Jessica Selga first felt her heart strings pulled toward Haiti following the tragic earthquake that devastated the already impoverished country in 2010. With a background in education, Jessica responded to a call for teachers needed to teach at an orphanage whose home schools were destroyed in the earthquake. After initially volunteering at Child Hope International in Haiti for seven weeks at Maison de Lumiere School, she moved back to California and got offered a state-side administrator position with the organization. For the next three years Jessica continued to provide administrative and school support for Child Hope International and made seven more additional trips to Haiti.
Why did you choose to volunteer abroad? To be honest, I never thought I’d volunteer abroad because I was so concerned with domestic issues and thought, “Why do people help internationally when there are still so many people in need in the US?” I also get sick often and never thought I’d survive, especially not in a third world country. That mindset changed when I viewed footage from the 2010 Haiti earthquake aftermath. Seeing people trapped under concrete and unsuccessful rescue efforts…(sigh)…my heart was completely broken for them. I cried for the people who lost loved ones and for the kids who instantly became orphans from the event. Haiti consumed my prayer life. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and it was a connection to complete strangers that I’ve never felt before. I sensed that God was calling me to help them somehow.
Did you work through a volunteer organization? How did you find/choose your particular organization? I volunteered through Child Hope International, a Christian based organization in Haiti. I heard about Child Hope when I viewed a short video from their ministry at my church the Sunday following the earthquake. My church dedicated our whole service to praying for the people in Haiti and for this organization. As I heard about how the organization was responding to the medical, safety, and rebuilding needs of the community, I felt another nudge of the Holy Spirit leading me to volunteer.
Where, when and how long did you volunteer? I volunteered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti for seven weeks during my first trip where I taught summer school to three students who lived at Child Hope’s orphanage, Maison de Lumiere (The Lighthouse). Subsequent trips to Haiti were to the same ministry for 2-5 week periods and duties ranged from conducting professional development training for the Haitian teaching staff of the school, providing miscellaneous administrative help, and leading volunteers in special events.
What was your job while volunteering? A typical day? During my first summer in Haiti, I taught three students in a small medical clinic of the school (they didn’t have enough classrooms). I taught from 7:30-12 pm and electives in the afternoon. The students were extremely difficult behaviorally and it really challenged and taught me a lot. It was a humbling, to say the least. My favorite part of the day was teaching a community circle class with two other Haitian teachers. We would read a Bible verse with the kids, try to memorize it together, then have time to journal and reflect on questions that related to the verse. I would also volunteer at the feeding program for the neighborhood kids three days a week where we would play games, worship God with them, and help feed them. I also spent time with the kids at the orphanage by doing special activities, crafts and praying with them before they went to bed.
How did you save/raise money to pay for your volunteer expenses? I sent out support letters to friends and family at least 3 months before my first trip. I explained my heart and intention for going to Haiti and got an overwhelming response from them. I raised almost three times as much as I needed and had enough to pay for all the school supplies the school needed at the time too. After meeting a sweet volunteer during one of my other trips to Haiti, she donated $100 a month to the organization to pay for my subsequent trips.
Do you feel your presence and work made a difference? Had I only volunteered once and never went to Haiti again, I honestly don’t think I would have made that much of a difference. By going back frequently, I got to continue to nurture the relationships I had with the people of Haiti. There is such a mutual love that’s grown when you’re able to consistently see each other. I hope the warmth of God’s love was shared somehow and that they deepened their love for God more through our interactions. I hope the training I did for the Haitian teaching staff helped equip them with new teaching tools they didn’t have before. What I also learned is that I was much more effective at supporting the organization from the States than being in Haiti. I was able to talk to and train volunteers and interns and share all the mistakes I made and prepare them to be successful in volunteering in Haiti. I was also able to do more work in securing more financial support for the organization through sponsorships and special events.
Would you recommend volunteering abroad? Why or Why not? Yes and no. After visiting Haiti and working in a job that prepared multiple teams and interns to volunteer in Haiti, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the downright U-G-L-Y. There’s wonderful gifts and talents that can bless people abroad tremendously. However, people volunteering abroad should come with an attitude of humbleness and have plenty of cultural sensitivity to spare. I’ve seen too many people go on social media overload and take pictures of the sweet people of Haiti in the pits of their poverty and not think twice about how it would make that person feel to have people constantly taking pictures of their despair. I’ve seen people come volunteer because it makes them feel good about themselves and the trip becomes more about them then the people they came to help. Sometimes what people bring or do can be more damaging than if they never came, like telling orphans who already have loss and abandonment issues that they will come back and visit them again and they never do. Or, people who constantly give away personal items to people on the street not realizing they are taking business away from local vendors nor realizing they are reinforcing a culture of dependency rather than empowering them with skills to work for what they need. Anywho, let me get off my soapbox. On the flip side. I’ve seen so many people come in with a spirit of humbleness and service. They ask the organization what they really need, and do all the grunt work with no glory behind it to bless and support the ministry. I see interns and long term staff dedicate seasons of their lives to reach out to and live among those in need in Haiti. The relationships they build, the support they provide for the ministry, the skills they train the kids in to help them grow into responsible adults is priceless and have lasting fruit. So yes, volunteer if you feel called and your talents are needed for that particular country, that specific organization, at the time that is best. If each of those things is not in order, wait. If you feel the urge to volunteer abroad, there’s a perfect place and time. Be patient and wait until that opportunity is crystal clear!
What do you know now that you wish you knew before your volunteer experience started? I wish I came with a more humble attitude and a conviction to love unconditionally. I was honestly really frustrated during my first trip because I raised money, put in a lot of time and effort, and “gave up” my summer to serve these kids in Haiti. I was not prepared for the kids to be so rude and unappreciative of all I “gave up” for them. I wish I had a better understanding of the brokenness of these children because of all the tragic things they’ve experienced at such a young age. I wish I came with less of an “I am the hero!” mentality and was willing to come in as a student of the culture as well. I wish I knew it wasn’t about me and my need to be validated for all my wonderful skills. I was supposed to love these people unconditionally, just like Jesus does, no matter how difficult the circumstances got.
Any additional information you would like to share? Before you volunteer abroad, think about how the skills you have can have the most long-lasting vs. temporary effects on the people you’re coming to help. Your skill may seem useless, but you’d be surprised at how God can use you in the most perfect places. For example, a successful t-shirt printing business was formed out of Child Hope International’s transition program through the help of multiple volunteering professionals who came for a few days to a few years. One intern taught the kids how to screen print, a volunteer’s dad donated a screen printing machine, another volunteer who owns a clothing business was able to put the machine together, a graphic designer taught a few kids how to design and print, another staff member taught them business skills, and another staff member worked on networking in Haiti to grow the business. Now the kids from Child Hope’s orphanage have a viable business they can run, teach others, and earn money. Avoid creating a culture of dependency on foreign aide and empower the people you are helping abroad!
If you would like to read more on Jessica’s experiences in Haiti checkout her blog here.
Have you volunteered abroad? Want to share your story? Please contact us for an interview.