Mary Schofield worked as a volunteer in the Emmanuel community care project, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
I first found out about overseas volunteering in the Mature Times. I looked this up on the internet and found volunteer trips with people and places – I decided this was something I really wanted to do, so I got in touch with them.
Kate at people and places sent me a lot of information which enabled me to choose the right placement. I was surprised that there was such need in South Africa as I had always considered it to be a wealthy country. I was particularly drawn to Port Elizabeth as I had been supposed to go there in 1970 with my family – I wanted to see what I’d missed, if anything!
I am a retired Nursing Sister. Following discussions with Kate, it was clear that my personal and professional experience would be useful in the Emmanuel project. Kate sent the appropriate paperwork – which was extensive, but straightforward – and also put volunteers in touch with each other. This was invaluable.
There was also a volunteers’ meeting in Faversham as part of the preparation for the trip … this was also very useful as I had the opportunity to ask questions of those who had been there.
All the way through my preparation there was support.
When it came to travelling, a few of the volunteers met up at Heathrow. The trip to Port Elizabeth was long, but uneventful. We were so happy to see the sunshine when we got off the plane!
We were met at the airport and driven to our hotel where we met the previous volunteers. I know they meant well, but some of them were so negative that I was beginning to wish that I would be joining on them on their trip home! I was really quite anxious about what lay ahead.
The next day we met with Paul (people and places’ local partner at Calabash) and he explained about our placements. We were given local mobile phones so that we could easily contact the local office if we had any problems with our placements. There was also another outgoing volunteer at our meeting who was much more positive than the others…
We then went to Emmanuel and our respective placements – there was another volunteer working with me. We were warmly greeted and by now I was looking forward to starting work the next day,
The daily routine was pick-up at 07.30 and minibus to the project. The transport arrangements by Calabash were very efficient. We were collected from site at 14.30.
Our day consisted of working with the local carers on home visits, clinic visits and anything else which may happen. The resources were minimal; therefore the carers used their presence to provide support and understanding. I was asked for more clinical advice, such as what the medication was for. The carers, in their own way, provided a social service and the clients really appreciated their visits.
Each day, I gave an interactive ‘talk’ to the carers – they were very keen to increase their knowledge. I had compiled a folder to add to their learning resources, covering many aspects of Health Care, and previous volunteers had also left a lot of information for reference.
As volunteers, being exposed to the extreme needs of the clients and their communities was difficult to come to terms with, and on the whole, the volunteers were supportive of each other. It was so easy for us to see how problems could be solved! I expect the local people envied us our ignorance or naiveté!
The biggest challenge for me was frustration, as every way I tried to turn, I seemed to be blocked. More often than not, the blockage was down to the lack of money. Local people have their own coping mechanisms that enable them to continue, even when it seems hopeless to an outsider’s eyes. One can only envy them their absolute zest for life, despite all their troubles. Their unconditional faith and religious belief were also quite awesome.
Despite my challenges and frustration, I was not really disappointed about anything. On the whole, I felt the whole experience to have been rewarding – so much so, that I returned to volunteer again the following year.
I would recommend volunteering. It gives one a sense of self and an appreciation that people are willing to help themselves – they just need a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ or to be taken over. Above all, as a volunteer, do not be judgemental.
I wish that I could stay for a few months at a time so that I could get a even deeper feel for the local people and their culture.