How Volunteer Work Abroad Gave Me the Experience of a Lifetime

Do you ever think about how much we often take for granted? Warm running water, a roof over our heads, food, new clothing, access to medical care, our physical abilities? I know I often overlook these things.

I had a reality check when I decided to volunteer in Ghana, Africa, with the NGO Unite for Sight (UFS). I had wanted to visit Africa for years because that’s where my parents were from but I didn’t just want any ordinary trip. I wanted to really immerse myself in the country and get to know the people and their culture, so I decided to volunteer.

I was nervous before leaving, I had no idea what to expect. But when I got there, I found the people to be so kind, honest and welcoming that my nerves quickly subsided. The people had such a contagious sense of pride and joy in their country that I felt like I belonged there.
I volunteered with UFS for three weeks. We spent most of our time going from village to village providing free eye care to the local people. We typically saw 150 to 200 patients per day (sometimes double that amount).

Ironically most of the patients we saw had perfect vision. What they suffered from were infections, such as bacterial conjunctivitis, as a result of the environment they lived in, their lifestyle, and their lack of access to medical care.
Every day we received at least 5 to 10 cataract/pterygium patients who would require surgery. We took down their names, the village they were from, and their chiefs’ names and scheduled one day per week to perform all surgeries. We typically ended up with 60 to 100 surgeries – all to be performed in one day.

It’s hard to describe the speed and efficiency we needed to work at in order to keep up with that many surgeries. When you’re working under that much pressure you don’t really have time to grasp how amazing it is to give people their sight back. But when we would come back a couple of days later to do post-ops and our patients would be crying with joy and gratitude because they could see their families’ faces for the first time in years, that’s when the magnitude of this work would hit us. It was quite literally, the BEST feeling ever.

One of our patients, a 78 year old grandfather, had lost his sight over 50 years ago. Because he couldn’t see, he couldn’t work and his family suffered for it. His wife found some work but it was often not enough to afford food and clothing for the entire family. To help support the family, his son started working at the age of ten instead of attending school. His eye condition not only cost him his vision, in many ways it cost his family parts of their future.
Moments like these made me realize how easily we take the privilege of sight, among other things, for granted. In America, we have so many resources at our fingertips. A ten year old boy would never have to sacrifice his education in order to start working.
One of my most memorable experiences in Ghana was when we visited Langa Primary School. We volunteered all day with the children there, who were so full of energy and joy. After classes were over we gathered with the children in the center of the school yard for some fun. The children taught us their games and traditional dances and we ran around with them as if we were children ourselves. It was so amazing to fully immerse ourselves in their childhood activities.

I’m so grateful that I decided to volunteer in Ghana. I was so blown away not only by the kindness of the people but by their strength. It seemed that regardless of what they were struggling through they always seemed to see the bright side of life. They always believed in a higher power and they never gave up hope.
I may have helped the local people with their medical eye treatments but they gave me so much more in return. They taught me to appreciate the things I take for granted, to be more selfless and help others in need whenever I can, to always have a positive attitude, and to truly understand what it means to be strong.

The next time I travel abroad, I hope to find a volunteer experience that’s as amazing as this one was!

Poonam Nathu

One comment

  • Thank you for your clarification, I was a liltte confused if the original person had found the Volunteer program in a magazine un-related to the Hotel or if it was through the Hotel. I definitely agree with you that this practice is somewhat destructive if offered by a mainstream hotel that does liltte for community development or has very liltte other social responsibility as a part of their fundamental goals for their organization. I also thought about posting it as a comment to your blog, but it kind of turned into a PR spin for GBA, so I did not want to bias your blog with that information.Thanks for the great topic, and I hope that I did not offend you, and that you did not feel attacked by the post.Leif

    February 27, 2016

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