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.
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!
-Amanda Stephens, Volunteer Programs Manager