AmeriCorps: Looking Outward, Inward, Forward: An Interview from Serve Reflect Repeat

Nicole Vera is one of 20+ authors for Serve Reflect Repeat, a collection of stories from AmeriCorps Alumni across the country.  Listen to learn more about how she has leveraged service to work across cultures and boarders.

Note: all the proceeds from the sale of Serve Reflect Repeat benefit the NGS movement.

Go Where There is Greater Need

Hanging out with the community,helping the world“Go where there is greater need,” these words on a poster promoting volunteer opportunities with the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP), caught Camille Tacastacas’ attention.  To participate in JVP, Camille needed to be a college graduate, so the poster got filed away in the back of her mind. A few years later, after graduating from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, Camille moved to the United States. In a struggling U.S. job market, she found herself working as a preschool teacher. She enjoyed her work but she could not forget the JVP poster and the pull to serve in the most under-resourced communities in her home country.  She applied to become a Jesuit Volunteer, got accepted, and moved back to serve full-time in Culion, Palawan.  Due to her background in early childhood education, she was placed with Cartwheel Foundation, Inc., an organization that partners with Indigenous Peoples (IP) to preserve their culture and empower the community through education programs. In Culion, Camille worked with two Tagbanua island communities.   I conducted an interview with Camille about her experience:

What were some challenges you faced on the island?

Camille spoke of the lack of luxuries on the island, so sparse compared to her life in the Philippines and here in the US. “[We] only had electricity from noon ‘til 11pm each day. We would go days without running water, which is funny because we lived in an island; getting fresh water was a problem.”

She mentioned the slower pace of life on the island. She was living a simple life – no toilets when she would stay a few days in the IP communities. But she reflects:

“Simplicity can teach you more than you could ever ask for… really seeing the beauty of life, there was no sitting down and watching TV. We were telling stories, and it was beautiful.”

What parts of service made you feel out of your comfort zone?

Camille answered this question by ranting (passionately) about the blatant injustices in her country and the world:

“It was a different kind of poverty. I met older adults in their 80s who had never sat in a classroom before, but are very eager to learn to read and write.”

“Watching a 9-year old kid learn to read for the first time was rewarding. That gave so much meaning to the mission. Then you remember what you started with: cement floors and empty rice sacks as seats. When we got funds and the communities got involved, they built their own chairs and put up their own classroom walls made out of nipa…They (the community) were grateful for the simplest of things – even to see make-shift chairs in their classroom in the islands.”

As Camille shared, she expressed her gratitude to nongovernmental organizations or nonprofits which partner with the government in filling the gaps and providing basic social services.

“In Cartwheel Foundation, we target education but we do not turn a blind eye to the other needs of the community. For example, we partnered with an organization that specializes in water systems when we found that one Tagbanua community had to hike a few miles through the mountains to transport potable water on their shoulders. Even the children did this for their families. They were content and saw this as part of life, but were grateful to have a water source closer to their homes.”

Is there a specific memory you can share?

“[Two of our students] were learning to read, so I would write on their notebooks and I would point to each syllable, one at a time. They were stringing letter sounds into syllables, syllables into words, words into sentences. We all just looked at each other, amazed, because these two 9-year olds just learned how to read.” Camille told this story with magic in her voice. “…Being a witness to the clicking of the light bulb is just something else. Thinking about these children starting their own families in the future, and being able teach their children how to read and write…it’s a drop in the ocean, but definitely one step to solving illiteracy in this Tagbanua community.”

How did this shape your career?

“I always knew I wanted to work in nonprofits, but [after JVP] I knew I wanted to work with programs.  I wanted to be on the ground, implementing programs and measuring outcomes.”

How did the experience change you?

“I began looking at people and understanding that they are going through a lot. So you have to treat everyone you meet with love and kindness…everyone has a story to tell.”

ECE teachers at workWhy should others serve?

“I read somewhere that a year of full-time volunteering corresponds to three years of employment.  The organization you will work with will definitely stretch you, challenge you, and bring out the best in you. More than any of that, though, we should serve because in this short lifetime, we ought to participate by giving of ourselves – our time, talent, and treasure. A disclaimer, though: at the end of it, you’ll be surprised that in your giving, what you receive is beyond any of your expectations. Go, fellow young adult, and embrace a life-enriching year!”

Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP) is a lay organization of young men and women who assist in social, pastoral, and development work of NGOs, schools, and social development agencies across the Philippines.

Cartwheel Foundation, Inc. seeks to give indigenous youth and communities the chance to enjoy their right to quality and culturally-relevant education.



Interview conducted by Anna Lenhart

PT Foundation – Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

The city of Kuala Lumpur is a modern, vibrant, and exciting place. While it is easy to get caught-up in the glamour and fun of the metropolis, as we did during our first few days there, our visit to the PT Foundation gave a us a glimpse of the real life of the city. Not everyone can enjoy the luxuries of the city and the dedicated staff at the PT Foundation work tirelessly to provide the services that marginalized communities need and deserve.

GiveYourGap got to sit down with the coordinator of the Positive Living Programme, a center for people living with HIV.

The PT Foundation is an organization dedicated to helping prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and enhancing the lives of those living with the disease. They offer free and confidential HIV/AIDS testing along have different programs that help address the needs of the five at-risk groups: those living with HIV, drug-users, sex-workers, transgenders, and MSMs. We were lucky enough to be able to visit their offices, where they offer counseling and support groups for MSM individuals, and the Sex Worker resource center.

The PT Foundation organized a campaign of international celebrities to bring awareness to the needs of the AIDS-affected community.

As soon as we entered in to the PT Foundation offices, located in a low-income area of Kuala Lumpur, we were immediately welcomed and could feel the supportive environment of the office. They have a small but hard-working staff that comes from all walks of life. All of them offer their individual skills to help the foundation. Their offices are filled with inspirational posters, pamphlets and resources offering advice, and comfortable counseling rooms. Besides the staff there were a number of volunteers, both local and international, who give their time to keep the programs running.

A short distance away from the office centers is the Sex Worker resource center. Here they run a drop-in center offering many programs to help sex workers in the area. The center serves as a safe shelter for these women to stay away from the streets during the day. They also provide them with condoms, sexual health education, HIV/AIDS prevention training and resources. The shelter also provides a safe place for the children of these workers. While the PT Foundation does not promote sex work, they understand that ignoring the needs of the workers will not make it stop… it will merely become more and more unsafe for the women working. In addition to providing a safe environment and health tips, the program also offers support to women wishing to leave sex work and be trained to enter another profession. They also work hard to reduce the stigma that sex workers face so that they might be treated better by society.

The PT Foundation gave us a tour of the safe shelter they provide for sex-workers.

The women we met at the center were all strong and hard-working; a diverse group of mothers and transgender people all benefiting from the resources PT was offering. Those who were active sex workers were able to get off the street during the day to enjoy some rest and clean conditions. Others had transitioned into working for the center instead of on the streets. Both employees and clients benefited immensely from the center.

Volunteers played a big part in helping out in most of the centers. At the office there is always extra work that the volunteers can help with, especially if they come in with ideas about what skills they can contribute. In the other programs they can have more time working with people helping out in the centers. We met a wide range of volunteers coming from many different backgrounds and countries. All of them were passionate and inspired by the work both they and the PT Foundation were doing.

A volunteer at the Positive Living Programme arranging handouts.

We left the PT Foundation feeling excited about the work they were doing and hopeful for the future of the communities they served. Our time in Malaysia was much more enjoyable knowing there were people out there as dedicated and driven as those of the PT Foundation.

To see more, check out our Gapper Video Profile with PT volunteer Asma.