I am Patricia Mercado, a Colombian citizen who has lived in Washington D.C. for more than 10 years. I completed a BA in Marketing and Advertising in Colombia and came to the U.S. to complete my MA at Johns Hopkins University. I am currently working as a Marketing Officer at the OAS Staff Federal Credit Union. Last month, I started my volunteer activities in Lebrun, Haiti with HavServe to get the insight of the 5 schools’ situation and gather ideas from the community to implement the Character Education Program in September 2011.
1. What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in the Village of Lebrun, Haiti?
After listening to many incredible stories from people who had volunteered in Haiti, how powerful and inspirational their experiences have been, and how slow the progress have been on the ground to help Haiti help itself, I decided to look for some volunteer opportunities and make my own contribution. Furthermore, I wanted to have the ultimate volunteer experience and my trip to Lebrun, Haiti has been more than that.
2. What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
I will say that the most frustrating part was the language barrier. There were so many things I wanted to ask and learn about Haitian culture, the people’s feelings, ideas, problems, etc. It is a slow process but I am learning bit by bit from the community. The time spent in Haiti has proven to be so valuable! Haitians are so patient and helpful; they always tried to communicate with me and be helpful. Their attitude is incredibly uplifting despite all the hardship; they are so happy and relaxed that their enthusiasm is very contagious. They always had a smile on their faces trying to do their best with what they have and what they know.
Also, being in the Village I had the opportunity to learn about the problems and needs that people have, and I found myself constantly thinking of different ways to help. Unfortunately, there are so many things that need to be done that I got frustrated at times, knowing that I have to focus only on the Character Education Program. Anyway, after all, everything cannot be done at once. It will take time to see the results and the impact; the key is consistency!
3. From what you observed during your experience, what are the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
Openness: It is very important to immerse yourself and adapt to the local culture and the way of life. Successful volunteers should be engaged, attentive, open, and be able to adapt to the local environment while showing respect for the Haitian way of life.
Patience: The pace of life in Haiti is slower than in the U.S. or in Columbia, for that matter. I think that in order to be effective and maintain a positive attitude, volunteers should focus on the process rather than immediate results. We have to get to know the people, understand them in order to help and have the desired impact.
Flexibility: Be able to do the tasks or work on the project assigned to you as well as helping in other areas whenever you can. There is so much work to be done that it is helpful to be ready to lend an extra hand whenever possible.
4. What kind of impact did you have on the community of Lebrun in Haiti?
My trip was to help introduce the Character Education Program to the 5 school directors and teachers, and I was pleased to note that the program was very well received by the local schools. During the workshops the 5 school directors and 35 teachers expressed their appreciation and enthusiasm for the training, and they are looking forward to help the HavServe Team of volunteers implement the program for the upcoming school year. They shared with me that they are inspired and motivated to keep helping the children in the community, and the Character Education concept shared during the teachers workshop is needed and will be helpful to all children in the village.
I also got involved into the recycling program by collecting trash with the local community leaders. A key facet of the Character Education Training will be raising awareness about caring for the environment through ongoing activities such as separating garbage and recycling materials, developing a system to dispose of the collected materials, etc.
5. How did the people in the Village of Lebrun, Haiti perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
My feeling is that international volunteers are well received by the local community because the HavServe team has done a wonderful job building trust among the community and identifying leaders that support the different projects that are in place. My observation is that the local community is participating in all aspects of the ongoing projects, and during the town hall meetings they contributed with ideas and shared other needs to be considered in community-led development. They are actively engaged in participating in all training and workshops and are willing to do their part to help their community.
Their biggest concern is that the HavServe team will continue the ongoing projects and keep working with the community because they have seen so many people come in and out of the community and disappear without making any real impact.
6. What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
Wow! I learned so much about myself and from the local community! I learned about the culture, the past and current situation, and had the opportunity to visit some beautiful places. I am now convinced that Haiti is a beautiful island with amazing people who are facing some very serious difficulties.
Finally, I am now aware that we can help Haiti help itself with some creative projects and don’t really need a lot of resources to help because they are ready to do their part once they understand the process and the objectives of our presence in the community. I am now more appreciative of all the things I used to take for granted. While working with the other volunteers, I learned how to build solar ovens, how to start a square foot gardens, how soccer is uniting the Lebrun community! I am looking forward to go back to continue this amazing experience!
Thanks for being a part of this,