Sun | May 31, 2020

In the spirit of serving humanity - Part 1

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:19 AMAmitabh Sharma - Arts and Education Coordinator -
Alex Nash’s father who was a Peace Corps volunteer
Alex Nash’s father who was a Peace Corps volunteer

We are living in exceptional times – historical, unprecedented, challenging, life-altering - and it is also a time when we recognise the relentless services of those who make a difference, serving, and giving back to communities.

It has been an endeavour to highlight the spirit of volunteerism in its many manifestations, and as humanity grapples with coronavirus, it is time to discover goodness and embrace things that make the world a better place.

What does it take to be a volunteer, and why should anyone volunteer? We posed some questions to Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in this three-part series.

These interviews were conducted with the hopes of visiting the PCVs in the communities in which they serve and to talk about their work, but The Peace Corps, a United States government-run volunteer programme established in 1961, for the first time in its history, took the decision to recall about 7,000 volunteers in over 60 countries.

Prevention is better than cure they say, and such unprecedented actions have to be taken in the broader interest, but we are certain that 'this too shall pass'.

Volunteerism in their DNA

Alex Nash - Peace Corps Jamaica (PCJ) Group 89, education volunteer from Columbus, Ohio.

What motivated you to volunteer?

My dad met my birth mom while he was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines 37 years ago. I grew up hearing stories about his service, which instilled in me a passion for both volunteering and cross-cultural learning. The Peace Corps seemed like a perfect fit for my interests.

Why do you believe that volunteering is necessary?

Volunteering is a wonderful way to help fill the gaps in access to resources and public services that many communities experience worldwide. Additionally, volunteering allows people from all walks of life to support organisations and communities in a meaningful way regardless of individuals' financial situation.

Volunteerism is often perceived as 'free' or work you do when you are 'jobless'. How can this mindset be changed?

While some volunteer positions may not offer monetary compensation, I believe there is a lot to gain from donating your time to a good cause. Volunteering can reward people with professional skills, networking opportunities, and personal fulfilment. Instead of viewing volunteerism as work for the "jobless," it can be seen as an opportunity for job seekers and working professionals alike to expand their skill set and help communities in need.

How do you think volunteering can have a long-term impact personally and professionally?

Volunteering often gives people a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. Reflecting on how one's skills and privilege can be used to uplift underserved communities can be a critical part of one's journey towards personal growth. Professionally, volunteering provides individuals with unique opportunities to connect with the people they serve and gain diverse experiences they might not have had otherwise.

Can you give a brief overview of your work in Jamaica? What has been the response of the community?

My job as a primary literacy adviser consists of teaching small-group reading-intervention classes, exchanging best classroom-management practices with teachers, and developing the school library. I act as a support to my students and teachers at my assigned primary school in rural St Elizabeth. Peace Corps' literacy project framework is designed to not take away jobs from Jamaican teachers. As a result, my community has been overwhelmingly welcoming and supportive of me. They appreciate that I am here to help their students.

Based on your experiences, how can volunteerism be encouraged among Jamaicans?

Continuing to promote visibility is a vital step towards encouraging volunteerism among Jamaicans. Reaching all types of communities and partnering with local organisations is a great way to spread the word about volunteering opportunities.

What are the key things that you have learnt in your time spent in Jamaica? How has that impacted you?

I have learnt to adjust to a new culture with a lot of help from my host family and community members. Although I've encountered many challenges while navigating cultural differences, I've received a great deal of kindness and warmth from my community. This positive experience makes me feel more confident in my ability to explore new cultural contexts in the future.

I've also learnt that approaching development work with cultural competence is very important to me. Taking the time to get to know the community where I'm working and collaborating with community partners has inspired me to pursue work in the public or non-profit sectors after Peace Corps.

On a global scale, how do you think volunteerism can help an individual to learn about, adapt, and appreciate foreign cultures?

Volunteerism allows individuals to learn about other cultures in a more meaningful, authentic way. By immersing themselves in the culture, they will appreciate the nuances of day-to-day life, something that they would not experience to the same degree on a vacation. Individuals will likely have an easier time adapting to the culture through connecting with people from a different background than their own.

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Mary Bilecki – PCV at Cascade, Portland.

Being PCV is embedded in Mary's family – her sister is Returned Peace Corps Cameroon Volunteer and her mother, a Returned Peace Corps Chile Volunteer.

What motiaated you to volunteer?

I chose to apply to the Peace Corps for a multitude of reasons, including the experiences of my mother and sister within the Peace Corps.

I’ve always been drawn to volunteering as I believe it is part of my responsibility as a global citizen to share the skills and abilities I’ve had the privilege to develop.

Volunteering can range from dedicating a few hours to help build a garden, or tutoring children, to dedicating a year of your life to save food from being wasted and donating it to food pantries, or dedicating two years of your life to serve a community abroad.

These are examples of volunteering from my own experience, but what is so beautiful about volunteering is the vast variety of opportunities it can include based on an individual's abilities.

Why do you believe that volunteering is necessary?

Volunteering is necessary to remind us that we’re all human and we all experience highs and lows in life. If we can’t offer a helping hand of support to each other, who will?

Volunteerism is often perceived as 'free' or work you do when you are 'jobless'. How can this mindset be changed?

Volunteerism should be viewed as a value that you can incorporate into your lifestyle. Volunteering shouldn’t be thought of as something you do when you have nothing else to do or something you do once in your lifetime or even once a year. It should be an ongoing aspect of your life.

How do you think volunteering can have a long-term impact personally and professionally?

Personally, volunteerism cannot only bring joy and lasting change to the communities you’re serving but can help an individual feel joy by reminding them that however big the world is, we can have a lasting impact no matter how small. Professionally, volunteerism shows to employers not only that you’re motivated to work towards making a difference, but also serves as an example of your value system that could potentially be shared with an employer.

Can you give a brief overview of your work in Jamaica? What has been the response of the community?

In Jamaica, my host organisation is a community coffee farmers group. We are working to give coffee farmers more control over their high-quality product and ensure that they are paid fairly for said product. Additionally, I teach adult computer classes and am working with RADA to reinvigorate our community’s RADA group to help our community grow more of the food we eat and potentially make a profit off of it!

Based on your experiences, how can volunteerism be encouraged among Jamaicans?

I believe volunteerism is already a large part of Jamaican culture through community work days, church functions, and supporting neighbours during their times of need. However, I believe younger generations need to be reminded that in order to achieve our goals, we need to lift each other up. Building a stronger sense of community among younger generations will help cultural values and practices within Jamaica not only survive, but thrive.

What are the key things that you have learnt in your time spent in Jamaica? How has that impacted you?

Though I’ve only been in Jamaica for a year, I’ve already been so inspired by how committed Jamaicans are to working towards a better future for their children. This has reminded me not only of how instrumental the youth are for our future, but also the importance of providing a planet and communities that are able to sustainably support all their dreams.

On a global scale, how do you think volunteerism can help an individual to learn about, adapt, and appreciate foreign cultures?

I believe that volunteers can help individuals to be reminded of the human experience and the desires we all share that tie us together. There are some basic human rights that people don’t have access to, whether they’re your neighbours, people from a neighbouring country, or people halfway across the world. It's undoubtedly important to recognise and respect foreign cultures, but I believe volunteerism allows the opportunity to break down barriers of what is different by reminding us of how, in many ways, we’re all very similar.

A special thank you to the staff of Peace Corps Jamaica and Paul Sully, country director, Peace Corps Jamaica, for facilitating these interviews and his continuing work to inculcate the spirit of volunteerism in its many manifestations. amitabh.sharma@gleanerjm.com