This month we introduce our first volunteer profile, Jade Richardson. She spent seven weeks volunteering and traveling in Tanzania. Below she shares her story of how she came to volunteer with HEAL International, a nonprofit organization serving limited resource locations in Arizona and Tanzania.
Why did you choose to volunteer abroad? For me, everything just kind of fell into place… I was finishing my last semester at ASU, and the semester prior, I had taken this special topics course called HIV/AIDS with Dr. Bertram Jacobs. It wasn’t your typical science course where you memorized everything about the virus and learned it’s biology; it was more than that. Dr. Jacobs brought in guest speakers, people who were HIV positive, and told us their stories. I had never been more moved or touched by any class in my life. I learned more about the science and history of HIV than I ever could have hoped to learn. Part of our grade was also to volunteer at least 20 hours throughout the semester, so it was more than just “take an exam and get your grade” kind of course. But I guess I should rewind a bit too, back in my high school years. I can’t remember exactly what triggered it, but I just always knew that one day I wanted to go to Africa and help children with HIV. I joined the ONE campaign, ordered the white bracelets, and sold them to all of my friends at school. I was never able to do anything more because of the small town I lived in, but I knew that one day I would do something. Now we can fast forward, back to the end of that semester when I was registering for courses for my last semester of college. I saw that Dr. Jacobs was teaching another course, HIV/AIDS Education in Africa. Boom! I found the golden course. I registered immediately. When the spring semester rolled around, and I had my first few classes, I was in love. I had never been more excited and nervous for a course. Then I learned that Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Damien Salamone go to Tanzania every year and take a group of students with them to teach.That’s what this course was for. These two men are so inspiring, and the work and passion they have for HIV education (not just in Tanzania, but everywhere in the world) is infectious itself, and it sparked that flame I had in high school. I knew I had to help, and it just felt perfect.
Did you work through a volunteer organization? How did you find/choose your particular organization? I kind of answered this above, but I chose HEAL International, Dr. Salamone’s lovechild. Founded by himself here in Tempe, AZ. There are many organizations out there that recruit volunteers for this kind of work, but I guarantee that none of them are like HEAL. Dr. Salamone has worked hard to get HEAL to where it is today. They have a local office in Tanzania and work extremely hard to remain visible and keep their connections in the local area. It’s not one of those organizations who go for a few weeks and then disappear forever. HEAL continues its work well before and after the volunteers arrive/leave. HEAL has been going to Tanzania for about ten years now, and Dr. Salamone speaks Swahili and knows the culture more than any traveler who has been. I chose HEAL because they focus on the culture and what is relevant to the people, and they provide extensive training to the volunteer who is traveling on behalf of HEAL. No other place had that, but HEAL did.
Where, when and how long did you volunteer? We volunteered in Meru, Tanzania. Meru is a small rural village at the base of Mount Meru, about an hour away from Kilimanjaro. The closest city is Arusha. The program lasts four weeks, but I was there for a total of 7 weeks.
What was your job while volunteering? A typical day? Our first week was orientation, we practiced our lessons and made lesson plans. Our program coordinator had already been in the country for about a month before we arrived, so we already had our teaching schedules. We practiced and practiced and practiced. Dr. Jacobs was there to facilitate and direct our orientation and was there to spilt us into teaching teams. 2 groups of 4. In our teaching teams, we also had local teachers that would work with us and translate. But our typical teaching day was: wake up at 7 am, meet at 7:30 am. Lessons would start at 9, and go on through the day until 4 pm. We had to be back at our site by 4:30 pm every evening, never allowed outside of the gates after dark. We taught at primary schools, high schools, a technical college, and in community groups. Ages ranged from 4 years of age to 80+. Our first lesson was about germs and the immune system, how to stay healthy and wash our hands. Then we moved on to Tuberculosis and Malaria. Our last few lessons were always dedicated to HIV. After our day of teaching was over, we would meet again at 5:30 pm and talk about our day. What moved us, how were we doing. Then on to dinner. After dinner, lesson planning for the next day. During the program, it was constant work, 12 hour days for four weeks. It was a lot of work, but the best work I’ve ever done.
How did you save/raise money to pay for your volunteer expenses? The program was expensive. I had to raise money to pay for flight and program fee (which was our stay in the country including all meals). I raised $6,000 total and saved $1,000 of my own for vacation afterward (we took a group trip to Zanzibar). I used Crowdtilt and Gofundme as my donation sites. Which were ok, but both have fees. If I were to do it again, I would use Venmo, a free app so people can just send you money using their bank account or credit card. To generate visibility, I posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram about 20 times a day. I wrote to local businesses to see if they would want to do a promotion and help get me donations. It was a full-time job in and of itself to get the money raised. I wrote to every family member, and they also helped spread the word at work and within their circle of friends. I also had gift levels, so people received thank you cards and personalized photos from me from a child that I lived with. And souvenirs if they donated above $60 I think. I got a good turnout, and so many people donated, I was shocked. Since I was also graduating, any gifts I got from that went straight to the Tanzania fund.
Do you feel your presence and work made a difference? When I first got there, and we first started teaching, I found myself asking, “why are we even here? They don’t need us; they know what their problems are, and they are smart people.” But after talking to our local teaching partner, she explained it to us. Yes, they know about HIV, they know it’s a problem. But they listen to the foreigners that come and travel here. The “Mzungu” are rich and powerful (even though we were all poor college students in our own eyes). To them, we are smart and have more money, each of us is Donald Trump. We can bring their attention to the issue at hand, and help to educate the young children. Once there, I also saw how religion has played a huge role in the spread of disease. With preachers telling children not to use condoms because birth control is bad, they don’t believe in condoms. Or the priest will say that he has the cure for HIV, “here, drink this tea, and you will be cured!”
We also had a method to monitor how effective our teaching was. At the beginning of our lesson, we would have the attendees lower their head to cover their eyes, and raise their hand if they thought the answer was ‘yes.’ So we would ask them “HIV is only a problem in Africa.” “The primary way to give someone HIV is blood to blood contact.” And then at the end of our final lesson, we would ask them the same questions, and we could see that they were listening and learning. That was rewarding beyond measures. The six months of training I had spent doing was validated. It was magical, and that feeling will never leave these bones.
Would you recommend volunteering abroad? Why or Why not? I would recommend it if the heart is in the right place and you know what you are doing and where you are going. That you take the time to learn about the country, the people, their wants, and needs. Do they want you there? Do you know the language? Do you know their traditions and beliefs? Everything we did was gender sensitive, age sensitive, culturally sound. Every lesson was tailored to all of those things. Every sentence was critiqued, will this come across ok or is offensive? The one question that you should ask yourself is, “Will my presence do more harm than good?” I cannot stress that enough. Don’t impose your thoughts or beliefs upon anyone. We taught about the facts; we never brought religion or our personal beliefs to the table. We never brought a solution that was out of reach. We worked with the resources they had and asked them how they thought they could solve the problem.
What do you know now that you wish you knew before your volunteer experience started? I wish I had taken more time to learn Swahili. I knew little Swahili, and I learned some while I was there. But when they see a foreigner who can greet them in their native tongue, their whole face just lights up. It shows that you took the time to learn their language, and it means the world to them. My best moments are from greeting an elder in the proper manner in their language. So if I could do anything different, or better, it would be learning more of the language.
Any additional information you would like to share? Yea! Check out Peace Matunda, if anyone is looking to travel, go on Safari, climb Kilimanjaro, stay at Peace Matunda. It’s a cultural center run by locals and also serves as a school and orphanage in the village. People who visit can also volunteer as teachers, and then go and explore the area with the best staff! They provide room and board and meals as a part of your room fee. It’s beautiful, and the people are the most wonderful humans I’ve ever met. The children will steal your heart and keep it forever! They also need donations; they need school supplies and money to feed the children. The children need sponsors to continue their education. They all want to be teachers and doctors; let’s keep their dreams alive! What may be a coffee to us, would be a fulfilling meal for their family. HEAL is also accepting applications for this years program, visit Heal International for information.