Janice Smith, Ramakrishna Vivekanada Girls’ Blind and Deaf Orphanage School

Name: Janice Smith
Type of Work: Education, Arts, Language
Region: Asia
Length of stay: 1-2 months

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I was the first foreign volunteer to stay and live with the girls in 2009. I taught and and other cultural activities.

Share a favorite memory.
The never ending love the girls had to offer. I learned so much about life and self discover.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
Material items are not essential to live a happy and meaningful life. I learned so much about their language and culture that positively effects me today on a daily basis.

What was the most challenging part of your job?
Not being able to speak the language, adapting to their food and hot humid climate.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Travel with an extremely open heart and try as many new things as possible, except from street food venders :)


Yvonne Nader, Voluntrek

Visiting a nearby archeological site, Uxmal.

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Yvonne Nader
Type of Work: Childcare
Region: North America
Length of stay: 1-2 months
Contact email: info@voluntrek.com.mx

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
Some years ago I was looking for a volunteer program in Mexico. Being born and raised in Mexico, I wanted to give back and help in my own country, knowing there were many opportunities and projects where I could make a difference due to the economic, political and social situation of my country. I also knew that Mexico combines diversity, contrasts, beauty, culture and traditions that I had yet to discover. When I searched Volunteer Organizations for a Program in Mexico, and the offer turned out to be only two options (and they were offered by foreign organizations), I decided to look for a volunteer placement and accommodation on my own. Even though I had lived all my life in Mexico and knew where to look and who to contact, it was not such an easy task. I ended up volunteering for 6 weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula. I was supposed to teach English to small children, but when I arrived they told me they did not need an English teacher anymore and asked me to give Religion classes to 6 different groups and helping in the office one day of the week! I had no choice, so I accepted and it was great to see how the children loved to listen to stories from the Bible: Creation, Noah´s Ark and so on, and how much they learned from each of them.

Some pictures of my students during Hanal Pixan (Day of Death) celebration.

Share a favorite memory.
It is difficult to choose just one memory, but I remember my first day teaching. I prepared paper figures to give my class for all 6 groups. I thought I would use the material throughout the day in all my classes, but ended coming out of my first class with nothing but trash, since the children had destroyed the figures while playing with them! I had to totally improvise for the rest of my classes. Even though at first it was frustrating, it really helped me understand children and learned how to prepare the rest of my classes. It helped so much that some of the regular teachers came to me and asked how I managed to keep the group so quiet and interested in the class, since they could not manage to do that while they gave their classes. This was a great satisfaction for me because I had never given classes before, and these meant the children loved my class, paid attention and learned! I am grateful that I also got to explore another part of Mexico I loved: beautiful beaches, archaeological sites, cavern-cenote diving, Hanal Pixan (Day of the Death Mayan celebration), colonial cities and magical towns.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
It really was a life changing experience, so much that I am now the founder of Voluntrek, a volunteer organization in Mexico. When I went back to Mexico City, I realized it would be an incredible opportunity for people around the world to experience what I had just lived. It had not been so easy for me to organize it on my own, and thought it would be even more difficult for someone from abroad to organize everything without knowing the culture, language and country. Wanting to share this experience with people from other countries, a thought came to my mind, “Why not help others volunteer in Mexico so they do not have to worry about anything but making a difference”. Some years later I founded Voluntrek (www.voluntrek.com.mx), offering volunteer programs in Mexico that provide and support volunteers with everything they need to have the adventure they are looking for. Our job is to make sure that our volunteers do not have to worry about anything but giving their best at the non-profit organization they will be supporting, and enjoying this unique experience of discovering a new culture. Volunteers can relax and enjoy their time in Mexico, knowing that someone local, who has volunteered in Mexico and organized her own volunteer experience once, is behind all this, making sure I can share with you the same great experience I had in 2006! Voluntrek provides you the opportunity to be part of this process through a volunteer program that you can customize according to your budget, needs and expectations.

Noh Mozon: one of the amazing places I got to visit. We were practicing cenote diving and had to abseil down to the cenote.

Sarah More, CREES

gyg-logo-teal-transparent1Name: Sarah More
School: University College London
Type of Work: Environment/Conservation, Community Development
Region: South America
Length of stay: 1-2 months

Tell us about the organization you work for and what you do for them.
I traveled to Manu National Park, Peru, with the volunteer company CREES (Conservation, Research & Environmental Education towards Sustainability) in April 2011. They have an eco-lodge set in the Peruvian Amazon where they work to preserve and study the surrounding forest as well as help the local community. I helped build bio-gardens for local people to give them more opportunity to grow their own produce, recorded rare animal numbers, and explored the rainforest with the help of the wonderful local guides.

Share a favorite memory.
There are so many wonderful memories and experiences for me to choose from, I couldn’t put just one down here. The staff at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC) was just fantastic, so friendly and always helpful. Playing soccer with them every evening was so much fun. Traveling along the Madre De Dios river on our little motorboat was another highlight, being able to watch all the things going on along the shoreline. The 4am starts to watch literally thousands of macaws and parrots flying above you was incredible. Just being in the forest, surrounded by ancient trees is a humbling feeling, as is being lucky enough to witness a female jaguar in her natural environment. However, the Peruvian people themselves have to be the best part. Their hilarious wit and kindness will stay with you for a very long time after arriving back home.

A ‘pod’ where the volunteers sleep.

What have you learned from your experience? How has it affected your long-term goals?
I am currently studying Archaeology at UCL, so I wanted to visit Peru for its amazingly vast history. Being in such an amazing country has made me want to spend a lot more time in South America. It has also made me far more active and aware of the plight of the Amazon and how we need to conserve it for the future. I learned to be far more independent and to give everything a go at least once. I also became far better at soccer after playing for an hour very night (not compulsory).

What is the most challenging part of your job?
I traveled alone and did not speak Spanish at the time, so the hardest part for me was the huge culture change. However, CREES made it all so much easier, with plenty of good English speakers and a friendly face to meet me from the airport. I was with three other volunteers, a small group for the MLC, but luckily we all got along fantastically and became so close. There is a lot of physical work involved with this project, so that is something anyone considering this needs to take into account. However, if you would prefer not to be so active there are plenty of opportunities to get involved without too much running around the jungle.

Do you have any advice for prospective gappers?
Don’t be put off by the long trip or seemingly isolated location of the MLC. The trip is an amazing journey from Cuzco, through mountains villages, up across the top of the Andes, then down through the Cloud Forest, and into the deep Amazon. There are around 10 members of permanent staff and plenty of visitors to the MLC, as well as lots of projects away from the lodge in the local towns and villages. It is a brilliant opportunity to see rainforest life and help out in a number of different ways. I had a fantastic time.

Diewitt Duong, PDS & Pacific Partnership

Diewitt Duong and Eric Wang, about to board the Cleveland

Name, Age: Diewitt Duong, 22
University, Major: UCSD, Human Biology
Type of Work: Medical/Public Health, Education
Region: North America
Length of stay: Over two years with PDS, seven weeks with Pacific Partnership 2011

Tell us about the nonprofit/social business you work for:
I volunteer and work with the University of California, San Diego Pre-Dental Society and Free Dental Clinics. I attend weekly PDS meetings and I manage our Downtown clinic location on Wednesday nights. At our clinics, we provide free comprehensive care to uninsured low income families, veterans, and homeless individuals.
This past summer, I had the opportunity through UCSD PDS to spend seven weeks on a US Navy greyhull ship, participating in the US Navy’s annual humanitarian mission, Pacific Partnership 2011. The main focus of UCSD PDS’s involvement in this year’s mission was to be dental and health educators.

How did you find your position?
I begun attending UCSD PDS meetings through a mutual friend and stayed because of all of the interesting lecturers that we have speak to our club. We’ve had congressmen and women, surgeon generals, deans of dental schools, forensic experts, and others and I’ve realized how wide the scope of the dental field is. Through UCSD PDS, I began to volunteer as a dental assistant and x-ray technician with the Free Dental Clinics, gaining exposure and experience in being a dental assistant and I applied to participate in PP11 through UCSD PDS.

What’s your typical day like?
On Wednesday nights at the clinic I manage, I and my co-manager work to make sure that the clinic we run has an environment that is efficient, safe, and professional. We ensure that the volunteer dentist has all of the instruments and supplies that they need to provide treatment, our patient’s needs are being addressed, and that our volunteer students are being as helpful as they can be. Work outside of clinic takes about 3 hours and a clinic night can last 6 hours.
On the ship, my workday would average about 17 hours. I would wake up at 0430, get on shore at 0800, work on site from 0900 to 1500, get back on and and eat dinner by 1700, do offshore work until 2100, at which time I would go to sleep. (Though there was a rough six day stretch where I averaged 4 hours of continuous sleep in a day.)

What kind of people do you work with?
At the clinics, I work with other UCSD and local college students who are all interested in dentistry as a career and profession. I also work with dentists from around San Diego who volunteer their time on average once a month. We also have wonderful staff who help maintain the surrounding facilities.
On the ship, I worked with US the Navy, Army, and Marines. We also had a wonderful contingency from the Australian, Canadian, Malaysian, French, and Spanish armed forces.

What are your living accommodations? 
For the clinics, I live in your ordinary UCSD student apartment housing.On the ship I lived in enlisted berthing area, with a small bunk and a community head.

What do you do in your free time? 
In my free time, I like being outdoors. I enjoy playing and watching sports of all sorts (especially football and tennis). I am also a diehard fantasy football player (curse you jamaal charles!)

Share a favorite memory or story from your experience! 
On PP11, we had a patient in Timor Leste who had two fused molars which were causing her extreme pain. The process of extracting both molars required the teamwork of both a US Navy dentist and a Japanese Army dentist. They spent about an hour extracting the teeth in a fantastic example of international forces joining together to provide essential humanitarian aid for those who most need it. Truly inspiring.

What inspired you to do this kind of work? If you are taking a gap year, what motivated you to do that? 
I was interested in dentistry and UC San Diego just happens to have one of the best pre-dental societies in the nation. You get exposed to multiple facets of dentistry and healthcare. Going on Pacific Partnership was a once in a lifetime experience that I just couldn’t pass up. I hope to participate again in PP12!

How are you financing your time?
I work part time with UCSD and I have personal savings and parental support.

What kind of special skills do you need to do your job?
Medical expertise

Do you feel like you are making a positive, critical impact on the global community?
I feel like I am making a positive, critical impact. We were teaching nurses, teachers, families, teenagers, and children how to take care of their teeth and overall hygiene. We were exchanging essential information that will lead to sustainable growth. The overall dental and overall health of these regions will improve over time and only strengthen their overall growth.

What have you learned about the nonprofit and social business world in your experience?
I have learned that if you don’t ask for something, you will never get it. Before 2006, there were never civilians working on US Navy vessels on humanitarian missions. The adviser to the UC San Diego’s Pre-Dental Society worked very hard to get UCSD PDS to be on the first Pacific Partnership mission in 2006 and ever since then we have opened the doors for other non-governmental organizations to work with the military.

How do you see this experience fitting into your long-term goals?
All of this experience in dentistry has only advanced my plans. I have experienced and witnessed first hand the access to care issue in not only third world countries, but also locally, in a city as great as San Diego. I know that when I eventually go and graduate from dental school, I will give back to my community and I will continue to volunteer where I can. There are many who need and deserve dental care who simply can’t afford it. Dental pain, infections and mission teeth impair one’s ability to learn, to work, and to live. I view that health professionals have an obligation to provide their services back to their community.

What’s next?
Dental school is my next eventual goal. Between that, I am continuing to manage one of UCSD’s Free Dental Clinics and working with UCSD PDS. I also plan on working with Pacific Partnership 2012, possibly embarking in the mission this summer.

Do you have any advice for prospective gap-givers?
Give back to your community! Volunteer where you can to help out those less fortunate. Your experiences can humble you and make you aware of the need that is around you.

Are you blogging about your work or travel? How can we stay in touch?
You can reach me at diewittduong@gmail.com and also keep in touch with what University of California, San Diego’s Pre-Dental Society is up to at fdc-pds.ucsd.org.

Would you be willing to take questions from potential Gappers?