Home Country: United States
Why should you be the IVHQ volunteer of the year?
Over the past 10 years of my professional career, I have had the opportunity to observe a variety of volunteer groups and participate in multiple volunteer opportunities. This has helped me identify a key area that is marginally under assisted and needs to be addressed - the special needs community. In the media, you often see articles or advertising of volunteers providing labor and monetary based assistance such as building homes, sending materials, or using funds to purchase or provide medical assistance. However I have yet to see one story depicting the therapeutic assistance and volunteering for special needs. The area of autism and special needs is extremely narrow and individualized. It takes a special type of person to be able to interact with children or adults with these needs and provide a contribution to their health and development. Even in our society and community, there is a spotlight on individuals who are “different” and they continue to be segregated, ignored, and avoided. This is when I identified my goal of focusing my volunteer efforts into this population and particular field. It has been my motivation and objective to not only help families affected by special needs, but to create a more local and community awareness of these needs.
What motivated you to get involved with volunteering?
Ever since I was little I have been a partner in crime with my mother who was an RN and a constant in the community for volunteering. I can remember at 5 years old playing with children in a woman’s shelter while my mom volunteered medical care. Growing up, she has been my mentor on giving to others and we spent many holidays in soup kitchens and hospitals helping our local community. It was always her life dream to volunteer on a more global scale. Unfortunately when I was 20 years old my mother passed away. I did not find out until after her passing that she had finally taken the first step and scheduled an international volunteer trip in Morocco working with disadvantaged women. To celebrate her memory, I took my first international trip to Romania to volunteer in a special needs institution. Each volunteer action and experience I take is in memory and dedication of her.
How much time do you dedicate to volunteering?
It is difficult to calculate a actual amount or time for volunteer work, as not everything I do can be classified into weekly trips or weekend assistance. In addition to international travel, I participate in 3 volunteer boards in our community. One of these boards is an autism support group that is hosting a food drive to provide Thanksgiving meals to 50 families. Additionally, I am a known resource in our community for advice and support in regards to the behavioral and communication concerns with special needs kids. Each day, I am on the internet, e-mail, phone, or in the community connecting with families in my community to provide support.
What is the most rewarding part of your volunteer work?
My greatest reward, is the personal understanding that I have helped alleviate some sort of hardship with every family or individual I serve. I base all that I do on the morals of Starfish Story, and my only goal is solely to make a difference in each individual we serve.
The Starfish Story
An old man walked along a shore littered with thousands of starfish, beached and dying after a storm. A young boy was picking them up and flinging them back into the ocean. “Why do you bother?” the old man scoffed. “You’re not saving enough to make a difference.” The young boy picked up another starfish and sent it spinning back to the water. “I made a difference to that one”.
What is the greatest challenge of your volunteer work?
I would definitely say that the greatest challenge is not reaching too high. It is easy to go into a volunteer experience and generate a variety of ideas and goals on how to improve that site or experience to our own “standards.” When, in actuality, that standard is too difficult and unrealistic to those it is supposed to help. That expectation only creates additional hardship on the individual and can actually cause more harm than good. The best lesson I have learned is to identify small, attainable, and realistic changes and goals as they are the ones that will help the most.
Why do you believe you will be effective volunteering within a community abroad?
One experience I will never forget was my trip to Romania. I was only there for 2 weeks (and quite pregnant) but I had the opportunity to work solely with one little boy named Lucca who had autism and so he did not communicate and would isolate himself to a corner to rock himself. By the end of the trip, Lucca was approaching me to be held and was able to use the American sign for “more.” By signing more, he was then able to lead us to the item or toy that he wanted. Essentially he learned to bridge the gap to communicate with others. This was a life changing experience for him. Additionally, after my trip, I was able to talk about my experience with others and generate a small, but effective, supply drive in which I collected a variety of toys, clothes, and toiletry items to send back to that hospital. This was significant as it helped a need in Romania, but also generated awareness in our own community as to the hardships others are experiencing.
What are you hoping to gain from an international volunteer experience?
I would like to have the opportunity to experience the needs of the world. I have had but a glimpse of international volunteering from my trip in Romania and I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to replicate that. Being in another country and being able to experience their culture, lifestyle, and hardships is extremely humbling and grounding. It has given me motivation and drive to continue my volunteering locally and abroad and I strive to have more opportunities to help others.