By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Most people love to travel the world to experience new cultures, food, and sights, and others travel to find new ways to give back. Volunteering abroad can be a great way to find inspiration and learn about the challenges others face, outside of their usual surroundings.
Crystal Nam, Susanne Hsu, and Tony Vongdara from Seattle recently spent some time in different Asian countries, giving back to communities other than their own.
Rescuing dogs from Asia
Dog lover Crystal Nam had a traumatizing experience in middle school when she was shopping at a market in South Korea, called Moran Market, with her uncle. The market sold meats and produce, but further down the street, there was vendor that sold cute, fluffy designer dogs. On the opposite side of the street were big dogs in cages, being sold for their meat. Customers could pick out their dogs to be slaughtered and butchered.
“I saw them and remember being really confused, and then I saw them beat the dogs. I could hear the dogs being beaten and killed,” she said.
“It was a scarring experience for me. I ran from the market after that. Ever since then, I try to block it out of my mind,” she said.
Nam felt compelled to take the opportunity to rescue dogs from Korea to help bring awareness to what was happening in that country.
“It became a natural progression of doing more to rescue dogs,” she said.
Nam spends about five to 10 hours a week volunteering for the China Dog rescue.
She helps by making trips to the airport, coordinating paperwork for first-time adopters, checking in on foster parents, and recruiting volunteers to fly and adopt.
Now Nam devotes her personal time to a dog rescue group that was started by her friend in San Francisco. The organization doesn’t have a formal name, but they work to bring dogs from China to the United States. She has also volunteered with Jindo Love, which was her first exposure to the international adoption scene.
She has four dogs that she shares with her boyfriend. Two of them were adopted through Jindo Love and the Elephant Nature Park.
Set in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants, and other animals.
“My intent was not to adopt so many dogs, but there are dogs that you share a certain connection with. Kiwi came up to me and rested her head on me. It’s hard to explain. I wanted to bring her back and they’re very happy,” she explained.
In September of 2018, Nam spent five days at the Elephant Nature Sanctuary in Bangkok. She volunteered with two other friends and they stayed there and took care of the elephants and dogs. Visitors pay a small fee that benefits the sanctuary. (For those interested, you can go to elephantnaturepark.org and check their availability.) Nam saw the huge impact that a group of people can make when they’re working towards a common goal.
“When you go there, you see that all the volunteers love animals. You can just feel it as soon as you enter the park. There’s something about it and you get this magical feeling being surrounded by positivity. It’s what motivated us to do more and to seek out future opportunities, too,” she said.
Educating the next generation in Indonesia
Hsu knew she wanted to volunteer somewhere beautiful and to teach classes to kids. Volunteer work in Bali caught her eye because it was locally run, affordable, and didn’t have administration fees like some other programs do. She volunteered for three weeks in Bali during her sabbatical in spring of 2018.
She chose a local nonprofit that was entirely run by Balinese volunteers. They have several things ranging from English teaching programs and computer classes, to marine conservation efforts.
“What stood out to me was just how happy and grateful the kids were. I didn’t know what it would be like to teach children. I’ve taught kids in the U.S. and they have attitude, but the kids in Bali were so grateful that we were there to help and teach them. They were eager to learn, they gave hugs and high fives after class, and it was super rewarding to see,” she said.
Some of the most challenging aspects of the experience was adjusting to the heat and humidity. The accommodations were tough, but for Hsu, it was also tough coming up with engaging and fun lessons to teach the students.
“I felt happiness. It was really just about their perspective on what they had and what they needed, and what happiness meant to them,” she said.
The kids were of all ages, ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade. Hsu taught computer classes to a different grade level every day. Her lessons included teaching the kids how to use a mouse, how to type, and how to use the internet and email.
There were 12 kids in a class and the whole program had around 200 kids. Classes were voluntary so kids would attend after school to learn English three days a week and computer class once a week.
“Being able to connect with the kids and creating a family with all the volunteers, that was really special. We still all keep in touch. The nonprofit also gives you the opportunity to sponsor a kid and I sponsor a girl over there and I’d love to go back and see her,” she said.
Another aspect to the Volunteer in Bali program was the marine conservation program. They are trying to rebuild the reef on the coast where they live. A lot of fishermen in the area don’t know how to conserve the reef so the program is structured around building reef structures and shelter for marine life to help the ecosystem. There’s an education component that involves teaching the local fishermen about the preservation of the coral and ocean, as well as beach clean ups and recycling to the local community.
Another shocking realization for Hsu was the fact that they didn’t have an advanced system of dealing with waste in Bali. The villagers just bring bags of trash and dump it in the ocean because they didn’t have anywhere else to put it.
“It really opened my eyes to how big of an issue single use plastics are and introducing them into society before they have a way to manage and process it. They started teaching kids about recycling and reusing, to create a more sustainable practice,” she said.
Building community in the Philippines
In July of 2018, Tony Vongdara volunteered with Gawad Kalinga (GK) in Quezon City, outside the city of Manila, Philippines. Specifically, he volunteered with GK Bulaklakan through VESTA Foundation, which is a Taiwanese foundation that helps to build up communities abroad by helping to construct homes, immersing themselves within the community in hopes of enriching lives, and most importantly, helping the youth.
Vongdara’s trip aligned with his overseas travel, and the idea of being able to bring attention to the local VESTA Foundation and their movement among the youth in Taiwan while simultaneously experiencing a unique opportunity to spread love to another part of the world, was really intriguing.
“Having a construction management background, the idea of helping out local communities by using my knowledge, as well as to perform manual labor to literally build a home brick by brick, was something that spoke to me specifically. VESTA Foundation provided access to GK to help build the Bulaklakan community,” he explained.
Along with the other volunteers, he lived within the community for seven days, sleeping in the same quarters as his host family.
Every morning, they woke up to do physical labor to build future homes for those in need. They transferred truckloads of sand by filling bags one at a time, and carrying it to the construction site. They also stacked and loaded bricks that were used for the exterior walls, manually mixed the sand with cement and gravel to make the floor slabs, and manually sifted the sand to remove rocks so that it could be used as the plaster to cover the bricks. After hours of work, they would then host various events for the kids, including playing interactive games to instill a sense of community and teamwork.
Waking up every day to do manual labor was tiring, but when Vongdara realized that these folks have to do it every day to make a minimal living, he quickly pushed through the pain and fatigue. Being grateful for everything: having something as simple as a roof over your head, even if it leaked when it rains, was better than nothing, and having multiple changes of clothes and shoes when they got dirty.
Never taking for granted all the little things that we have access to, including running water, a thorough sewer system, and shoes to protect your feet.
“I think the most important thing I learned is to be there for the local community and being a part of it. Even something as little as saying hello or smiling at someone can easily brighten up their day, but the most impactful thing you can do is to volunteer your free time to help others. There are a lot of people who may not be as fortunate and who can use a little extra help, love, and compassion,” he said.
Vongdara said he’ll never forget the laughter and smiles of the children and the local community. Their ability to show love and affection to strangers and to others in their community and seeing them so happy even when materialistic items, or even a home, was hard to come by, was inspiring.
Nina Huang can be reached at email@example.com.