Interview –
International Volunteer

Meet the Director and Assistant Director of an International volunteer organization.

Executive Director Luke Winston and Assistant Director Liz McPhillips are the administrative team behind VEGlobal (http://www.ve-global.org), an international volunteer organization working with orphanages, community centers and schools in Santiago, Chile.

Young ESL Students Pose for Pictures on Lawn

How did you become part of the volunteer industry?
Winston: I’ve been in the volunteer industry for three and half years, after winning a fellowship to travel and live in an orphanage after graduating from university. I was shocked by the disparity between the orphanages and other institutions, with some having so many resources and others having none. I founded VEGlobal not only to bring the valuable resource of volunteers to Santiago. However, volunteers can only be in Chile for so long, so our organization aims to make volunteer work more continuous and places volunteers in three month cycles. In addition, volunteers are faced with problems integrating into their institutions right away, so I made it my work to help organize volunteers to be more effective when they first arrive.

McPhillips: Volunteering has always been a part of my life but I have been a full-time volunteer since 2005 when I began working for VEGlobal. I started as a volunteer working five days a week in a pre-school based in a shantytown community and using my free time to help out in the office. My involvement in the organization grew and I was eventually asked to serve as VE’s assistant director. Since then my time is shared between volunteer supervision, administrative tasks and continuing my work in the shantytown’s pre-school.

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What is a typical potential volunteer like? What makes an applicant stand out?
Winston:
Most of our applicants are recent college graduates, who are looking for real life, practical work experience abroad. Many are focused largely on the travel and language learning aspects of volunteering. An outstanding applicant already has a good command of Spanish, experience working with children, proven leadership and initiative, and a strong grasp of the realities of poverty. They are willing to participate in all aspects of the work, from the playing and running with kids to the more tedious office stuff and cleaning. Above all, we look for genuine passion for the work that we do, bringing equality of opportunity to children. The large majority of applicants are female, and we are always actively looking for ways to recruit male volunteers, as there is a need for positive male role models in our institutions.

McPhillips: While we receive applicants of all ages from around the world, the majority of our applicants are recent college graduates or students looking to do something interesting during their gap-year before college. The best applicants are those who have unusual or interesting experiences and show passion for the things they do.

What is the most rewarding part of working with volunteers? What is the most frustrating?
Winston:
Finding another person who has a desire to change the world even in the face of extreme adversity is very rewarding, and it is comforting to know that there are so many people around the world who are committed to bringing opportunities to children, and who are willing to come together to share ideas and perspectives towards a common mission. The lack of continuity can be frustrating, since most volunteers cannot stay for the long term. We also find ourselves working against the perception of volunteers as less professional or serious because they don’t get paid.

McPhillips: Working with volunteers allows you to meet new people and get to know their stories. The most frustrating part is they come in three month cycles and as soon as you get to know them, they leave.

What qualities does a volunteer need to be successful?
Winston:
Interpersonal skills are the most important, a person who can be comfortable in a social situation will find have more success in cross cultural boundaries. Patience, ingenuity, creativity and strong work ethic are infinitely important, especially when working with children. Special skills like medicine, construction or teaching will also give volunteers an advantage.

McPhillips: A successful volunteer is one who isn’t afraid to smile at everyone, isn’t too proud to perform menial tasks in children’s institutions and can adapt to any situation.

Any other words of wisdom?
Winston: Dream big, but don’t expect to change the world in six months. A volunteer’s contribution and possibilities are numerous, but prior to one’s arrival to a situation of poverty it is easy to overlook the many obstacles toward social change. The little things, like teaching one child of to read, or making on child laugh, are all parts of the long term change that volunteers are working towards. It is also very important to think of your experience as a shared one with your host organization, and be sure to always be aware of their needs, rather than your own. Also, language preparation before your arrival is vital, and will drastically improve your ability to get to work right away.

McPhillips: The one thing they never tell you about volunteering is it’s the hardest job ever – it’s got big rewards but seriously, only the strong survive.

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