By Jeff Calareso
Study.com: How did you first get involved in this type of work?
Emily Loui: My background is in healthcare and I was initially hired to oversee the nursing program at UC San Diego Extension. I had friends who had joined the Peace Corps and other long term global volunteer experiences and, sadly, a large number of them ended up dropping out of their programs. I realized there was a need for education and further preparation for those who are interested in a global volunteer experience. It's quite a shock for an American to be placed with a community development task in an extremely rural community which often lacks resources, such as stable housing, running water and sufficient healthcare.
I was fortunate to be a founding member of the Center for Global Volunteer Service (CGVS). We aim to help participants of our program determine if global volunteering is right for them and provide realistic, hands-on experience working in a foreign country. Even for those who are not interested in a 'Peace Corps-like' experience, we believe that there is a lot of experience and knowledge that can be gained through service; this includes cultural sensitivity, leadership development, compassion, a global perspective, teamwork skills and much more. I should also note that we believe in enabling individuals of all life stages to learn and grow through global volunteer service, so we extend our CGVS program to community members.
E-P: Can you tell us about your most recent trip?
EL: Sure! In late December - early January, I led our Building Bridges to China trip, which focuses on the social justice issue of animal conservation. We work at the Bi Feng Gorge Giant Panda Research Center, which is located in the bamboo forests of the Sichuan province. There, we work with the animal keepers in caring for the giant pandas and educating the general public. We were very fortunate to have a diverse group attend this particular trip; the ages ranged from 14 to 72, including a high school student, undergraduate students, graduate students, working professionals and a retiree. It was fantastic to have so many life stages represented and each group was able to learn from each other throughout the trip.
On the trip, we visited the nearby villagers. Many of them were amazed that Marge, the 72 year old, still had all of her teeth. Marge stressed the importance of oral hygiene, which was a relatively new topic for the villagers. I hope our future groups will be able to perform oral hygiene outreaches as a 'side' service project.
I'm about to leave for the Dominican Republic, where we address the social justice issue of education. We teach educational topics to the local schools, usually topics to which the kids would not normally have the opportunity to be exposed, such as music, arts and technology. For example, we'll teach them how to use a calculator or computer.
E-P: The issues you work on range from public health to historical preservation. Is there one project that stands out as especially impactful?
EL: We have built a few schools, taught over 1,000 schoolchildren how to brush their teeth in 3 continents, supported micro-finance programs and completed lots of other great projects. But, ironically, one of our most impactful projects is very simple: Taking pictures of the locals we work with. Imagine not having any pictures, none of your family or yourself as a child, no pictures of your deceased parents. I noticed that most of the locals we work with do not have any pictures because photo printing is very expensive and not readily available in many developing countries. About a year ago, I bought a small battery operated photo printer for around $60 and now carry it with me everywhere. The locals are very grateful for all of our projects but I feel that they are the most grateful for this one. I would love to have a 'school picture day' for one of our future projects but, unfortunately, we do not currently have enough funding to support that project idea.
E-P: In your role, you get to experience a multitude of people, places and cultures. What were some of your favorite places to visit?
EL: That is an extremely difficult question to answer; at each of our sites I have reasons why they are my favorite. If I absolutely had to choose one favorite trip, it would be our Building Bridges to Guatemala site because the Mayan community we work with is so warm, welcoming and gracious.
E-P: What type of preparation is necessary for this kind of work? For example, how much do you study the places you'll go before embarking?
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EL: There is a LOT of preparation that goes into developing each site and, obviously, we perform visits to the sites prior to bringing student groups. The amount of preparation varies with each trip. For example, our Guatemala site took about two months to prepare, whereas our China site took over a year. Ironically, one of the most difficult parts of the development for that site was figuring out how to obtain 40 rolls of toilet paper in the rural bamboo forest.
E-P: You often travel with student volunteers. What type of feedback do you get from them on their experiences?
EL: The number one phrase students use in describing their experience is 'life changing.' The students learn so much about the culture, community, social justice issues and, most importantly, about themselves. Many of the students travel outside of the United States for the first time on one of our trips and describe it as a fantastic experience. We've had several students celebrate their 21st birthday on a service trip and one said, 'When people ask me what I did for my 21st birthday, I'll tell them it was 'off the hook.' Cause it was. I spent my 21st birthday roasting marshmallows from the lava of a volcano with my new Mayan friends.' One of our Building Bridges to Dominican Republic alumni forfeited $500 concert tickets to attend the trip and wrote on the group Facebook page, 'I was just thinking about how i traded my front row lady gaga tickets to go on this trip and i thought about the plane rides, the time spent with the people and of course most important the children...and reflecting back...it seriously BLOWS MY MIND. can't wait to go again! Best experience ever. Way better than Lady Gaga could have given me.' I feel honored to beat Lady Gaga.
E-P: You're certified in Wilderness Medicine, which is typically required when more traditional emergency care is inaccessible. Have you ever needed to use this training?
EL: Luckily, we have not encountered any serious issues thus far. I'd like to think this is due to the fact that we provide pre-trip information sessions where we review medical conditions and take the precautions whenever possible. I teach a course called 'Travel Health and Safety' where I provide a fair amount of travel and wilderness healthcare information, specifically focusing on prevention.
That said, we are always prepared for emergencies. All of our group leaders are CPR/First Aid certified and we provide them with country and site-specific training.
E-P: What projects or trips do you have coming up?
EL: We are currently interested in developing a site in Tanzania or Uganda focusing on public health. This project is still in development but we hope to officially launch the site Spring 2012.
E-P: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your work?
EL: The Center for Global Volunteer Service offers excellent service opportunities but we also think of ourselves as an educational resource. Each year, we perform a study to observe topics related to service learning and volunteerism. This year, we focused on the value of a global volunteer experience to employers. We've had fascinating results, and found that global volunteer service was impactful in developing leadership skills, creativity, resourcefulness and cultural sensitivity.
While many people explore the world through volunteering, there are also numerous opportunities to volunteer in the United States.