Volunteers Building Prosperous, Sustainable Communities

Have you ever wondered why you should volunteer? Or perhaps, wonder what kind of impact “little old you” can have on a person and on a community? The answer is: plenty. And those impacts can be felt both globally and locally. In short, by volunteering, you are helping to build prosperous and sustainable communities at home and abroad.


As an international volunteer, there are many impacts that you can and will have on a community. The immediate short term effects come from the skills you contribute. For example, when I volunteered in a Guyanese village, I taught in the high school and provided remedial math and English classes. My short term impact, therefore, was providing education that otherwise would not have existed that semester.

As for the long term effects, they have the possibility to be far reaching. Your work can have a domino effect in someone’s life – you can help someone develop the tools they need to improve their daily life and that of their family. In doing that, you are enabling them to not only increase their monetary intake but also their contribution to local society because they are better skilled citizens. More capable citizens enable a community to provide improved services and be more reflective of the community’s needs. A community that is better at responding to the needs of its citizens generally leads to a populace being healthier and more educated, law-abiding, innovative, and hopeful – all of which are important to having a prosperous and sustainable community. But it starts with you sharing your skills with those who, through the randomness of life, were unable to have access to those skills any other way.

Health and social studies

Health and social studies

Volunteering does not only have a beneficial impact on communities in the Global South – it has an impact in your local community as well. The act of volunteering and giving of yourself has a positive impact on your sense of well-being and increases your feeling of engagement in the world around you. As such, it enriches your sense of purpose in life. In inspiring others, you inspire yourself. You develop an appreciation for others and your understanding of how a community functions and how different ways of thinking can mean the difference between being stagnant and achieving growth. Volunteering also develops your repertoire of skills that makes you attractive to those hiring for both international volunteer work and paid work at home. That range of skills you develop while a volunteer enables you to do your part in making your community both sustainable and prosperous.

Superhero and Evil Doer - learning about conserving and wasting water

Superhero and Evil Doer – learning about conserving and wasting water

Some people think that they have nothing to offer to a volunteer organization, but you’d be surprised at the impact you can have. In the Guyanese village in which I volunteered, some of the boys asked the male volunteers to play a game of soccer. Being a soccer player, I invited myself into to the game, much to the boys’ surprise. Over the next few weeks, we played a number of times, even at school. Eventually, the girls I was teaching wanted to play as well! So just by simple skills such as a talent for kicking a ball and a willingness to put yourself out there, you can inspire others to new thoughts and to change. Encouraging flexibility in attitudes opens up vast possibilities for a community. Volunteering with an organization at home has also allowed me to contribute to making my community a successful one. For example, just by supporting new immigrants and teaching English, I am part of what equips them with the tools to be productive members of their new society which means our community as a whole will prosper.

– Kendra Seignoret, Youth Ambassador, Guyana 2012

Alumni Update and Intern Introduction: Kristy Tomkinson

In honour of International Volunteer Day on Wednesday December 5th, YCI would like to spend some time this week to recognize the importance of our volunteers by showcasing some of our alumni and their stories. 

First up is Kristy, who previously volunteered with YCI in Guyana in 2006 and is now joining the YCI team as the new Program Development Intern! Before joining us in the Toronto office, Kristy spent 8 months in Mombasa, Kenya, through the Aga Khan International Fellowship, where she interned with the Madrassa Resource Centre Kenya on an early childhood education programme. Previous to that, she was in Suzhou, China where she taught English with the Suzhou International Foreign Language School. Kristy is very excited to once again be involved with YCI. Welcome Kristy!

Kristy's YCI Blog Photo

The Hokey Pokey never fails! – Taken in Bumbani District, Mombasa, Kenya

How did you get involved in YCI?

I first heard of Youth Challenge International when I was waiting to speak to my program counselor at University of Guelph, in the International Development Studies department.  I saw a poster that asked me “Are you up for the challenge?” At the time I had been trying to figure out ways to go abroad to get real life experience in International Development.  I was aching to see life on the ground and actually be a part of the change at the local level.  So at that moment, I was definitely up for a challenge.  Weeks later, I was accepted into the Guyana program where I spent 2 months in Port Kaituma with 9 other volunteers.  Our main tasks were to develop and facilitate Youth Life Skills Week at the local school, design and facilitate community-based workshops on health, and distribute information on HIV/AIDS within neighbouring Amerindian villages.

Little did I know that this once in a life-time experience would lead me down a path to focusing on children and youth issues within International Development.  Since then, I have worked with First Nations youth, taught ESL in China to university and elementary students, and supported an Early Childhood and Development NGO in Kenya.  My passion for children and youth development has only strengthened and I now find myself working alongside YCI again, continuing along that path I paved six years ago.

What does your position at YCI entail?

I am the Program Development Intern at YCI’s Toronto headquarters.  I am mainly responsible for supporting the CIDA funding renewal for the upcoming call for proposals.  Funds from CIDA mainly support YCI’s volunteer programming in Tanzania and Ghana.  I am thrilled to gain more experience in proposal writing and I am learning a lot about the ‘ins and outs’ of CIDA guidelines and procedures.

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

I have always been an ardent believer that education is the most important issue facing the developing world.  Throughout my work and research with children and youth, I’ve come to discover that a sense of worth and confidence, paired with a specific skill set, can make all the difference in the world for our next generation of leaders.  Ultimate poverty is the absence of self-worth.  Through mentoring, friendship, skills-building, leadership training, and other educational opportunities, we can find what it takes for a child or young person to say, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do that!” – and that is the very first step in realizing the potential of young people on our planet.

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

Above all else, camping is my passion. And I don’t mean parking a car in a designated spot near an already set up fireplace, within walking distance to heated showers and modern toilets – I’m talking about the backcountry kind.  Whenever I get a long weekend, I pack up my provisions (including my husband and my dog), rent a canoe (if we’re canoeing), and take off to Killarney, Algonquin, or the French River, and spend the days and kilometers hiking or paddling.  For me, it’s the greatest escape and an amazing way to appreciate our country and Mother Nature.

Random Fun Fact: I was proposed to near a set of rapids during at 30 km paddle down the French River!

IYIP Blog: Forget What You Might Have Heard About Guyana!

Kendra is enjoying her last few weeks in Guyana, a country far different from the image Google painted for her.

You will never know until you go!

It is hard to believe that I only have 6 weeks left in Georgetown, it feels like just yesterday that I was stepping off that plane. As I sit and analyze the challenges and successes that have shaped my experience in Guyana, I am overwhelmed with emotions.  The multiple encounters, opportunities, experiences, thoughts, emotions (the list goes on and on) have molded my Women’s Entrepreneurship Project and my personal development of living a new life abroad. These experiences and encounters I attribute to the amazing culture, people, landscape and friends that I have made during these past 6 months.

I am grateful to be able to share my expat experience here in Guyana and I hope share a different view than the stereotypes that the country is given. It is easy for these stereotypes to be created, all kinds of biased information is available online  just one Google away. When first researching Guyana during my pre-departure stages, the information I got was negatively skewed, often from newspapers in the country outlining the corruption and politics existing in the society. I would now take this time to share what I have seen in Guyana, and how it relates to the stereotypes that exist.

Guyana- A beautiful country in SOUTH AMERICA (definitely not Africa).

1) Guyana is NOT in Africa.

When preparing for my departure to Guyana, it became very clear that most people were completely unaware that Guyana existed. Many people would respond to me by saying, “WOW, You’re going to Africa?!”. Ugh, no… I think this mistake is a combination of Guyana being a very small, fairly peaceful country that is rarely heard of in the news, and, the fact that people are unaware of the world map.  This is even more astounding when you begin to look at the Guyanese population and how it’s distributed worldwide, which brings me to my next point.

2) You know someone who is Guyanese.

I bet most people know someone who is from Guyana or of Guyanese descent. According to statistics, the population of Guyana is less than 1 million. The population of Guyana living internationally is also around 1 million. When I began to think about it, I realized I knew at least three people who were either born or whose parents were born in Guyana.

A community in Guyana, as seen from the hills.

 3) Underdeveloped- Yes. Uneducated- NO.

Because of the large population of Guyanese living outside Guyana, locals have many opportunities to travel, study and live abroad. Almost every single Guyanese I met had an immediate family member in either Canada or United States and had visited them at least once. Many have studied abroad and are highly educated at some of Canada’s best schools. While Guyana remains one of the most impoverished countries in South America, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many well-educated individuals had returned home to work. Don’t get me wrong though, the “brain drain” phenomenon is still a massive issue for Guyana.

3) Weak Government- Yes, but Strong Nation State

One of Guyana’s major development barriers is the corruption within their political system. Despite efforts to make the government more transparent, there is a long road ahead. On the other hand, the development and charity work that is taking place in Guyana is incredible. During my time in Guyana I attended numerous charity events, including a food fair, rotary club events, Guy Expo, barbeques, fundraisers and my favourite, a weekly quiz night in support of a children’s orphanage.  People here are super involved in the activities around Georgetown, which makes these events more appealing to attend.

A shot of a government building in Georgetown.

4) Is it dangerous?

Wherever you travel, there are dangerous areas that are best avoided even by locals. In developing countries these dangers are obviously more real for people who are perceived to be wealthy or have money and therefore, it is best to exercise caution. Despite all the warnings, I never once felt threatened while roaming around Georgetown. Travel smart and you’ll be fine.

5) Monoculture- NO

Guyana is actually very diverse in terms of ethnic origin and religion. Aside from the obvious Caribbean and Amerindian (native peoples) origins, Guyana was colonized by Britain; hence, English is the predominant language. Additionally, many Guyanese are of Indian and Asian descent and these roots are reflected, most notably, in the range of religions practiced.

Kendra BorutskiWomen’s Entrepreneurship Program Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Guyana 2012

What’s Your Issue?: Literacy

Recently YCI launched their Global Action Grants for Canadian Youth aged 18-35 interested in creating innovative solutions to youth issues in development. Three $500 grants will be awarded to young people from across Canada to fund micro-projects that raise awareness about development issues at home (here) in Canada. To help with ideas, alumni who are members of our Youth Writers and Speakers program will be sharing what youth issue the feel strongly about. The second in this blog series comes from Kendra Seignoret, a Guyana volunteer in 2012. Kendra reflects on the importance of literacy and what she is doing in her community to help. 

Kendra (second from the right), took time off from her job to volunteer for 3 months in Guyana this past winter. She has since remained involved with YCI as part of our Youth Speakers and Writers program.

Reading has always been a great love of mine ever since my grandmother taught me to read when I was three years old. As I got older, my companions changed from Amelia Bedelia and the Bernstein Bears to the oddities of Goosebumps. When my parents dragged me to dinner parties, I didn’t mind too much as the Famous Five were dragged right along with me. In high school and then university, my strong reading and writing skills served me well. However, it was not until after university that I truly started to realize how lucky I was to have strong literacy skills. My family has always valued reading and education, both of which are imperative for literacy development. Not everyone has the opportunity for either, much less both, during their lives.

The definition of literacy varies according to context; however, its core meaning is the ability to read critically and to write coherently. Globally, low literacy rates can impede the economic development of a country, in a world that is rapidly changing and is increasingly dependent on technology. Socially, literacy is linked to career success, decent wages, and quality of life. A person with low literacy is less likely to find good employment, obtain safe working conditions, or secure a reasonable wage. Low literacy means little access to or understanding of rights as a worker or even as a human being. Literacy even impacts whether a parent could understand the directions on over the counter drug labels or if an employee could comprehend the information in an occupational health and safety handout given at a new job.

Low literacy rates are a problem all around the world, both in the Global North and the Global South. In 2011, I decided to experience literacy in the Global South. I volunteered with Youth Challenge International (YCI) from January 9th to April 2nd in St. Cuthbert’s Mission, an Amerindian village two hours south of Georgetown, Guyana. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), both Canada and Guyana have an official literacy rate of 99%. However, in my experience, this does not reflect reality – neither in Guyana nor in Canada. Literacy goes beyond the ability to write the alphabet and to read words off a page – which, might account for UNDP’s official literacy rate.

During my three months in St. Cuthbert’s Mission, my main task was to teach English literature to grades seven, eight, and nine students as well as to provide remedial literacy to grades three, seven, and eight students. It was quickly evident why strong literacy is difficult to achieve in this particular community: there is a severe lack of supplies/books, a lack of teachers (and those that are there are untrained in literacy/phonics methods), huge class sizes, undiagnosed learning disabilities in the students, little emphasis on the importance of literacy, and a host of other social issues. Until all of these impediments to literacy are addressed, true literacy rather than basic functional literacy cannot be achieved.

Over 40% of the Canadian population has a literacy rate below the minimum level required to function well at work and daily living according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. The percentage remains about the same even when you do not take new immigrants into consideration. At least where literacy is concerned, I have realized that I do not need to travel overseas to contribute to the improvement of a person or group. Today, I volunteer for English Language Tutoring for the Ottawa Community (ELTOC). My current student is a middle-aged Middle Eastern woman who has never had the opportunity for formal schooling in her native country. As her tutor, I am teaching her how to read and write and on occasion, I share my own experiences as an immigrant to Canada, something we have in common. My experience in Guyana taught me compassion and understanding for those struggling to learn and reiterated the importance of literacy to basic life skills and overall well-being. My goal for my student is that she develops the skills to speak English fluently, to read critically, and to write coherently. My hope is that those of us who possess good literacy skills would choose to pass on our knowledge, one student at a time. In this way, one day we can make UNDP’s 99% truly reflect reality.

Expanding this work is what I would do with a $500 Global Action Grant.

To apply for our Global Action Grant, please send your application to Sarah Vickery. Applications are simple, just tell us what’s your issue and what are you going to do about it?

A Big Thank You!

It has taken a few thousand kilometres of travel, many volunteers and staff from our project locations and a lot of editing, but it is finally ready for viewing. In response to the generosity of all those who donated their Aeroplan Miles this past year (and who we hope will continue to do so), we wish to say ‘Thank You’ with this film. 

If you would like to donate your Aeroplan Miles, you can now do so online. Check out our Beyond Miles Charitable Pooling page: http://bit.ly/YCIAeroplanMiles  

IYIP Blog: 65 Shades of Entrepreneurship & Counting

Stabroek market, the largest in Georgetown, Guyana

Two months have gone by so far here in Guyana but it feels like just yesterday I was stepping off the plane at Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Georgetown.  Excited, nervous, grateful, scared; all of the above were the emotions going through my mind and body. It was during my first international experience in Brazil I was told to “expect the unexpected” and those were the words I kept telling myself over and over again. Well, two months have gone by and I continue to expect the unexpected. Since landing here in Georgetown I have learned a few life lessons, made some amazing friends and adapted to the Guyanese culture.

The organization that I am an intern with is Youth Challenge Guyana (YCG) a partner organization to Youth Challenge International (YCI).  Youth Challenge Guyana was founded in 1988 by a group of Canadian volunteers and sponsors with the intent to start a field project in Guyana. 24 years later, YCG is continuing its work by encouraging youth participation in challenging and worthwhile community service projects ranging from health, literacy, environmental research, community infrastructure and HIV/AIDS/STI education through the following Programmes & Projects:

  • The Health Programme and HIV/AID Project
  • The Education Programme and The National Volunteer Teachers Project
  • Life Skills & Livelihood Programme and the Youth Employability/ Leadership Project

As the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program Coordinator my project falls under the Life Skills & Livelihood Programme. This project originally began in January with the goal of developing sustainable businesses by providing knowledge, skills and support for 50 female entrepreneurs. Through various workshops, networking events, monthly meetings and conferences, recruitment to the project has risen to over 65 female entrepreneurs. The women entrepreneurs, a part from these meetings, workshops and networking events, have benefitted from the support of one another and the development of small business and entrepreneurship sectors in Guyana. Many of the women work together as partners, support and promote each other’s business and learn from each other.

Created from this network was a support group called WENET (Women’s Entrepreneurship Network), where all the women who are part of the project can come together, get ideas and advice while discussing their challenges. This network is the core of the entire project; women use one another as mentors and strengthen the group through increased participation levels while attracting new members. These meetings are where all the creative juices flow; many of the women in the group gain encouragement from their peers and obtain business advice.  The mentorship aspect of these meetings between the women plays an important role in the success of the female entrepreneurs, their businesses and WENET.

The famous Seawall

In May 2011 when the project was implemented there were a total of 52 members, since then there have been 18 new female entrepreneurs join the program! All of these women have remarkable businesses all ranging from different stages of development.

The Businesses that are a part of WENET Include:

  • Cake Decorating Business
  • Salon (Hair, Manicures, Pedicures)
  • Bar/Restaurant/Snackette/Deli
  • Day Care/Babysitting
  • Retail Store/ Boutique (Clothes, Shoes, Wedding Dresses, Accessories)
  • Edible Arrangements
  • Printing/Publishing
  • Mobile Confectionary Stand (toys, snacks, poultry, food)
  • Fashion Design
  • Recording Studio
  • Grocery & Variety Stores
  • Food Vending
  • Animal Care
  • Catering

I have spent the past 6 weeks in and out of the office at Youth Challenge Guyana meeting with these women as part of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Project. So far I have met with around 35 amazing women. I have visited their businesses, while others have come into the Youth Challenge Office or met me at local cafes and restaurants. During our meetings I have a one-on-one discussion, where I ask about their business, a history of their business and get to know them on a personal level. Sometimes I will meet with 5 or 6 women a day for around an hour or an hour and half; the most rewarding part of my day is leaving these one-on-ones with a sense of fulfillment and gratification. They may think that they are learning from me, however, they have no clue the amount of knowledge, independence and mentorship I am acquiring from them, through the development of their businesses and support they are providing to their families.

Some of the women I have met with are single mothers, working full-time jobs and running successful businesses on the side to provide support for their families (makes me regret all the complaining I did about working a side job during my studies at college). All of these women have begun to influence me in different ways; the strange thing is that I am here to help provide them and their network with support, however, after talking to some of these women they prove to be the most successful women I know.

Just yesterday I met with a woman who is 65 year old retired nurse from St. Vincent, now working in her spare time as a seamstress teaching sewing lessons. When asking about her long-term goal for her business she responded with “ I have set 3 goals in my life, the first to be a nurse, the second was to open my own successful sewing business, the third is to open sewing schools for underprivileged children in 3 regions of Guyana, this will help them open there own businesses.” She has already accomplished the first 2 goals in her life and is currently working on the third. It is hearing stories and goals such as these during my one-on-ones with the women that make me grateful to be a part of this amazing project and be able to meet such influential women. The goals and stories I hear from the women also apply to the concept of taking things a day at the time, achievement of ones goals does not come overnight it takes time and I believe one day at a time.

A pond in a national park in Guyana

As I sit here and reflect on the past two months I have spent in Georgetown, I think about the challenges I have faced with travelling abroad and adapting to a new lifestyle and a new culture. I also reflect on the challenges my expats friends have experienced during their time here in Georgetown as well. The one conclusion I have been able to draw from these experiences is that throughout life you will always be tested and it comes down to what you make of these tests. You can sit back and allow challenges to affect you negatively and deter you from continuing on or you can take the proactive step forward and overcome that challenge. I look at the women in the network and see the obstacles that they are faced with every day whether it is with their businesses, their families and life in general and let me tell you it doesn’t stop them or set them back. This lesson is one I have learned early on during my internship and is attributed to the amazing women of WENET and friends that I made so far. I am excited to see the challenges and lessons to be learned over the next 5 months here in Georgetown.

Kendra BorutskiWomen’s Entrepreneurship Program Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Guyana 2012

Explore, Dream, Discover.

Verge Magazine, North America’s premier magazine for exploring opportunities to study, work and volunteer abroad, has started a new section on their website for Blogs From the Field. Readers can find out what it’s really like to live abroad – from people who are doing it. Youth Challenge International volunteers are some of those voices. Below is a short excerpt from Andrew O’Dea’s blog, as he prepares for an 8-week project in Guyana:  

When I describe my plans for the summer to people here, they all approach the topic the same way, “Wow! Really? That’s so interesting! Aren’t you anxious?” The world is definitely a big and scary place, although it has never given me reason to be anxious. Of course, the proper precautions need to be addressed, but it is not in my nature to sweat the small stuff. I see this as a rare and special opportunity, and am going into it with little expectations because I know that I’ll come out of it with more than enough knowledge, appreciation, humility and many other things that are not store-bought.

For this reason, I acknowledge Twain’s words. This project is sure to be no walk in the park, but I am eager to see what twists and turns lie ahead. By keeping this little mantra in mind, the limits of this experience are boundless.

To read Andrew’s complete blog on Verge click HERE . For the other YCI contributors to Verge (such as our CIDA intern, Camaro West), click HERE.

Thanks Verge Magazine for sharing our volunteers’ experiences.