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How Volunteering Abroad Ended My Career

IVHQ Travel Blogger scholarship finalist Robert

Author, Robert IVHQ Travel Blogger Scholarship

It was mid-September outside Nairobi and I found myself staring out the cracked window of a matatu while we waited for the final passengers to load onto the cramped public van. To my left sat Andy, a nurse from California who I’d become close with during my short stay in Kenya. Across the narrow aisle sat Eugene, a kind-natured teacher who is incredibly devoted to his students at New Beginnings, a small school located in the slums of Kibera for mentally and physically disabled students. Cradled against Eugene’s shoulder was Eva. A rambunctious four year old from New Beginnings, Eva was uncharacteristically quiet at this time. Instead of filling the matatu with her irresistibly contagious laugh, Eva was catching up on some much needed rest after a long day at the Jaipur Foot Trust’s Artificial Limb Centre. The sliding door slammed shut and the energetic music on the radio drowned out the sounds of passing cars.

As we began the hour and a half trip back to the volunteer house, I couldn’t help but appreciate the magnitude of what had occurred that day. When Eva was two years old, her mother’s home caught fire. Trapped inside, Eva suffered severe burns and required the immediate amputation of both her legs. Despite her disability, Eva had developed into one of the most playful and curious children I’d ever met. At New Beginnings, Eva would scoot around the floor searching for books and toys or chasing after the stray kitten that visited each morning. While it was amazing to see her scurrying around and enjoying herself, Eva often opened up her scars when she crawled on the hard cement floor. Realizing that this would limit her as she grew older, Andy and I decided to find a more effective method of protecting her legs than simple bandages. While our search began with examining kneepads at the local Nakumat, an ambiguous suggestion led us away from the Walmart-esque store to a small shop in the Westlands. Expecting crutches at best, we were elated to learn that Eva could get fitted for prosthetic legs in the Artificial Limb Centre behind the storefront. The implications and possibilities surrounding this news were almost impossible to quantify. Staring out that window, trying to wrap my head around the impact we had just had on this incredible little girl’s life, I realized that I could no longer be satisfied with a career as an engineer.

IVHQ volunteer Robert in Kenya

By now you’re probably asking who I am and how exactly I ended up on this matatu in Kenya. Five years ago I moved to Philadelphia to attend Drexel University and play for the school’s soccer team. Drexel has a unique education system structured around co-op cycles. Essentially, students take classes for six months and then intern for six months. What this means is that the typical four year degree takes five years to complete at Drexel, and I had an extra year of school left after my NCAA eligibility expired. Consequently, the summer of 2015 was the first summer I wasn’t devoted to preparing for a fall season since I was 11 years old. On top of this newfound freedom, I had been battling with whether or not I wanted to continue to pursue an engineering career after my final year of school. Needing answers, I chose to utilize my flexible schedule to search for some perspective after my third co-op. Since soccer has always provided a great deal of clarity in my life, I began considering ways I could stay involved with the sport and give back to the game that had given me so much. After a few recommendations from friends and a bit of research, I settled on IVHQ’s sports education program for volunteers in Kenya. The opportunity to not only work with children who were passionate about soccer, but also travel and experience a completely foreign culture seemed like an invaluable experience that I could not ignore. Fast forward to August 30th, and I was boarding a plane with a duffle bag and a backpack.

22 hours and a brief layover in Qatar later, I arrived on Kenyan soil. It turned out that two other volunteers had been on my second flight. One was a girl from Australia named Peta Lee, and the second was an English girl named Kezia. Shortly after retrieving our luggage, we were picked up by Chomlee, a lighthearted, unforgettable character with dreadlocks, and Moses, a more reserved man of few words. The two volunteer coordinators drove us to the volunteer house, all the while answering our questions and teaching us about Kenya’s culture as we took in the sights and sounds of the countryside and the aggressive traffic. When we arrived at the volunteer house, we were immediately welcomed by Miriam and Sarah, the sweetest hosts anyone could ask for. Since we were some of the last to arrive, most of the other volunteers were already situated inside. As I introduced myself to each volunteer, it was incredible to realize how many different cultures and professions were represented in one place for the same reason. In addition to the other students in the room, the volunteers consisted of teachers, nurses, engineers, consultants, police officers, and actors. There were people from New York, Dubai, China, and everywhere in between. Some of the volunteers were barely 20 years old, while others were approaching their mid-thirties. Before long, we were all getting to know each other and sharing what exactly had brought us to Kenya. That night I went to bed realizing how little of the world I’d seen, and just how limitless the possibilities were for living one’s life.

The next day we were all taken to our various placements. Liz, a history teacher from London, and I were driven to Thika, a bustling town about 45 minutes outside of Nairobi. In theory we were going to help the students of Mugumo-ini Primary School with their English lessons and I was going to help coach the school’s soccer team. However, a nationwide teacher strike was announced the day we arrived. As a result, the only children that attended school the next three days were the Kenyan equivalent of preschoolers and kindergartners. While we were still able to help them practice speaking English and play soccer during their break, Liz and I realized we could have a much bigger impact if we went back to the volunteer house and worked with the volunteers placed in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums. This switch turned out to be a massive blessing in disguise for me.

The only other guy placed in the volunteer house was Andy. Naturally we ended up spending most of our time together and I joined him on his placement at New Beginnings. During his first few days working, Andy had befriended a man named James who lived in Kibera and knew Sarah, Miriam, and some of the other staff members. A sponsored student at a nearby university and a coach of one of the Kibera youth league soccer teams, James is by far the most selfless person I have ever met, and probably ever will meet. On top of this, the man can somehow go almost all day without stopping to eat. What this meant for Andy and myself was that our schedules quickly became jam-packed from sunup to sundown. Our daily routine consisted of waking up at 6 am to run with James before breakfast, working at New Beginnings until lunch time, and then meeting back up with James to work on whatever side project he thought we could help with for the rest of the afternoon. Over the course of the next week, Andy and I helped coach the soccer team, refereed a Kibera league match, surprised James’ players with new cleats, coordinated a meal for over 70 players and students and their families after one of the soccer games, fixed James’ mother’s roof so that rain would no longer flood her home, fixed James’ mother’s neighbor’s roof so that rain would also no longer flood her home, provided school supplies for some of the local students, took two trips to the Westlands to help Eva get fitted for prosthetic legs, and tended to the needs of the students at New Beginnings. The word busy just doesn’t do it justice.

At this point, I’d like to clarify one of my previous statements. When I said that I couldn’t be satisfied with engineering, it wasn’t because there is anything wrong with engineering. In fact, I think it’s a phenomenal career if you care about the work you’re doing. But while I sat on that matatu and contemplated what Andy and I had gone through that day, and I considered everything that we’d been able to accomplish that week, I realized that the work we had been doing in Kenya made me come alive far more than anything I had done as an engineer. My career as an engineer was barely off the ground, but it was already over.

I recently read an article that said there are three types of travel: travel that calms you, travel that excites you, and travel that causes a revolution in your heart. When I returned home, I could tell that I had changed mentally. New perspective, a paradigm shift, call it whatever you want. Something was different and I began to notice myself looking at situations differently. My final year of classes began and I still had no idea what I wanted to do. This was concerning for my family, my friends, and even myself at times. But oddly enough, I found a lot of comfort in knowing exactly what I didn’t want to do. In some sense, this gave me the freedom to look at any option as a viable one. I considered everything from venture capital to videography. Although I received job offers early on, nothing really felt right. As my search for a new career path went on, I found myself constantly revisiting everything that had happened in Kenya. I wasn’t sure why this kept occurring until I got a message from James the following Spring. We’d stayed in touch with WhatsApp and Facebook and one day he mentioned how excessive the rainy season had been. Naturally my first question was how his mother’s roof had held up. There’s a slight language barrier between me and James, so he kept it simple and responded with a massive blue thumbs up emoji. When I saw that thumbs up, my heart was immediately flooded with joy. I was so happy to hear that James’ mother and siblings no longer had to worry about the rain pouring through their punctured tin roof. They no longer had to lean against the mud walls while they waited for a storm to stop. They could finally get a normal night’s sleep, even when it rained.

IVHQ volunteer in Kenya, Robert.

While happiness was my initial reaction, a delayed sense of pride slowly began to build inside me as well. Up until that point, Andy and I thought that we had made an impact, but we honestly didn’t really know if our efforts were worthwhile. James’ message confirmed that all of the tarp we’d hauled through the slums, stones and garbage we’d moved off the roofs, nails we’d hammered, and sketchy “beams” (skinny tree branches under rusted sheets of corrugated tin) I’d trusted my footing on were all for a reason. It meant that during the hours and days we spent fixing those roofs, we had actually made a difference in a few people’s lives. That’s something that’s hard not to be proud of. It’s also something that’s incredibly empowering.

As soon as I realized all of this, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I had been fortunate enough to travel halfway around the world and fully immerse myself in a new culture, while making an impact and serving those who needed my help. This was truly a life changing opportunity and I wanted to share this opportunity with as many people as I possibly could. After discovering this, I founded a nonprofit called Volunteer Aid. Our mission is to empower motivated volunteers to make bigger impacts on the projects they’re working on, while also enabling and encouraging more young adults (and old adults) to experience the world through volunteering. I place a tremendous amount of value in travel volunteering as an opportunity to not only create massive positive impact for communities and individuals in need, but also as an educational opportunity for volunteers to learn more about the world, its people, and themselves. Since graduating, I have committed myself to building Volunteer Aid into an organization that can help thousands of people, both volunteers and the people they help, benefit from trips such as mine each year. So while my journey to Kenya may have ended my career as an engineer, it showed me a new passion and opened the door to create an entirely new career that I could finally find personal fulfillment in.

Read more from IVHQ's travel blogger finalists.

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