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 There is a lot of outdated information that the children have the access to.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.


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.

Life and the City

A bustling street in downtown Addis Ababa

A bustling street in downtown Addis Ababa

Jane Baldwin, YCI’s CIDA Intern in Ethiopia, has just returned to Toronto from Addis Ababa.  Read about her first impressions of the city she calls home…





January 2009. Upon arrival in the wondrous city that is Toronto, the first impression is bleak, gray and cold. Literally and physically cold. In the winter, Toronto, on street level, is a quiet place, seemingly dead to the world.


I love Toronto. Toronto is my home. I have talked up the virtues of Toronto to many a foreigner, defended it zealously to many an Ottawan and I have supported the Toronto Argonauts, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Toronto Raptors, the Toronto Rock and the Toronto Maple Leafs.


During my travels, I have missed perusing Queen West with a big cup of coffee and good friends in tow, I have missed big, greasy spoon breakfasts, I have missed proximity to New York City and I have missed Street meat.


Yet, now that I’m home, in my beloved city, I feel disconnected. The city is missing something; the liveliness of people chattering in the streets, the noise, the hustle and bustle of a big city. What happened to the city I love? Do I really feel more at home in cities of squalor, that continually bombard the senses, without the luxuries of modern plumbing, consistent electricity or water than in a clean, sterile, aloof first-world city? The TTC is full of lifeless faces, resigned to inaction unless a chance encounter with an acquaintance or friend sparks the seeming rag-doll of a passenger into a life-filled being with thoughts, opinions and a smile. This transformation takes mere seconds, the catalyst only a familiar face. Perhaps harking back to an animal instinct, the people of Toronto tend to hibernate in the winter. I’m not use to this. I’d forgotten this defence mechanism existed.


Then, this weekend, something wonderful happened: temperatures soared to above zero. And the sun came out. Suddenly, the grey, bleak quiet dissipated and there was chatter, and there were people, and it was busy. The Toronto I knew, and the Toronto I love, is still here, just hidden, retreated into a big fur-hooded parka and a pair of sorrels. It took over a month to find it, but with a little sun and the remembrance that spring will come, and the city will come back to life.


– Jane Baldwin

The BEST part of my job at YCI!

It’s Monday morning at about 8:30am. I’ve just rolled into the YCI office on my blades with my backpack full and heavy, containing a large box of granola bars and a whole lot of apples. There is still about an hour and a half before the 18 volunteers arrive to start their week of training prior to their departure to either Tanzania, Ghana or Ethiopia. I rush about making sure everything’s in order – brochures ready, apples washed, dishes clean, laptop and projector ready to go and then I plug in my iPod to some speakers to make the whole atmosphere just a little more inviting. Finally, I sit down with my cup of green tea and I wait.

As usual, I’m feeling a little nervous about meeting everyone in person and hoping they all enjoy themselves and feel more prepared. A lot of careful planning has gone into this week, starting almost a month ago arranging accommodations and billeting, looking for guest speakers and re-vamping some of the sessions with colleagues.  And then I think about how the volunteers must be feeling; it might be their first time in Toronto. Or it might be their first time traveling for this long and they could have some pretty serious pre-travel jitters. It’s also their first time meeting their team—the folks they’ll be living and working with for the next eight or ten weeks. They are definitely way more nervous than I am.

As soon as Katie and then Quinten arrive, I start to relax. I know things are going to go well when all 18 volunteers are on-time and ready to start just after 10 a.m. The week is packed full of activities and while I’m not facilitating each session, it’s like I’m the MC for the event. The stress still gets to me even after coordinating more than 12 pre-departure training sessions similar to this one.

On Monday after meeting our Executive Director, Bryan, a session on YCI history, risk management and staying healthy, the afternoon is like a circus show and the office is transformed. The volunteers split into four groups that take over different parts of the office. The Ethiopia group meet in my office for a conference call with Redmond from Ottawa, just back in August from his project, and an in-person meeting with Laura who went to Ethiopia a year ago. The Zanzibar group is on the couch talking with Justina, while the groups traveling to Morogoro and to Ghana meet with Davian and Heywon, respectively at different tables in our main space. Meeting alumni is almost always the favourite session during pre-departure for volunteers—all their last-minute questions are answered and many of their anxieties quelled. It’s been a really long day and everyone’s been really enthusiastic and energetic despite jet lag and first day jitters.

The rest of the week goes really smoothly with guest speakers arriving on time and everyone actively participating. Emanuel came in to talk about HIV/AIDS, which included inevitable giggles as a few condoms are passed around the room.  Two guest speakers came from the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and openly shared their very personal stories about living with HIV. I’ve had the privilege of attending lots of PWAF speaks and during this particular speak, I was personally blown away and really moved by the way one of the speakers made his presentation – through a theatrical story-telling approach that had us all listening so attentively you could definitely hear a pin drop!

One of the highlights of the week was a workshop on teaching literacy and English as a foreign language in a social justice framework. Elizabeth and Jeff brought their personal expertise from Korea, Nepal, Bangladesh and beyond and activated the group through a series of games and activities. Talk about energy in the room! Oh… and maybe just a bit too much noise as we engaged in role plays, musicals and a bit of stomping. So much so that our neighbour from downstairs came for a visit to lodge a noise complaint. That was definitely a first for any pre-departure training session I’ve been a part of!

The week continued with sessions on gender, youth development and an afternoon dedicated to planning and facilitating workshops. The volunteers participating in the CIDA-funded Tanzania and Ghana projects also spent a couple of days with Kelly from the Centre for Intercultural Learning. This two-day session focused on intercultural effectiveness, where everyone spent time with a guest speaker from the host country where they would be traveling, to ask any question that they could think of. The volunteers going to Ethiopia spent their last day with Jessica and I exploring the concepts of culture shock and cultural adaptation. We were also lucky to be joined by Lula from the Ethiopian Association of Ontario, learning a bit of Amharic and more about Ethiopian culture.

Another highlight of the week was the chaos of the end-of-pre-departure YCI packing party! Packages had been arriving from family and friends for overseas field staff in the weeks leading up to pre-departure. Past participants had been sending in gifts for people they met on project. Field staff had made different requests for items such as books and disposable cameras, as well as informational resources for programming. The piles in my office and spilling over to Jane’s office are pretty huge and all of it has to go! Random suitcases found on the street or collected from secondhand stores with slightly odd smells and colourful interiors litter the storeroom. The volunteers also arrived with lots of donated items for programming purposes. With some creative approaches to packing, we managed to get everything ready with almost everyone traveling with an extra bag full of “stuff” for the field. Cooperation at its best! Hopefully everything makes it in one piece and to the intended location and recipient.

All in all, it really was a successful week. We all got to know each other better and I’m so excited for everything the volunteers will experience while they’re overseas. I truly appreciate how much of themselves everyone gave to the week to stay engaged and learn despite their overwhelming sense of “come on already, let me on that plane!” And that’s where we usually say goodbye – at the airport. There we were in terminal three near the KLM check-in kiosks. Just picture it – 15 volunteers with two bags each (still re-packing stuff!) plus all their carry-on, and me handing out evaluation forms, making sure baggage tags are properly filled out, and seeing everyone check-in before that final hug.



The volunteers travelling to Tanzania and Ghana ready to go at the airport! That's me in the front row on the far right.

The volunteers travelling to Tanzania and Ghana ready to go at the airport! That

It’s always hard to say goodbye to each group, especially because I’m not getting on the plane with them! But I am grateful and appreciative to hear all about their experiences, see their fantastic photos and how their contributions on project make change over time. Pre-departure training, while being probably one of the most stressful parts of my job as a Volunteer Program Manager at YCI, is also so rewarding. It’s the culmination of all of our hard work – volunteers and staff at YCI – getting to that point. It’s a pleasure to meet them in person and contribute to their learning before their overseas journey begins. I wish them all the best on project.

With the fall Africa country program pre-departure sessions over and the projects currently in action, it’s time to step up all the preparations for winter departures already!

The group en route to Ethiopia! This photo was posted by Olivier on his travel blog.

Amanda Stephens, Volunteer Programs Manager