YCI Intern: Introducing Samara!

Samara joined the YCI team in Toronto as our Volunteer Program Assistant in January. Samara is completing her co-op placement at the University of Ottawa. She has one and a half year left in her undergraduate degree and then aspires to work in the International Development Industry. When you call YCI, 90% of the time, it’s Samara that picks up the phone! 

Samara Photo

How did you get involved with YCI?

Growing up in Kampala, Uganda I was exposed to the grave disparities that exist in the world, as well as the widespread poverty in the world. My childhood, therefore, taught me to be humble and to strive to make a difference in the lives of people all around the world. With a strong passion for international development, I have been involved with my community for as long as I can remember. Volunteering at seniors homes, with LiveGreen Toronto, Focus Humanitarian Assistance Canada, Amnesty International, Free the Children, and the World Partnership Walk. While most of my life and passion has been dedicated to volunteering, it was through my education at the University of Ottawa that I learned about the importance of youth, particularly youth development, in enabling future generations to achieve their utmost potential.

If it my belief that programs which strive to provide the present generation of youth with the tools, skills and education they need to succeed in their lives, will be key to alleviating poverty in many less-developed countries. By giving these youth an opportunity for self-development, the younger generation may rise up to the challenge of improving their own lives, as well as the lives of the future generations.

I discovered YCI through my co-op coordinator, as this is currently my co-op placement. After researching what YCI does, it’s goals and mission, I began to realize that I wanted to be a part of an organization that utilizes its time and expertise in bettering the lives of disadvantaged youth all across the world. However, what struck a chord with me the most, was that YCI’s programs are designed to work with disadvantaged youth, to give them the skills they need, but without imposing Western views, because it is important to allow the youth an opportunity to learn on their own, in order to make them more self-sufficient. Often times, NGOs go abroad with the intention of helping disadvantaged communities, without allowing them a chance to express their concerns. After all, these communities know their lives the best, and if we impose our own personal views on their way of life, we are only impeding their ability to achieve future success.

What does your position at YCI entail?

While taking on the role Volunteer Program Assistant with YCI, I work very closely with Amanda Armstrong, and manage the volunteer program. I am in charge of processing applications, setting up and conducting interviews, answering queries of interested and selected volunteers. Additionally, I prepare selection packages for volunteers, Orientation Guides, and conduct routine fundraising support calls with all of our selected volunteers. I am grateful for the opportunity to develop my skills related to program management and to learn to become more confident in the work that I do. It is always a pleasure to work closely with all the volunteers, to ensure that their experience with YCI is the best.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing youth today?

The biggest issue facing youth today, in my opinion, is the stigma associated with and the lack of ability to receive an education. In many less-developed countries, youth are unable to attend school due to widespread gender disparities, where women are encouraged to stay at home in order to help “run their families”, while men are encouraged to attend school in order to become the future breadwinners of their families. Each youth must be given an equal opportunity to learn and grow into well-rounded, knowledgeable individuals who are able to sustain their own lives while working to improve the lives of those around them. Here in Canada, we often take for granted the ability to receive an education, while youth in less-developed countries yearn for such an opportunity. I believe that it is our role as educated youths, to assist disadvantaged youth and provide them with the opportunity to prosper with a strong education in hand.

Outside of work, what are some of your favourite things to do?

I have always had a passion for helping my community; therefore, it comes as no surprise that my field of study is International Development. As a strong advocate for positive change, I spend most of my time volunteering and serving my community as best as I can. I have been volunteering with LiveGreen Toronto for almost four years and have gained valuable knowledge about environmental sustainability in Toronto. I also have a great love for cooking and baking. If you ask anyone in my family, I am frequently watching the food network, to expand my knowledge on the culinary arts. As a vegetarian, I enjoy reading vegetarian foodie blogs, to educate myself on the possibilities of healthy eating and living. I am always scouring the Internet for new blogs and videos to watch. I also have the strong passion for reading and always have a book on hand, my favourite genres being: Adventure and Sci-Fi. Finally, watching TV shows and movies are two of my absolute favourite things to do. If I am not studying (which does not happen often) I am watching TV shows and movies galore. Some of my favourite TV Shows are: Once Upon a Time, Arrow, Heroes, Merlin, Sherlock, Downtown Abbey, and the list goes on. If you think that is all, unfortunately it’s not! I also have a passion for travelling and meeting new people. This summer I will be going to Bangladesh for one month to conduct a field research course with my University, and I am both nervous and thrilled for the opportunity to do so.

– Samara Bhimji, Volunteer Program Assistant, Winter 2014

Volunteer of the Year 2013 Awardees

In 2013, YCI sent 80 exceptional volunteers to Costa Rica, Ghana, Guyana, and Tanzania over the course of the year. Together, this dedicated group of young people contributed over 37,000 hours to our international programs.

YCI values our youth volunteers who have demonstrated outstanding performance and skills, upheld our values as representatives of YCI, and for being continuously involved in their local communities.  In recognition of these achievements, YCI is proud to present three awards this year: the 2013 International Volunteer of the Year award to Jessica O’Reilly; the Local Volunteer of the Year Award to Omar Mohammed Bakar; and, the Runner-Up award to Kayleigh Gaspari,

Jessica joined YCI during the summer of last year to volunteer in Guyana. Not only was it Jessica’s first time travelling outside of Canada, but also it was her first time on board a plane!

kaieteur falls

Jessica at Kaieteur Falls

In Guyana, Jessica worked with students at a small education centre, conducting life skills session on self-esteem, communication skills, career guidance and  IT classes. Jessica made strong bonds within the community, attending three weddings in the Guyanese community.

Since returning to Canada, Jessica has become involved with many different organizations and continues to make a difference. She helps students with learning and behavioural disabilities at Trent University Oshawa and is part of a Pen Pal program where University students are paired with elementary students.

Aside from her school-related volunteer work, Jessica took the initiative to contact, Restoring Hope International, the foundation that built the educational centre she worked with in Guyana to let them know about her experiences at the centre. The Foundation was so impressed with Jessica that she spoke at the foundation’s annual fundraiser in New York last October.

Right now, she’s back in school at Trent University Oshawa, but she also sponsors two children that she taught at the educational centre. Now that’s dedication.

YCI also recognizes inspirational young leaders from the local communities that we serve. We’re proud to present the Local Volunteer of the Year Award to Omar Mohammed Bakar from Zanzibar.

Omar first became involved at YCI as a participant of the Emerging Leaders program in 2012. Omar was incredibly dedicated to the program and joined as a local volunteer after completing the Emerging Leaders program.


Omar is a valuable asset in Zanzibar and has had a tremendous impact on every volunteer; supporting all YCI volunteers with advice, adjusting to the local community, and translation. He also goes out of his way to be a friend to volunteers, show them around, and to share cultural experiences. And of course, volunteers love him. Aside from his friendly nature, the Emerging Leaders program would not have been successful without his translation and facilitation assistance.

Omar is a very dedicated leader in his community and serves as an inspiration to the Emerging Leader participants along with the YCI volunteers. He likes to share what he has learned, not just from the Emerging Leaders program, but also from the volunteers who come from different backgrounds.

This year, we’re also pleased to honour and present the runner-up for the Volunteer of the Year, Kayleigh Gaspari.

Kayleigh was part of a custom project in Ghana with the IVEY Business School Sustainability Club. She is a strong and independent person, taking on additional responsibilities over the course of her placement to host extra entrepreneurship trainings to youth organizations that needed additional support. Kayleighy was able to develop and make clear, coherent and professional formal presentations while conducting eight workshops during the Micro-enterprise conference she and her group organized.


Kayleigh is described as always ready to take initiative and stood up for every challenge that came her way. She is an inspiration to entrepreneurs who are encouraged by her examples.

So there you have it, our inspiring volunteers who have made differences in their own way. Become a YCI volunteer to make a difference yourself.

My Tanzania Family

I recently travelled to Mwanza, Tanzania  with Youth Challenge International, to volunteer with a local NGO, Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization as a Monitoring and Evaluation Innovator. While I was there, I lived in a rural village with a host family who had 13 children.

host family house

“My host family’s home in Mwanza, Tanzania.”

Before I left for Tanzania, I was told that my host Mama (mother) had 6 children living at home. Imagine my surprise as I pulled up in the middle of the night to my host family’s home to discover my host Mama leaving for a party and a small sized classroom of children waiting for me. That first night the oldest sibling was the only one to speak to me: “Karibu (welcome), feel free,” she mentioned many times. During my first few days whenever I was approaching the children ran away laughing, and hid behind the doorways or potted plants. I quickly came to understand that the majority of the children living on the family compound had lost their parents due to illness. My Tanzanian Mama and Baba (father) had taken the children in to become a part of their family.

pre-school kids

“Visiting my host dada’s (sister’s) pre-school.”

Everything was different in Mwanza. I walked to work on dirt – and often flooded – roads, past farmers and free roaming cows and goats. I took cold showers and slept under a bug net. There were daily power outages and we only had access to an unsanitary water supply. The ants bit, and my host sisters and brothers ate their meals with their hands while sitting on the kitchen floor. It was easy in those first few days to feel isolated and a bit misunderstood.

lunch time

“Lunch time! Our meal consists of ugali (cornmeal cooked with water), maharagwe (beans), mboga (a vegetable) and mayai (eggs).”

After a few days, the children became less shy around me. As I did not speak Kiswahili and many of the children did not speak English, we had to find ways to begin to communicate with one another. One night during a power failure, I was wearing my headlamp and began to make shadow puppets on the kitchen wall. As the children and I played, I continued to ask them for the Kiswahili names of the projected animals. After this, the children took every opportunity to point to objects, tell me the word in Kiswahili and to ask for the English word. We began to learn from, and about, each other.

play time

“Playing a game with my new sisters.”

The village I was living in consisted only of other family homes and I initially believed that the nearest store was in town, a 40-minute dala dala (a minibus share taxi) ride away. However, as time went on, the community structure began to reveal itself to me. I soon learned that the little straw hut where two women cooked over an open fire was a restaurant serving the best chapati and ginger tea around; the house a small ways down the dirt path also doubled as the local general shop where you could purchase soda, maji baridi (cold water), phone credit and even toothbrushes; and the farmer I passed on my way to work was the man who sold my host Mama the vegetables that I ate every night for dinner. Everything I needed existed around me – I just hadn’t learned how to look properly. In Canada, stores, streets and even bus stops are clearly marked, but where I lived in Mwanza, you are only privy to this type of knowledge when you are a member of the community.

restaurant hut

“A restaurant hut in Mwanza.”

My host sisters and brothers work incredibly hard everyday to complete their household chores. They start their day at 6 a.m. with a prayer and have the house cleaned before breakfast. They are the ones responsible for the majority of the cooking, cleaning and often, taking care of each other.

I wanted to be included in all aspects of a Tanzanian family life. I helped to prepare meals, went to the market and played games with my host sisters. I helped my host sisters and brothers with their homework and went to church with my host family. I even learned how to braid my host sisters’ hair! I found myself becoming a member of the household.

fish prep

“Preparing dagaa (small fish) for lunch.”

By the end of my six-week stay, I had realized that regardless of differences in language, culture or religious beliefs, when you take the time to understand, live with and care for someone, they become a part of your family. I’ve heard it said that once you have travelled to far away lands you will never again feel at home; your heart is split between the family you were born into and the one you create for yourself. It was hard to leave my new family behind, but I know I will always be welcome back home.


host family

“My host family in Mwanza! ”

-Stephanie Hanson, Youth Innovator, Tanzania, 2013

To read more about YCI’s programs in Tanzania, click hereTo read more blogs from our volunteers in Tanzania, click here

YCI is currently recruiting for an 8-week project in Tanzania this May 6 to July 1st to work with our partners on leadership, health and education initiatives. 

YCI’s Volunteer of the Year Nominations are Open!

YCI’s annual Volunteer of the Year Awards are held in recognition of youth who have demonstrated exceptional performance and skills while volunteering on YCI’s international developmental programs and have continued to be actively involved in  volunteer activities in their local community.

YCI would like to continue this tradition of acknowledging and appreciating the hard work and dedication of its volunteers by inviting you to send your nominations for our eighth YCI Volunteer of the Year award. This year, we are calling for two sets of nominations, for both exceptional international and exceptional local volunteers.


  1. The candidate must have volunteered overseas with YCI within the past year January 1, to December 31 2014. (This is for both Canadian and local volunteers)
  2. The candidate must demonstrate active and continued involvement in community volunteer activities
  3. The candidate must demonstrate characteristics of global citizenship—including respects and values diversity, and the willingness to act for equity and sustainability

Nominations can come from anyone within the YCI stakeholder community (e.g., YCI volunteers, local volunteers, alumni, local partner staff, YCI field staff, local Board Members). You can nominate more than one person. A combined team of YCI staff at HQ, board members and alumni volunteers will make the final selection for the Volunteer of the Year Award.

To nominate an individual, please choose the appropriate category and submit short answers (max. 50 words per question) to the following questions by January 31, 2014 to intern@yci.org:

1.     Category: Local or International volunteer

2.     Relationship of nominator to the nominee

3.     Describe the impact of the nominee’s contribution while on project with YCI

4.     Describe the impact of the nominee’s contributions at home in their local community

5.     How has the nominee shown demonstrated integrity and professionalism?

6.     How has the nominee been an inspiration for others?

Celebrating Volunteerism – Introducing YCI Alumna, Kelly O’Connor

In appreciation of International Volunteer Day, Youth Challenge International (YCI) and the Ontario Council for International Council (OCIC) have joined forces to collaborate and host a special Development Drinks event tonight! Here is a bio of one of YCI’s Global Leaders that will be speaking at the event. 

Kelly O’Connor – Ambassador, Ghana (2010) 


Kelly has a Bachelor’s degree in International Development from the University of Ottawa, and a post-graduate diploma in International Project Management from Humber College. After finishing at Humber, Kelly completed a 10-week volunteer project in Ghana with YCI in the fall of 2010. Currently, Kelly is on the communications team at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada, and has done contract work with the Green Party of Canada and United Way Toronto.


Celebrating Volunteerism – Introducing YCI Alumnus, Marcus Tan de Bibiana!

Youth Challenge International (YCI) and the Ontario Council for International Council (OCIC) have joined forces to collaborate and host a special Development Drinks event to celebrate International Volunteer Day on Thursday December 5th from 6pm-8pm.  

Don’t forget to Register! 

In preparation for the event, YCI is featuring five of our alumni who will be speaking about their career development and what they have been doing since their volunteer project with YCI. Over the next few days, we will be sharing bios of each of the five speakers.

Marcus Tan de Bibiana – Ambassador, Guyana (2009) and Monitoring & Evaluation Innovator, Ghana (2011) 


Marcus Tan de Bibiana is a young humanitarian professional with a special commitment to the areas of peace building, human rights, governance and conflict-sensitive development.  In pursuit of the above he has worked in Canada, India, Guyana, Ghana, Sudan and Afghanistan in a variety of humanitarian sectors at different program phases.  His career grew from very humble beginnings through frequent volunteering, learning and working with smaller, mostly grassroots organizations, and the benefits have paid off. Currently, he is completing the second of two consulting assignments with AECOM on a USAID stabilization program in Southern Afghanistan and volunteers with a Sudanese humanitarian voluntary initiative called To Sudan with Love. No matter where he ends up next, volunteering for causes he believes in will continue to be an important part of his life. 

To read more bios of YCI’s alumni speakers, check out blog posts on Emily Royer and Billy Anderson.