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.

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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

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Recession: A Time to Volunteer with an International NGO?

Growing up, we learned from our parents that there are certain things we must do in order to succeed in life; be a good citizen, get a good education, and attain a comfortable middle-class life.

Enter recession.

Suddenly, political, economic, and social pundits alike started to bandy about terms like “Lost Generation” and “Basement Rats”. Traditionally stable jobs are now a dying breed and full-time work is giving way to part-time jobs, the numbers of which are also rapidly decreasing. Our university friends are working in places that have nothing to do with their degrees and some are resigned to work in retail and fast food industries. These days, it turns out that going to university isn’t a guarantee to escape flipping burgers. It is easy to see why some young people drift from one minimum wage job to another, or have become disillusioned. Some have even become the dreaded basement troll of many a baby boomer’s house.

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Kendra leading a study skills workshop for grades 7-9 at at St. Cuthbert’s Mission in Guyana

Society’s usual answer to developing a career is to get more education.  However, that may not always be the best choice. Consider this – an employer has two candidates from which to choose. One has a Masters’ degree but no work experience and the other just has a B.A. but has work experience. In today’s job market, where the primary concern is with cutting costs and streamlining budgets, which candidate do you think would be more attractive: the one who has academic credentials and high salary expectations to pay back those education loans, or the one with actual real life experience and generally lower monetary expectations?

Getting real experience in a depressed job market can be difficult and highly competitive. However, the solution may lie in thinking outside of the box. Why not volunteer with an international NGO?

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Dental Hygiene workshop for grades 1-3 students. Learning about the wonders of a fresh breath!

There are two main reasons why you should consider volunteering: engagement and livelihood development. Not only would you work with young people in countries ranging from Guyana to Ghana teaching them to become involved and develop a livelihood, but the experience will also allow you to do the exact same for yourself. The goal here is for you to become the author of your own life, both personally and professionally, which is good for your overall well-being, enabling you to reject disenfranchisement and rootlessness. It allows you to participate in the complicated yet exciting world of which we are a part. It provides work experience that looks great on your resume especially when your other option is to have a gap with nothing to show for the passing time. And most importantly, it provides you with the opportunity to meet new people, create new links, and generate new possibilities – opportunities that you could not have anticipated while thumbing the Xbox or dodging burger grease splatter.

Even in a world that faces continued recession for the foreseeable future, it is up to you to secure your necessities of life, which is what livelihood development is all about. No matter the job, employers are always looking for people that have key skills. So, how do you secure the experience that demonstrates leadership, team player abilities, and problem solving skills when jobs are scarce?  By volunteering.

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Encouraging people to borrow books from the village’s small library

While volunteering in Guyana, my work enabled me to develop and demonstrate a wide range of skills such as adaptability, flexibility, cultural integration, leadership, public speaking, writing, classroom management, teaching, problem solving, creativity, and understanding and participating in team dynamics.

Remember, employers want more than just your word that you have developed key work-related and life skills; you will need to demonstrate how you did so using pertinent examples from your life experiences. It is one thing to say that you are a flexible person but quite another to explain about your time in an Amerindian village teaching literature to high school students while managing a lack of supplies and a wide variety of learning disabilities.

So instead of being one of the lost generation, why not consider volunteering overseas?  Include volunteering in your life plan and in so doing, you will become more involved in the world and people around you while developing the skills needed to make your pitch in a competitive domestic job market.

Bonne chance!

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Kendra at St. Cuthbert’s Mission, Guyana

– 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

YCI Infographic: 2011 Global Impact

Thanks to the generous help of Niki, our Catchafire volunteer, our 2011 statistics have been turned into an infographic. Since this is our first infographic, we are pretty excited. Here it is below. If you would like to see the PDF version or download it, click on the link under the photo. Thanks again Niki!

Youth Challenge International

YCI 2011: Global Impact

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?

Staff Q&A: Introducing Amanda!

Amanda has recently joined YCI as the Volunteer Program Coordinator and is very excited to support volunteers as they prepare to go on project. A graduate of The Richard Ivey School of Business at The University of Western Ontario, Amanda specialized in entrepreneurship and has a passion for youth livelihoods, microfinance, and using business for social good. Amanda realized her strong interest in international development and social entrepreneurship when she worked in Kenya in both 2009 and 2010 with Western Heads East where she assisted women’s groups with the start-up of a community-based microenterprise. Most recently she worked with YCI in Guyana as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Project Officer where she launched a new women’s networking initiative to train and support over 50 female entrepreneurs. Amanda enjoys working with young people, learning about new cultures, and playing soccer everywhere she goes.

Welcome to the office Amanda!

What does your job at YCI involve:

My job is the best! As the Volunteer Program Coordinator, I work very closely with all of our wonderful volunteers to support them throughout the entire preparation process and make sure that they are well prepared for project. As the main contact at YCI for volunteers, I interview and select candidates, provide them with all project information and resources for preparation, facilitate their pre-departure training, and provide ongoing support throughout their entire time with YCI. My goal is to make sure we have the best volunteers on board and to ensure they have a valuable experience that contributes to the long-term success of our youth development programs.

How did you get involved with YCI?

In January 2011, I was thrilled to be selected as a CIDA intern with YCI to work in Guyana for nine months. I was immediately impressed with YCI’s approach to youth development, their continuous support, and extensive preparation and training.

From March to December, I worked with Youth Challenge Guyana (YCG) as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Project Officer where I designed, implemented, and managed a new women’s networking initiative to train and support 50 female entrepreneurs. In this position, I coordinated and facilitated business training workshops, organized a mentorship program, hosted networking events, provided advice to the entrepreneurs, and identified opportunities for the female entrepreneurs to gain experience and exposure. It was a phenomenal internship and I absolutely loved working in Guyana with YCG and the wonderful local staff.

What motivates you?

Working with exciting, fun, passionate people and making people happy!

What youth issues concern you most?

I am most passionate about youth livelihoods and specifically youth entrepreneurship. With approximately 88.2 million young women and men unemployed globally, entrepreneurship is critical to create jobs, boost economic growth, and improve the communities that we live in. With so many talented smart young people in the world, entrepreneurship is a phenomenal opportunity for youth to create their own path for success.

What else do you do?

Soccer! I play any chance I can get and I also coach a U10 girls competitive team. I am also an avid snowboarder and rollerblader and I enjoy doing anything active. I spend my free time hanging out with friends and meeting new people, and I love to travel, listen to music and dance!