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CCU Atheneum: Chris Todd, far right, with the Colombian students she worked with this summer through Worldwide Friends.
Chris Todd, far right, with the Colombian students she worked with this summer through Worldwide Friends.

Todd shares her experiences on volunteering abroad

by Chris Todd
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Since coming to teach as an art lecturer at Coastal Carolina University a few years ago, I’ve become aware that my 11-month position limits my chances to flee the country on vacation for extended periods. Nevertheless, over the past two summers, during my month off from CCU, I created opportunities to combine my desire to make a difference through volunteering with my aspirations to see more of the world.

In the fall of 2008, an exhibition opened in the Rebecca Randall Bryan Gallery on campus called In Her Hands. The exhibition featured a collection of crafts produced by women from around the world. The authors of the book that inspired the show gave a talk at Coastal, and I had the fortune to dine with them later that evening. Paola Gianturco, a co-author, casually mentioned a woodworking school in Nicaragua for women interested in learning a trade. Since I am a woodworker, my interest was piqued.

The following spring, when exploring options for my upcoming month off, I researched art workshops around the country where I had worked before, but none of these familiar craft centers felt like the right fit that year. The seed planted by Paola Gianturco about the trade school in Nicaragua returned to my mind. Through e-mail, Gianturco connected me with an administrator at Mujeres Constructoras, the Nicaraguan women’s trade school. The school accepted my offer to come volunteer for a few weeks in July and August. I corresponded with my contact at Mujeres Constructoras in English while trying to improve my Spanish language skills online, which I realized I had greatly overestimated once I arrived in Nicaragua. I was concerned that my comical personality might not translate to another culture and language, but figured I would be able to get by.

My time in Nicaragua was truly rewarding and exciting. I worked with a needy community, helping to empower women with what was considered in that area to be a masculine trade. I got to know my host family as well as the girls at the school (ages 14-24) and learned how to communicate in another language. Immersion, as they say, is a powerful tool in learning a language. I was waking up from dreams each night eager to learn more vocabulary and to attempt more conversation with the amazing people around me. I left Nicaragua a richer person for my experiences and newfound friendships.

By the following summer of 2010, I was interested in finding another volunteer opportunity. I knew I wanted to volunteer my time again, empowering a less privileged population, again in a Spanish-speaking country. During the school year I took a Spanish class at CCU and felt better prepared for an adventure in Central or South America. I found a company online specializing in placing international volunteers, and it offered a work camp that appeared to fit my goals, my wallet and my available timeline. Perfect! I immediately applied, was accepted, and planned my trip to Tierra Bomba, a small island off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia.

The work camp schedule alternated between renovating homes in the mornings and working with the village children in the afternoons, teaching both language skills and recreational activities. I felt confident that my creative talents and carpentry skills would be utilized in this endeavor. I flew to Cartagena the day after I finished up at CCU for the summer, optimistic, excited – carrying a traveler’s companion book.

Unfortunately, the work camp was disorganized, and our efforts yielded minimal results. There were concerns about whether or not the renovations might displace the very people we were there to serve. Ultimately, we interacted with the locals and taught the children as much as possible, but due to the many concerns, the work camp dissolved after the first week. Luckily, with the help of my guidebook, I was able to make the most of my remaining week in Colombia. Traveling to the Tayrona National Park outside of Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, sleeping in a hammock near the shore, I had a wonderful adventure as I took charge of my own traveling destiny.

Many of my friends back in the states, having heard my stories of how the work camp was not as fulfilling as my Nicaraguan adventure, were sorry for the way things had gone. They heard my disappointment about not feeling useful or of service. They understood I felt I had not made a positive impact, that I had not made a difference at all. But in fact, this trip had made a difference.

I had the opportunity to see another continent (South America). I met amazing people living in incredibly poor conditions and shared their experience of a way of life that lacked even the benefit of running water. I took charge of my own travel destiny and spent a few glorious days in a beautiful national park. It was not the difference I signed up or hoped for, but it gave me more confidence and information for future volunteering. I know now how to better research future volunteer opportunities, which questions to ask and how to have insight into what opportunities are available. Some might fail to see the silver lining, having experienced this sort of misadventure. But I don’t regret my choices and, in fact, feel more empowered and energized than ever in pursuing future possibilities.

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