support to the Volunteer Programs team and I help with the financial administration, along with some other tasks including HR and IT and all the administrative things in between. The great thing about working in a small office is that I am able to interact with everyone and get a taste of all the different roles. Lastly, I am the main point of communication so if you call the YCI office or send an email to, you’ll be in touch with me!

How did you get involved with YCI? I had heard great things about YCI through a friend who volunteered in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and was interested enough to apply to become a part of the organization.

What’s your inspiration? I have met some of the most interesting, passionate and motivated people in my travels through parts of Central America and East Africa. I have had so many honest, thoughtful, and eye-opening conversations with fellow travelers, development workers, and local youth and adults, which have truly inspired me. It is the thoughts, experiences, and ambitions of other people that have made me want to see, do, achieve, and ultimately have inspired the line of work that I want to be in–international development.

What’s are you passionate about? I love to travel, experience new places, and learn about life in other parts of the world. I also love food, which complements my other passion because it makes me want to recreate the cultural dishes that I’ve tasted in my travels. I absolutely love to cook for myself and for friends, and experiment with new and different ingredients and flavours.

Which youth issue most concerns you? Gender equality. It pervades every single aspect of development and is really hindering our ability to effectively address many serious contemporary issues including HIV/AIDS, sexual and reproductive health, access to education, and even economic growth. Oppression and inequality is still a part of so many young women’s lives worldwide and I think it’s really important that we acknowledge this and commit to doing something about it.

What else do you do? Outside of YCI I spend my time with friends and family, and you will often find me outdoors on a run or indoors cooking up a tasty vegetarian dish. I love to run and I’ll be running my second half marathon at the end of September, so wish me luck!

Q & A: Tanja Zivanovic, Ghana Country Program Manager

On Monday, six volunteers started a five-week project in Ghana. Tanja Zivanovic, YCI’s Country Program Manager and a long-time member of the YCI family, was there to greet them. In addition to being a YCI alumna (Kenya 2007), Tanja also completed an IYIP placement with YCI in Ethiopia in 2008-2009.

Tanja in Ethiopia

What does your job with YCI involve? Currently, I am acting as Country Program Manager for Ghana. My job involves everything from managing all in-country program activities and supervising the staff, to developing programs with partner organizations and looking for any additional partner opportunities.

How did you get involved with YCI? In the fall of 2007 I volunteered with YCI in Kenya with Kwacha Africa. I was mostly involved in facilitating workshops with Kwacha youth and worked on a three-day info session on human rights and citizenship. This volunteer position led me to return to YCI as a Program Coordinator in Ethiopia in 2008-2009.

Most memorable YCI moment: The day I was leaving the small community of Debre Sina in Ethiopia. It was the number of thank yous from the people that YCI has worked with in the past, and seeing a community that was touched in great ways by numerous volunteers that have passed through.

What motivates you? Seeing the growth of those I work with. If there is at least one person that I have inspired to grow and expand their knowledge, then I know they can do the same for others.

Which youth issue most concerns you? Quality of education. I have seen many children having access to primary or secondary education, but the quality of education is what is lacking. There is a lot of outdated information that the children have the access to. Many of those children do not have a chance to further their education due to lack of information.

What gives you optimism? The youth that I come across working in the field. There are many issues that the youth face, but their passion for growth and development is what keeps me motivated.

What’s ahead? I will be in Ghana for some time. I’m hoping to get involved in international development on a higher level and gain as much knowledge about the issues in the field as I possibly can. Development is a growing field and there are many issues that keep changing every day. The more I learn the better I can work on making a positive change.

What else do you do? My other passion is visual arts. Combining the two and using it to inform the people about global issues is a great way of being creative and making a change. I am hope to be able to work on a documentary one day that will involve different communities and the way the youth participates in make a positive change for the future generations.

From the Archives: Toronto Pre-Departure

It may be “from the archives,” but pre-departure sessions are actually part of YCI’s recent history. In fact, this month marks the first anniversary of the launch of YCI’s distance pre-project learning program.

Volunteers during pre-departure in YCI's Maud Street office

For more than 15 years, volunteers headed to YCI project locations first flew to Toronto to participate in an orientation session. These sessions lasted two to five days in length, and featured workshops on intercultural effectiveness (with support from the Centre for Intercultural Learning), group dynamics, health and hygiene, gender and international development, amongst other topics. Program Manager, Amanda Stephens, wrote this blog post about what a day of pre-departure might look like.

While pre-departure was a great way for volunteers to meet one another, learn more about YCI, speak with alumni mentors and practice faciliating workshops, it came at a high cost—volunteers from all over Canada were required  to fly to Toronto prior to their project, which increased their individual fundraising goals substantially. And with the launch of our new partnership, Youth Challenge America, it became clear that the cost was too high for volunteers to fly to Toronto prior to flying to their destination country.

Volunteers learn more about their project country

In July 2009, YCI hosted our last Toronto pre-departure for a large group of volunteers participating in projects in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Tanzania and Ghana.

Now, prior to their projects, volunteers participate in an intensive online pre-project learning program. They are able to meet, connect and talk to one another through online learning sessions. They are also required to complete pre-project learning modules and answer reflection questions to demonstrate their learning. A long-time favourite of the Toronto pre-departures, the Alumni Speaker’s Session,  remains a core component as well—volunteers are able to login online and view presentations in realtime and ask any questions they may have.

Screenshot of the Online Alumni Speaker's Session. Through our current platform, Elluminate, participants can chat, share files, write on a group whiteboard and view presentations.

Once volunteers arrive at their destination, they participate in an in-country orientation hosted by the partner organization and YCI field staff. In 2010, YCI is continuing to develop and refine our pre-project learning program, in order to ensure volunteers are equipped to meet their project goals and hit the ground running when they arrive in-country.

Q & A: Melissa Keehn, Program Officer

This summer, Melissa Keehn be helping to facilitate a Youth Leadership Team, MUNHOPE, who will be volunteering in Kenya for four weeks starting at the end of July. This will be Melissa’s third project with YCI and her second in a staff capacity.  Melissa shared with us how she got involved with YCI and why she keeps coming back.

Melissa (back row, centre) with a group of volunteers and youth in Ethiopia, 2008

What does your job with YCI involve? As a program officer, I’ll be helping to monitor and evaluate volunteers, implement training for volunteers and provide monitoring and evaluation for YCI’s program in Kenya.

How did you get involved with YCI? In the summer of 2008, I volunteered with YCI in Debre Sina, Ethiopia. As volunteers, we taught English lessons to students and community professionals, delivered various skill-building workshops and worked on multiple projects with local youth. During the winter of 2009, I also led a group of YCI volunteers in Costa Rica.

Most memorable YCI moment: Driving across the Ethiopian landscape for the very first time and arriving at our project destination. The mountains were breathtaking, you could see for miles. I’ll never forget that moment.

What motivates you? The following quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

Which youth issue most concerns youEducation. I met many youth in Ethiopia who lived in the street and did not attend school. We had many female students miss classes because of household commitments. The millions of youth around the world who lack access to primary and secondary education. This concerns me.

What gives you optimism? Meeting people who are passionate about their work. Meeting people who take the road less travelled and achieve great things. Meeting people who are tolerant and accepting of others.

What’s ahead? I am volunteering in Haiti this November. I also plan on teaching this year. Next year I’m thinking about getting my Masters in International Development or International Relations. I want a career that combines my passion for education with my interest in international development.

What else do you do? I love to be creative. I love to paint with oils and acrylics. I just got into photography. I play acoustic guitar as well. I love going to coffee shops with my friends. I like to go running and attempting yoga.

YouthForce at the 2010 International AIDS Conference

Greetings from Messe Wien conference center in Vienna! I am very happy to be writing from the XVIII International AIDS Conference, which I am attending on behalf of YCI. This is my fifth day in Austria and over the past week I have had the pleasure to learn from and work with 300 youth from 95 countries and over 50 organizations at the Vienna YouthForce pre-conference.

To say that the Vienna YouthForce pre-conference has been a transformative experience would be an understatement. The aim of the youth gathering was to empower young participants and provide them with skill building sessions to prepare them for active participation in the main AIDS Conference, which begins today. This gathering brought together an amazing assortment of young activists to network, learn from each other and create a common platform for advocacy at the main conference.

My participation in the pre-conference was a tremendous opportunity to brush up my knowledge on HIV and AIDS and sexual and reproductive rights, and learn more about policy and international advocacy in this area. This falls outside the realm of my daily work and previous experience, and as such I felt inspired and grateful for the opportunity to learn from my peers.

Being around passionate young activists is contagious and I think it’s starting to rub off. During the opening session on “Women’s and Girls’ Issues at the Conference,” the high profile panel did not include any young women speakers, which I found quite unfortunate given the title of the session. Instead of keeping this to myself, as I usually would, I went on the mic and asked that young women be given a voice to talk about their own issues at the conference and called for the need for meaningful youth participation in all sessions that concern them–not only those that are considered a part of the youth programme. I must say, it felt good to speak out and I don’t know if I would have done this if I had not been empowered through my participation at the pre-conference. They did their job well.

The YouthForce describes advocacy as “an effort to change public perceptions and to influence policy decisions and funding priorities. At times, the policies of governments, institutions or organizations create barriers, harm or other injustices for individuals or groups of people.” An extensive e-consultation took place prior to the conference with 312 youth from over 80 countries. Three key priority areas were identified, which are known as the “three HRs”:

The three HRs: Human Rights, Harm Reduction and Health Resources

Many of the specific action points outlined in the human rights and health resources areas relate directly to the programmatic priorities of YCI and its partners at the grassroots level. For example, the Human Rights section calls for:

• the right to confidentiality and no discrimination for young people
• the right to health services
• the right to comprehensive sexual education

YCI’s programs work to link the young people we work with to youth-friendly health services in their local communities and provide them with sexual reproductive health and HIV and AIDS prevention workshops. It’s good to see that we are already working towards these goals from the bottom up. Now, at the conference, we need to work from the top down to ensure that these goals are achieved. Follow my conference adventures via twitter and keep an eye out for another blog post towards the end of the week.

-Lauren Chender, Program Manager

The Fruits of Labour

About six months ago, when we were collectively counting down the clock to welcome 2010, I wouldn’t have know that I would live out my dream to volunteer overseas. A month ago, I would not have pictured myself spending my hard-earned weekends walking up and down my city streets asking local businesses for charitable donations. And I’m sure that a couple months from now, I will not believe my eyes when I wake up in the home of my host family in Tanzania before starting my day working with youth to understand the importance of sexual health awareness and improve their outlook on life.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been soliciting the help of my family, friends, long lost friends and complete strangers to lend a hand—be it a monetary donation, perhaps a fringe-benefit from work or just their personal time to contribute. But this has not been easy. And I never expected that it would be simple because very few things in life come by easy. In all honesty, fundraising can feel like a greater challenge than putting in hours at any regular job. There is no guaranteed salary or earnings here, but the end result is above any satisfaction than the paycheque you bring home. Really, in the area of fundraising, only by your hard work and efforts will you see the fruits of your labour.

I had the idea that a charity fundraising event would be a great way to spread the message to contribute and generate donations. All the marketing, planning and licensing costs are beyond what I was prepared for, but I’m lucky enough to have great friends by my side who’ve given me more support than I could ask for—by spreading the word, to helping me promote my bake sales, to even paying for my rental fees for the venue.

So good work does not go unacknowledged. This is a lesson learned now and one that I will not forget when I arrive in Morogoro and Vanuatu.

My event happens just two weeks from now and I have a lot of work before me still. There are performers to be booked, bills to be posted and a competent volunteer bar staff to arrange. But I don’t forget the ideals and good will that have placed me exactly where I am and want to be at this time I’m my life. This is all for a great cause and despite all the challenges before me I’m committed to a success.

So if you happen to be in Vancouver on July 23, have a few dollars to spare, and want to contribute  to something so extremely meaningful, please stop by the Cambrian Hall and laugh, drink, enjoy the show and contribute to helping youth develop the skills and awareness that are so important to building a greater future for all everyone:

Location: Cambrian Hall
Date: Friday, July 23, 2010
Time: Doors at 6:30 to late
Cost: Entrance by donation with 100% of all profits going towards YCI programs
Featured: Local art, door prizes, performances and GOOD KARMA!

-Jessica Yip, Preparing YCI Volunteer. Jessica is ambitiously fundraising to participate in two back-to-back YCI projects. She will be volunteering for five weeks in Tanzania, starting in September, followed by a 10-week project in Vanuatu starting in December.