“Serve” was the word most often repeated in the commencement speech given by Jim Lehrer in the spring of 2003. In recent years I have taken that message to heart, taking a few months of the past two summers off from work to volunteer through Global Vision International. Two summers ago I spent seven weeks volunteering in a marine conservation program along the Caribbean coast of Mexico. About 20 volunteers from around the world joined me in learning to scuba dive and monitor coral reefs. We collected valuable data on the population and health of the fish and coral population of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef for the local conservation organization Amigos de Sian Ka’an. We also cleaned up garbage from the beaches in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, taught local schoolchildren about the importance of reef communities and tutored some local Army soldiers in English.
I was so enthusiastic and impressed with my experience that upon returning home, I became an ambassador for GVI, hoping that by sharing my experience with others, they too would want to volunteer for similar programs. I was lucky enough to go on a special ambassador trip last August to visit the GVI program in Guatemala. We were there to build stoves for indigenous Mayans who traditionally cook over three-stone fires on the floor inside their kitchens. The unvented smoke fills the house, women and children are easily burned, and breathing is tough in the smoky air. Three-stone fires are also inefficient, so families spend either lots of time cutting down trees or lots of precious money on firewood.
A simple brick-and-cement cookstove that can be built in two days will help conserve natural resources, increase the comfort and safety of those in the kitchen, and extend the family’s life expectancy by 10 years. While helping a local mason construct a stove for a family in the town of Santa Maria de Jesus, I saw how grateful the entire family was for this gift. The hardworking children handed us bricks and helped sieve sand and gravel to make the cement. The gratitude the parents showed after we completed their stove brought tears to my eyes. Never had I done something so simple that had such a positive and lasting impact on the quality of a family’s life.
After building three stoves for families, we had a free day to explore the area around Antigua, but all six of the ambassadors opted instead to return to Santa Maria and help out in the GVI school, where volunteers teach classes in Spanish to children who cannot afford the government schools. While walking through the streets with the volunteer teachers, I felt like a local celebrity. Children in the school were so excited to see the teachers that they came running up to us and gave us all big hugs.
Although families sacrifice the labor of their children in the fields so that they can attend the school, the children are rewarded with a good education and the possibility of GVI-sponsored scholarships, and families receive occasional benefits such as seeds, fertilizer and fruit trees. Our last day in Santa Maria was special as we helped hand out bags of fertilizer to families in order to help their new crop of beans; they had lost 90 percent of their corn crop during Tropical Storm Agatha.
Throughout the week we had a glimpse of how closely GVI worked with the local communities and how much those efforts are needed and appreciated. My commitment to organizations such as GVI is strengthened whenever I spend time with the volunteers and staff, and with each expedition or program for which I volunteer. Jim Lehrer was right: Whether it is through an organization like GVI or on your own in your community, so many doors open when you volunteer, and there are unlimited opportunities to improve the lives of those around you.
Kate McMullen is a lab technician for the U.S. Geological Survey at Woods Hole, Mass. She is currently trying to decide where she can volunteer in the coming months.