Volunteer Abroad

My Story

I headed to Chile for my study abroad escapade without a definite plan. My only expectation was that I was going to have grand adventures. What I didn’t expect was how much I was going fall in love with the country. At the time, I was searching for quests and stories to add to my collection of memories; unbeknown to me, I had found a home. Home can mean a variety of things to different people – for some it is a location, for others it is the personal items. To me, home is a feeling of community with the people around me. I had found an incredibly inspirational community and I knew I was going to make a difference.

With the desire to leave a positive impact on the city that had implanted in me the vibrant feeling of life, I joined a volunteer organization called Valpo Surf Project (VSP). As a VSP volunteer, I developed lesson plans to encourage English language skills, personal character development and environmental consciousness among at-risk youth aged eight to eighteen. In after school sessions during the week I created and taught interactive lessons to introduce English vocabulary to students.

Volunteers spending time outside with the youth of Cerro Mariposa in Valparaíso

Being there, I saw that the children had seen faces of people who are in and out of their lives. I couldn’t take them out of situations but I could be there as a teacher, friend, and confidant. However, as much as I taught the kids, they taught me so much more about opening myself up to people and opportunities. Many of the kids came from unstable families and they taught me it is okay to be unsure and to adjust to different environments. I cannot imagine my experience without them. I was a teacher, yet I learned more than I ever could have taught. The most unexpected people in life teach you the most.

One way the students taught me to open up to opportunities was on the weekends. On designated Saturdays we would do beach cleans to promote the protection and preservation of the region’s coastline to Valparaiso’s youth. On other weekends the VSP volunteers and students went on surf outings. These excursions focused on character development, surf etiquette, and basic meteorology.

VSP volunteers getting ready for a day of surfing

VSP volunteers getting ready for a day of surfing

As a Wisconsin native, I had never touched a surfboard before. When I was asked to help teach the sport two images flashed to mind – my uncoordinated twenty-year-old body trying to hang five in the waves and the look on the faces of the students I was going to be teaching. Naturally, I said yes. My days of surfing consisted of paddling out, thrashing about like a fish out of water, catching a wave, shakily standing, and comically falling off. Just as I motivated the VSP students in the classroom, they encouraged me back into the waves. While I can’t say that I’m going to be the next Bethany Hamilton or Laura Enever, I learned to experience life for all that is offered and for that I am grateful to my VSP kids.

Cookout for volunteers of VSP in Fall 2013

Cookout for volunteers of VSP in Fall 2013

The idea of making an impact in life is nothing new – it is doing things that have a profound positive effect on those around us. I was looking for a rewarding experience that would help make the world a better place. I found that spending my time with the youth was both tremendously fulfilling in that I had become part of a community and was making a difference. I saw that my perception and awareness changed with appreciation and open senses. These intercultural experiences became one of the key teachers for my personal development and for learning about other cultures.

Volunteering abroad truly transformed my life.

Jenna and Andrew, VSP volunteers, spending time with the youth of Cerro Mariposa

Interested in hearing more about the Valpo Surf Project? Go to: http://valposurfproject.com

Why Volunteer?

Career Exploration
Volunteering will introduce you to new professional paths and can be a great way to learn about a particular role. It is also an incredibly beneficial in networking – community involvement is one of the best ways to make connections and relationships. Volunteering offers opportunity to cross paths including many with whom you may otherwise not have had contact.

Resume Building
On average, recruiters spend seconds evaluating a resume – an incredibly short period of time to send the right signals. Volunteering overseas is a great way to make your resume stand out. It shows that you are willing to step outside your comfort zone to make a difference in the lives of others.

New Experiences
Life is about challenging yourself, so why don’t you get out of your comfort zone and try something a little different? Open your mind, arms, and heart to new experiences and people.

Personal Growth
My time in Chile is one I’ll never forget. I gained a new perspective on my personal and professional development and what I was meant to pursue in my life. When you volunteer abroad you meet people that inspire and motivate you, and most importantly, you reflect on who you are and what’s important to you. Volunteering will truly test your personal capabilities and help you learn about yourself as well as your host country.

Making a Difference
Simply stated, sometimes travel is more about what you give than what you receive. Volunteering is one of the best ways to make a difference in the community and leave a lasting impact on the world.

Kaitlin Cullen studied abroad with API in Valparaiso, Chile. She currently serves as a Peer Mentor on her home campus – University of Wisconsin – La Crosse.

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