Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Early reflections of the ICS project

Hi! I’m Anthony and I’m a new member of the International Service Bolivia team, working with Fortalecimiento Familiar! We work with two partner organisations, Aldeas Infantiles (Strengthening Families) and Voluntarios Contra El Cancer Infantiles (Volunteers Against Children’s Cancer). We work very closely with families and children, and we use our skills and ideas to strengthen family relations in Bolivia, especially those in difficult circumstances.

Our cohort has been in La Paz for a few weeks so far, and we have adjusted incredibly well! We all experienced a vast spectrum of fears and expectations before we arrived, and we definitely didn’t tire of sharing them with each other on the flight!

‘It hasn’t hit me yet!’ everybody kept commenting throughout the flight.

We all had our own unique reasons to be excited, and equally our own unique reasons to be afraid and insecure.

People who had never participated in a programme like this were asking ‘how will I cope away from my family and friends?’ and ‘what if I don’t like the food?’
Some volunteers had participated in similar programmes before, whereas some hadn’t. For the first timers, the main fear was of the unexpected. They had never participated in anything like this before: flying across the globe, using another currency, living life in another language and eating unusual and exotic foods.  Some of these volunteers were entering a new world for the very first time!

Working with families brings many challenges. Family structures and values differ across the world, and there is no single model that can let us understand every family. Families in Bolivia can encounter many struggles, often financial difficulty, malnutrition and domestic abuse. People respond to these difficulties in many different ways, depending on culture. When working with families, it is crucial to understand how the culture functions, and the key to achieving this is opening your mind and adjusting to local life.

Every country has its own individual style of living and working, and it can be incredibly frustrating and confusing to understand and adjust to in the first few weeks. It is easy to become intimidated and disagree with they way things work in a new culture. In every culture, people will live and behave in accordance to their own code of values and morals. There is never anything wrong with somebody having different beliefs and values to your own – that’s the beauty of diversity!  Without diversity, the world would be very grey and slow-moving. The golden key to adjusting to life in a new culture is having an open-mind – being totally and non-judgmentally open to new experiences. It is a common theme to adjusting to your new home, no matter which country you work or volunteer in!

Here’s the good news: being open-minded is actually a skill, not a quality that only a select few are born with. You can train yourself to be more open-minded by simply exposing yourself to new experiences, non-judgmentally. Become a ‘Yes’ person! Say yes to every offer of a new experience. What’s more, enjoy every experience and open your senses to all the details in your environment that are screaming for your attention.  Interpret these details simply for what they are – smells, sounds, sights, flavours, behaviours - without obscuring them with any preconceived ideas and attitudes that you may have packed into your suitcase by accident!

Participating in this type of programme is a huge commitment, and it can feel like your life is turned upside down and shaken about like a snowglobe. The results can be incredibly exciting and life-changing – just as they ought to be really! You should expect walk away from this kind of experience with a hamper of new skills and a deeper understanding of your own influence. However, sometimes the experience isn’t quite as you expected. The life change can be intense and hard to handle in many ways, and it can leave you feeling isolated and frustrated with yourself. You might confront some disturbing realities which can be normal life for many Bolivian people. However, the up-and-down is an integral part of the experience. It will stretch you and inform you of your limits. It is meant to be an enjoyable - yet formative – experience that will leave you with a richer understanding of who you are.

Even though I’ve participated in overseas projects a few times before, part of me is always afraid to enter a new country and culture. Even though I love doing volunteer work, making a difference and understanding new cultures, I always feel like bottling it a week before my flight. That’s guaranteed! It is a completely normal reaction, whether it’s your first time or your thirtieth. You just need to remind yourself why you chose to make this bold but incredible decision - to volunteer for a good cause overseas, to make a difference, and to have fun!

Written by Anthony O'Shaughnessy

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