Volunteer Stories

Lessons Learned As An Outreach360 Intern

Outreach360 Caminos Volunteer Guest Writer: Lucy McGraw

I spent the summer of 2015 in Nicaragua as a Caminos volunteer with Outreach360. It was an incredibly rewarding and transformative experience for me, as it opened my eyes to so much about the world, myself and the amazing, intelligent students I served. As a Caminos, I had the privilege of spending quality time with the students and collaborating with volunteers from around the globe. We had a dance party with the students for International Children’s Day, spent a day exploring the historic city of Granada, and ended the summer by taking the students on a field trip to Managua to see the airport. I formed meaningful relationships with the students as I taught them about the Highland Games in Scotland, or what it means for an airplane to hit turbulence. I cultivated lifelong friendships with some of the other long-term volunteers, who I now don’t go more than a few days without talking to.

The greatest lessons I learned came from the ten principles that Outreach360 teaches volunteers at the beginning of the week to ensure that they have a meaningful and fulfilling experience. There are three that I make a point to carry with me each day.

Serve, Don’t Help.

This reminds volunteers that the students are not helpless children who need us to impose our values and customs on them to improve their lives — rather they are smart, talented, curious little people who are eager to learn from the volunteers they interact with. It hopes to show volunteers that our purpose is to serve them, to be a stepping stone for them on their life path. It also serves as a reminder to be respectful of the community that the volunteers spend their time in and to try their best to become as familiar with it as possible. 

This principle means a lot to me, because I now work as an AmeriCorps member for a nonprofit called Literacy First, teaching literacy to young, low-income students from difficult backgrounds. The elementary school I work in is Title I, meaning it does not always have the funds or the resources to support the students as is necessary. Whenever I find myself wanting to overstep my boundaries or get involved in a situation that can be solved without me, this principle pops into my head, and I am reminded that I can only serve as much as I am needed. Once I take a step back, I am reminded that the work I am doing is purposeful and that the students’ drive, curiosity and eagerness to learn will support them in the ways that the school cannot.

Communicate Love.

This principle, I think, speaks for itself. It was demonstrated to me throughout my internship by the students we served and through the friendships I formed with other volunteers. The students showed me love by the way they fully embraced me and the new volunteers that came in each week, and how excited they were to participate in whatever lesson we had planned for them, no matter what it was.

The other volunteers communicated love to me by accepting me for who I am, acknowledging how our differences made us a stronger team, and by embracing the students right back. Outreach360 encourages praise in the form of notes written by volunteers who deserve it. I still have each note that I received from other volunteers that summer. One of my favorites is from a fellow long-term volunteer, Virginia Gordon, who is now one of my best friends. It reads, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you; you made this trip so much better. I really kind of hate writing notes, but I write this to say that I love you and can’t wait to travel the world”. This principle means a lot to me because it serves as a great reminder that the best way to communicate love is to love yourself and let that love overflow onto the people around you.

This Is It.

This is the principle that resonated with me the most. It serves as a reminder that we need to be present and live in the moment because this is it; life is happening now. The people in Jinotega embody this principle in such a great way. No one is in a hurry, no one is rushing to the next place or the next thing, everyone is content just to be. People drop in on their friends unexpectedly to have a cup of coffee or to chat. They stop on the street to say hello to their neighbor that they haven’t seen in a couple of days. In Western culture, it’s easy to sometimes get caught up in the rush and to feel like you have to have a plan for the day, the week, the next 5 years. Being immersed in the laid back Nicaraguan culture was the perfect reset button for me, and showed me that everything doesn’t have to be figured out and that I can take things day by day. I now try to live by this principle and try to remind myself that life is short and that I need to take advantage of the present.

My experience as a Caminos changed my life. I cherish the memories, relationships and life lessons that I gained while there. To quote my good friend Jessica Henderson, also a former Caminos intern, “I urge anyone that stumbles upon this blog to not hesitate on an experience like this. It doesn’t matter your credentials or your abilities, all you need is a heart and room to let it grow. Jinotega is a home to me now. Come see why.”

 

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Acknowledge Yourself with Outreach360

Pictured here is Beth Anderson, n former Outreach360 Dominican Republic Site Director.

 

It is essential to the Outreach360 experience for volunteers to acknowledge themselves during their time with us. The ability to acknowledge yourself and the impact you have abroad will open doors to domestic and international service opportunities. This is why “Acknowledge Yourself” is the first Outreach360 volunteer and staff principle.

Acknowledging yourself can mean different things to different people. Beth Anderson, the former Outreach360 Dominican Republic Site Director, explains, “To me it means taking a moment to reflect and be proud of what I’m doing, knowing that I’m making a commitment not everyone is willing to do but then, once that moment is over, it’s time to get to work and serve. To volunteers, I think it holds a very similar meaning. On a more basic level just being proud of yourself and patting yourself on the back.”

Without first recognizing the steps you have taken to serve internationally,  the significance of your involvement in the education of our students will alter. The money, time, and the willingness to push outside of your comfort zone should not go unnoticed, especially by yourself.

Beth says, “I acknowledge myself in different ways, mostly through self-care: taking time to read or listen to music and taking moments to disconnect and be gracious with myself. In a more public way, it would be verbalizing what I am doing and just acknowledging it out loud in a conversation.”

Outreach360 wants to acknowledge our volunteers for the difference they are making in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Very few people are willing to do what our volunteers have done. Their dedication to raise or donate funds, take a week or more of their time, and give up other options to go to another country for the benefit of children in a community unknown to them is remarkable.

Graham Hunt, an Outreach360 Communications OLÉ Volunteer, states, “I suppose that when I think about the principle ‘Acknowledge Yourself’, I think about some of the wonderful moments I’ve witnessed in the classroom, in both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.  And then I think about all the many pieces that came into play to make those golden moments possible, from the hours spent lesson planning to the months of fundraising and preparing that volunteers invest to make their work with Outreach360 a reality.  This principle is about recognizing and celebrating that.”

University of Missouri graduate and former Outreach360 volunteer, Tessa Miles, overlooks mountains in Nicaragua while volunteering with Outreach360.

University of Missouri 2017 graduate and former Outreach360 volunteer, Tessa Miles, is a volunteer worth celebrating. Tessa has volunteered with Outreach360 three times, once in the Dominican Republic and twice in Nicaragua. In January 2017, she led a group of 18 classmates to volunteer in Nicaragua.

Here is what Tessa has to say about the Outreach360 principle “Acknowledge Yourself”: “To me, it means taking the time to think about what you’re doing here at Outreach360 and why your service is important. It’s realizing that you’re making a difference because you have chosen to be here, perhaps while overcoming obstacles that may have deterred you from volunteering. I acknowledge myself by telling others about Outreach360 and its mission, as well as my amazing experiences while serving with them.”

Outreach360 understands that many volunteers had to overcome fears and obstacles including exposure to a different language, not knowing anyone, only knowing Outreach360 from the internet, and potential parental concerns, etc. It is a big deal that our volunteers spend their time with us, and Outreach360 could not be more proud to shine the spotlight on the passionate people, like Beth, Graham, and Tessa, that allow our organization to flourish.

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Caminos Volunteer Finds Friendship

St. Lawrence University Junior Ollie Smith interacts with Nicaraguan student at the Outreach360 Learning Center in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

St. Lawrence University Junior Ollie Smith traveled to Nicaragua in August 2017 as an individual volunteer with Outreach360. Ollie has volunteered with Outreach360 seven times since his first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2010. During the Summer of 2016, Smith participated in the Outreach360 Caminos program, which is an eight-week internship experience housed in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

What keeps him coming back to volunteer with Outreach360 is the memories and interactions he has with the students. Although the students inspire him to return each year, he is most fond of the Outreach360 staff and volunteers. The relationships that Ollie has built while volunteering motivates his passion for service.

“Obviously, I come back for the kids, but also another reason that drives me to come back is the people. What’s great about Outreach360 is that you meet amazing people, from kitchen staff to leaders. You meet new people every time. It’s amazing the connections you make here,” Ollie said.

Ollie taught English immersion classes to 37 Nicaraguan students from the German Pomares neighborhood located in Jinotega. Ollie became close to these students as a Caminos Volunteer in 2016. Working with the students continuously for eight weeks allows Caminos Volunteers the opportunity to create long-lasting relationships.

The Caminos Volunteer Program boosts leadership skills in an unfamiliar environment. He became quickly attached to his new surroundings in Jinotega while serving as a Caminos Volunteer. Although he often felt pushed outside of his comfort zone, he felt rewarded in more ways than one, he explains.

Ollie says, “I like trying to learn from my experiences, good or bad, but working with the Caminos program was an amazing one. It helped me develop new leadership qualities in myself. Leading adults who are older than you, and kids who are tinier than you; it really builds your character.”

Volunteering abroad provides a unique opportunity for those looking to find internships in education. With Outreach360, Caminos volunteers take on the role of a teacher to educate underserved students in Nicaraguan communities.

“The students grow, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. The best example of this is this one particular student at the Learning Center. As long as I have known her, she has barely said a peep. This year, I think, she has said more to me in one week than she has said in the 5 or 6 years that I have known her. She has really come out of her shell,” Ollie said.

Outreach360 welcomes Caminos volunteers, like Ollie, to serve in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic for as long as six months. The organization immerses Caminos volunteers in cultural experiences unique to Nicaragua.

Ollie mentions, “The Caminos program is the best way to spend the summer. You get to be really immersed in Nicaraguan culture and you get to know the ins-and-outs of Outreach360.”

More information about Outreach360 Caminos Internship can be found here: https://outreach360.org/volunteer/individuals-long-term-internships/.

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Family Finds Future in Volunteering Abroad

Canadian resident Lisa Gerrard volunteered abroad in Jinotega, Nicaragua in August 2017 alongside her children, Avery Kit, age 8, and Ryan Kit, age 11, with Outreach360. Lisa, a Criminology Professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, volunteered with Outreach360 for the first time in Feb. 2014 leading 10 college students in the Dominican Republic. After volunteering with Outreach360 in 2014, Lisa decided to bring her children to volunteer in Nicaragua.

Ryan Kit, left, reads with Nicaraguan student in the Outreach360 Learning Center located in Jinotega, Nicaragua

“I was hoping to gain some time with my children, as well as a new adventure; doing something different, pushing them outside of their comfort zone, and seeing the lessons that we could take home as a result,” she explains.

Lisa and her two children taught English immersion classes to 37 Nicaraguan students from the German Pomares neighborhood located in Jinotega. Lisa and her daughter, Avery, taught lessons to students about writing and reading. Ryan opted to teach interactive lessons involving movement and expression by honing into his passion for sports. All in all, each family member enjoyed teaching the English language.

Avery says, “I really did like the program. I really liked working with the kids. When I see them learning and trying to speak in English, it just makes me so happy to see that happen.”

Lisa Gerrard, left, with daughter Avery Kit, right, interact with Nicaraguan students in the Outreach360 Learning Center located in Jinotega, Nicaragua.

Outreach360 welcomes family volunteers, like the Gerrard family, to serve in impoverished areas in Latin America, while providing a safe and inclusive environment for volunteers of all ages. The organization immerses family volunteers in cultural experiences unique to both the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

Ryan and Avery especially enjoyed exploring Nicaragua. They admit they were both nervous about being in a new environment but were glad that they had decided to volunteer as a family.

“It’s inspiring to help other people because at the end of the day you feel good and they feel good too. I learned that no matter where you are from in the world, all kids are the same,” Ryan said.

Volunteering abroad provides a unique opportunity for families. With Outreach360, parents teach alongside their children to educate underserved students in Nicaraguan communities. This opportunity opens doors for families looking to spend quality time together.

“As a teacher, it was really neat to see my children teaching. There is so much family time, even if we were just playing catch in the backyard, skipping in the front, or whatever the case may be. At home, we are so busy, riding off to football practice, or wherever we are going. With Outreach360, you are unplugged and it is just family time,” said Lisa.

She admits that she is already planning on leading another group of her college students to volunteer in Nicaragua; however, she hopes to continue to bring her family to volunteer with Outreach360 each year. Both of her children are eager to continue to serve abroad and at home in Canada.

Lisa explains, “I don’t know how we couldn’t do it again after doing it once and having exposed my kids to this opportunity. I think it needs to become a part of our regular routine.”

More information about Outreach360 can be found here: www.outreach360.org.

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What Does Outreach360 Do?

Staten Island Academy student Mina Rhee and JFK School students work on a review lesson at an Outreach360 program in the Dominican Republic. (Clay Wollney)

By Clay Wollney | For the Staten Island Advance
on June 09, 2015 at 2:00 PM, updated June 09, 2015 at 4:32 PM

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Outreach360 is an organization that engages volunteers in a service-learning experience providing underserved children with alternative educational opportunities such as English classes, art, music and drama camps and sports programs in an effort to give the children opportunities they must have to live a life of choice.

The full mission of Outreach360 is to transform individuals, families, communities, countries and the world by providing education and activities that enable the development of disadvantaged children.

The organization has centers in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

In the Dominican Republic, being able to speak English is necessary to pursue a college education. Unfortunately, English classes are not available to many children.

During the last week of May, I accompanied 19 Staten Island Academy seniors on a service-learning trip to the Outreach360 site in Monte Cristi.

The SIA students taught small groups of students at two Outreach360 Learning Centers, one in JFK Elementary School and another after school. The SIA seniors taught English classes, using lessons they prepared themselves.

The interaction between the students was a learning experience for all involved. The JFK students strengthened their English skills and the SIA students got a firsthand sense of the life and needs of underserved children in a developing nation. They also developed a deep sense of love and caring for one another.

Volunteers are what make Outreach360’s programs and successes possible. Each week a new set of volunteers arrives to help at the school, building upon the work accomplished the week before. According to Konrad Bennett, an Outreach360 OLE leader who gave us his full and constant attention, “The JFK students bring incredible energy and enthusiasm to the classroom every day but don’t often get the individual attention that they crave and need. That’s where our volunteers come in … whereas, in a typical Dominican classroom, the teacher to student ratio is about 1:35, our volunteer teams of fluent English speakers can bring that ratio down to 1:3 or lower!”

Bennett further observed that “The volunteer teams bring the real excitement and creativity. It’s always incredible to see how much our students learn and how much their desire to learn grows each week.”

Does this approach really work?

Said Sarah Edwards, national director of Outreach360 in the Dominican Republic:
“Students who were once illiterate are now reading in English and Spanish. Students who were ‘too cool for school’ became students of the month.”

Of course, the real effectiveness of a program is its outcomes. During our visit we met a few of the program’s graduates who now serve as local volunteers; they have mastered English and are in college.

Daritza is on scholarship with Outreach360 and is studying medicine. She explained, “I started studying English when I was 8 years old and also learned many values — patience, respect, teamwork, and punctuality — thanks to Outreach360.”

Aidil, another graduate of the program and a highly dedicated volunteer, just completed her freshman year in university. She observed that “The kids can feel the energy that their Outreach volunteers bring to the class each day. For me, it is incredible to see how the JFK students’ knowledge increases.”

In addition to their work during the day, the SIA students were introduced to various aspects of Dominican history and culture, as well as the country’s relationship with Haiti, in the late afternoons and evenings. They also took a guided walk of the town, toured a facility that harvests sea salt and learned how to do dance Dominican style. The lunches and dinners were mainly delicious  Dominican dishes.

The impact of the experience on my students was impressive. Their reactions included expressions such as “inspirational”, “a real-life experience” and “energizing.” One student even described it as “the best week of my life.”

As Aidil pointed out, “the volunteers get as much out of the experience as the children they served.”

If your school participates in any service-learning programs or you would like to learn more about Outreach360, please contact me at cwollney@statenislandacademy.org or visit the Outreach360 website at www.Outreach360.org.

Originally published in the Staten Island Advance.

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Bright Shirts, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

Beth Anderson is a senior majoring in child and adolescent development psychology at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She is also an alternative break trip coordinator for SNHU’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.  Together with 13 other women from SNHU, Beth recently served with Outreach360 in the Dominican Republic for two weeks.   -Photo by Jaimie Konowitz

It was the first day of camp, and I was shocked at how nervous I was. I had been preparing for this trip longer than the two hours spent lesson planning the night before, so I thought I was ready. But no amount of preparation could get rid of the mariposas in my stomach. What would camp be like? What would the students be like? How is our group going to do? Will they even like us? I had so many lingering questions as I walked the dirt road towards Escuela Básica John F. Kennedy on that first day. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. Station leaders and team leaders split up to get everything ready for the students’ arrival. It was nine o’ clock, the time camp is supposed to start and we had no one at camp; that was also the day we learned what “Dominican time” meant. We kept our hopes high and, sure enough, students started coming at about ten past nine. My nervousness started to fade once the first “repeat-after-me” song began.

After camp songs and opening, everyone went to their spots and my co-team leader, Alli, and I took our group to the recreation station to learn how to play volleyball. We had two girls in our group, and we could tell they were shy. They didn’t know us, and we didn’t know them, and here we all were trying to teach and learn together. And then something happened that changed everything: The girls started laughing and pointing at one of the drawings that the recreation station had made. At first we were all confused, and then I looked at the picture and realized the person in the drawing didn’t have eyes. I began to laugh at the hilarity of it all. It was completely unexpected but completely necessary in that moment. This was not where we thought the lesson was going to go, but it was so funny. Their laughter was contagious. Soon we were all laughing, and the tension all of us had been feeling faded away. In that moment we became the students. Here were these two little girls with five teachers, and they were the ones making us feel comfortable. They felt our nervousness; saw the eagerness in our eyes, and through their laughter they were telling us to relax and have fun with it. They broke down our barriers and allowed us to be just as silly and goofy as they were being. Their laughter was common ground for us; it was something we all understood and could grasp on to.

I realized in that moment that you can plan as much as you want, but the best moments are the unplanned ones. It’s the high fives when a student gets the sentence right. It’s explaining something you don’t even know. It’s singing the same camp song countless times because they love it. It’s them scrunching their nose when they don’t understand but then seeing their big smiles when they do. It’s all of that and more.

Watching the students’ growth in just two weeks was incredible. From mastering everything we gave them to becoming more comfortable with us, I thought the change in them would be subtler, but they proved me wrong. Many days I was even wondering if I was the teacher or the student. They challenged me in more ways than I can count. But what moved me the most about every single one of them was that they wanted to be there. They wanted to learn and interact with us as much as we wanted to learn and interact with them. That eagerness to learn and that desire to grow will last longer than our time in Monte Cristi, and that makes it all worth it.

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A Family of Three

The Monilaws served with us for three weeks in Nicaragua.  This is their story: 

At first I thought, I’d like to volunteer teaching English somewhere.  Get out of the daily grind and experience something completely new!  This idea turned into; how could I bring my family? Which turned into; could we actually all volunteer together somewhere?  After much research I came across outreach360.  One of the few organizations who not only welcomed children but allowed them, encourage them, to participate as volunteers.  This idea, I loved!  As a family of three; Sydney – 11, Stacey – 4, and myself, I thought this could be the perfect fit!

We chose Nicaragua for many reasons, one in particular being Sydney is enrolled in a Spanish immersion program in her school and I wanted her to have the opportunity to use the Spanish language she had learned as well as experience one of the cultures/ countries she had been studying.  Stacey and I were happy to get away from the cold Canadian winter to just about anywhere!  So, Nicaragua it was!

When planning this trip, traveling with 2 children brought many questions and logistical planning.  Would we actually be able to teach?  Would we have culture shock?  What if we didn’t like the food?  What kind of precautions should we take? So after everyone had vaccinations, packed medicines for every possible ailment, a month worth of snacks, and Spanish vocabulary was practiced, we arrived at Outreach360 only to realize all the worrying was for nothing.  We felt nothing but comfortable and welcomed (not to mention excited) the moment we stepped off the plane!  Outreach360 staff really made us feel at home.

Outreach360 has 10 principles to keep in mind when volunteering with them.  One being “Its not about you”.  I adopted this principle when we first arrived and really focused on the mission of Outreach360; to help children who may not otherwise have the opportunity to reach their full potential.  The Learning Center was amazing and the kids who are in this program are so eager to learn.  They are smart kids and I felt so fortunate to have the chance to work with them for 3 whole weeks.

One of my favorite moments was teaching the kids at the Learning Centre hockey!  We thought bringing Canada’s national sport to the kids of Jinotega would be a great experience and something new for them to try.  We packed 8 hockey sticks with us and it took less than 30 seconds for the kids to catch on to the idea of the game.  The laughter that ensued was contagious as they ran back and forth across the backyard, sticks in hand!  We all enjoyed teaching them and are so glad we can leave a small part of something we love as a family, with them.

It turned out Outreach360 was the perfect match for our family.  I could go on and on about the amazing staff, fantastic volunteers, and of course the inspiring students.  I will definitely leave with more than I expected to and our experience in Jinotega is one all three of is will not soon forget.      -Katie

“Outreach360 has been one of the best experiences for us.  It makes it clearer, after being in Jinotega for 3 weeks, that the work being done by volunteers and staff is benefiting the kids.  The kids are open to any recreational activity; we brought hockey sticks from home and they loved playing hockey!  I also met some pretty amazing volunteers and even though it’s about the kids, meeting volunteers who are also so open and friendly really MAKES this experience.  The kids are all so unique and having met them I can see what individuals they really are.  (I won’t spoil the experience for you with too much detail, you’ll have to come see for yourself!)”  -Sydney, 11

“My favorite part was camp because I was making so many new friends!  I’m so happy because I got to bring my hockey stick and play hockey with the kids.”   -Stacey, 4

 

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