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.

Photo from the Field: Vanuatu, June 2010

Canadian volunteers in Port Vila during orientation, prior to heading to their project locations

Volunteers in Vanuatu are currently working in the communities of Marae, Moriu and Nofo, with volunteers from Youth Challenge Vanuatu and Youth Challenge Australia. Their six-week project began on June 24 and will wrap-up on August 5th.

While in Vanuatu, the volunteers are engaged in a range of infrastructure, vocational training, health and literacy projects. In Marae, which is located on Epi Island, they are supporting the development of the community’s knowledge of eco-tourism, through delivering basic business management, bookkeeping and customer service workshops, as well as assisting in the construction of a tourist bungalow. In Moriu, also located on Epi Island, volunteers are building a water tank, which will provide safe and clean water throughout the village. They are also providing gender equity and substance abuse workshops, using sports and edutainment as a means of engaging youth. Finally, in Nofo, located on Emae Island, volunteers are promoting the importance of literacy and education through the construction and promotion of a school library.

Q & A: Natalie Salas, RJI Program Manager

Natalie Salas first became involved with YCI’s Central American partner organization, Reto Juvenil Internacional (RJI), as field staff support to volunteers in 2002. After finishing her degree in Social Sciences and Massive Communication Theories in April 2009, Natalie moved into the role of Program Manager with RJI. Today, volunteers usually meet Natalie during their orientation in Costa Rica.

How did you get involved with YCI? I started as a group leader in 2002. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper about volunteering and working with youth and got interested in the position of group leader. After that, I got selected and went to my community development project in December. I loved the experience!!

Favourite part of your job: I love to get to know the community and the volunteers. What most inspires me is getting to know wonderful people and learn from them.

What motivates you? Motivating others to be better and make a change in their lives. It motivates me that after a YCI-RJI experience your world changes and you become a completely different person for good.

Most memorable moment: My exchange trip to Youth Challenge Australia and Youth Challenge Vanuatu. I had the opportunity to go to visit the staff in Australia and Vanuatu and learn from a different development experience compared to the Americas. I met amazing people the changed my life for good and confirmed my desire to work with young people and motivate them to be leaders and seek for their dreams.

Natalie during her exchange in Vanuatu

What youth issue most concerns you? It concerns me that the youth are losing the real meaning of life and are forgetting about values like respect and solidarity. We are facing times of changes when the teamwork and solidarity are even more necessary and the young people should be the positive leaders in the present.

What gives you optimism? Something that I have learned is that everything has a solution, you just need to ACT!

What else do you do? I love going to the gym and doing aerobics. Love traveling and going to the beach to relax and spend sometime with my boyfriend, family and friends. I finished my career in Communication Theories but would like to go back to school to do some complementary studies.

Alumni Update: Lessons Learned

Joanna Haber was a YCI volunteer in Vanuatu in the summer of 2006. Read on to learn more about where her experience with YCI has led her in the last four years.

I want to tell you that Youth Challenge International changed my life. (It did.) But in the way I expected? Of course not. Things are never as you expect. Case in point number one: when my Ni-Vanuatu host mother asked me if I wanted to swim, I expected to be escorted to the glorious turquoise coastline of the island of Malekula, where I would frolick with dolphins and bask in the sun’s soothing rays. No. In Bislama, a creole language which is the lingua franca of the Republic of Vanuatu, while the word “swim” is a verb which describes the action of making ones way through water using arms and legs, it is also the word which describes the action of washing with water, and sometimes, soap. And thus, I did not go to the beach.

Vanuatu is an archipelago made up of 83 islands which lies due North-East of Australia in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It is similar in geography to its tourism-ravaged neighbour directly to the West, Fiji. Its natives practice land-diving as a fertility ritual every year, and the national dress is the “island dress,” a garb which looks something like what a chicken might resemble wearing a floral tapestry. The last recorded incident of cannibalism in Vanuatu was on Malekula in 1969, and in 2006, Vanuatu ranked first on the Happy Planet Index, published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a list which challenges the traditional world order by measuring consumption levels in relation to life-satisfaction. I would experience this life-satisfaction firsthand with nine other YCI volunteers in the Lambubu Cocoa Plantation, based at Amelatin station, living in a workers’ barracks that would be shared with giant rats that ate our underwear and a chicken named Gladys.

Our project was a school construction project. We sifted sand. We dug holes and mixed cement by hand. We laid bricks, mortared, sanded. I tried repeatedly to help lay the roof but was reprimanded every time I tried to climb up. I was contractually not permitted to use power tools (probably for the best). I was also part of a kindergarten development initiative, and my colleagues organized and executed community workshops on topics such as environmental awareness and sexual reproductive health. By the end of our short six weeks, two classrooms had been built almost to completion, which would house level seven and eight classes; the building would be cyclone proof and solar-powered. We had also conducted youth health workshops with community members and school classes alike. We had slept on the ground and come to like it and visited man-eating caves.  All of us had met people who had changed our lives and become a part of them forever in some way.

Case in point two: Dora, Noela, Christopher and Bruno. I guess that’s really cases two, three, four and five  – but nevermind.

Our neighbours across the street. Dora made a cake for Becca’s birthday, and Samuel’s. We would hang out with her kids after work every day, play, dance and braid hair. The night before we left, Dora invited us to share a meal in her home. She had made not one but three cakes (because she knew how much we liked them) and had prepared a speech for us about our impact on the community. Tourists don’t visit Lambubu, and our simple presence had made a difference.

Noela wants to be a carpenter when she grows up, and I’m pretty sure that if I go back there in a few years time that’s what she’ll be up to.

The morning I left, Dora handed me an island dress she had made for me and I was again moved by her generosity and kindness and devastated by the idea that I might never see her again. Luckily for me, I made a pinky swear promise to my host auntie that I would return in 2011 with my husband, and if I didn’t have one, I promised, I could be married off to someone in the community.

One of the other Canadian volunteers on my project now works with YCI in Toronto, and when she asked me to write something for the blog I didn’t really know what to write. I left for Vanuatu the day after I graduated from university with a degree in international development with the expectation* that this experience would in someway solidify my commitment to the discipline and be a great first introduction to life in the field (*see paragraph one). What happened, instead, was that I realized that this kind of work wasn’t for me. That wasn’t so much a bad thing, because being exposed to a community where life and livelihood and love were so different than what I am accustomed to gave me to the drive to keep moving and living and learning and meeting new people around the world and to write about my experiences. I learned that there are a million ways to do good and that the most important change begins with one small, seemingly insignificant action – like making a cake.
Since then, I have hitchhiked in Central America, taught English in Taiwan, met monks in Laos and currently and live in a neighborhood in Singapore populated primarily by Indian laborers who are here as a means of providing better lives for their families back home. Next month I will move to the United Kingdom, where I will once again have to adapt to life amongst an alien culture. Bob’s your uncle? Football? It’s soccer.

So then, lessons learned?

1. Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get. (Fine, Mark Twain said that.)
2. There is no direct correlation between living in a cocoa plantation and access to chocolate.
3. There are 102 accepted two-letter words in Scrabble.

-Joanna Haber, YCI Alumna, Vanuatu 2006

Vanuatu Daily Post: “Youth Challenge Volunteers Head Home”

Last week marked the end of YCI’s 10-week project in Vanuatu. Want to learn more about what the Youth Challenge program looks like for ni-Vanuatu youth? Check out this article in last week’s Vanuatu Daily Post.

“The community projects not only benefited the community but also the volunteers who participated, “As a youth working with the community, it gives me the idea that I could become a good future leader in whatever environment I am placed in, through my experience for the last 2 months in the Maskelyn Islands,” said Peni Obed. . .