I write this piece with mixed feelings: there is uncertainty about what is to come, silent weeps for the upcoming farewell and yet a deep, deep sense of belonging that overwhelms me with love. This was the Youth Corps Washington Family just a couple of days ago right about 1030PM at the FIKA Cafe along Beach Road. The gathering was a generous appreciation dinner by invitation from our community partner, Lakeside Family Services (where the most passionate of volunteers and social workers have inspired the two project teams greatly). Over unfamiliar Swedish dishes and a strange ‘Rosehip’ soup, the two project teams had been reunited for the first time in the longest of months, with complete attendance. It was no less than a reunion of family.
At the gathering that stretched across about 3 hours, we were all grappling to play catch-up with one another on the countless turning points our lives have taken. Basking in the comfort of these people likened to my family members who never fail to express genuine concern about one another’s lives, and immersing in the laughter that I have so missed in the past year, I couldn’t help but flashback on the many, many ups and downs we have all gone through as Youth Corps Aspirants, and in our personal lives over this one fateful year.
I remember the uncertainty that came with the time when it all just started. When I compare our June 2014 selves to the individuals we have grown to become, there are subtle signs of development in the way we approach problems, view challenges and search for solutions; there is a new confidence that has empowered us with this one year of rigorous training and volunteerism. From the individual sharing round the tables at the FIKA gathering (as we stood up to give a little speech of our own), it was apparent that we pride ourselves in that not a single member from Washington had quit on this very intensive journey– the late night meetings, high-commitment trainings, the countless proposals, crazy planning behind every small detail and the hours of reflections. There were arguments, crying, laughter, exasperation, disappointment, anxiety, excitement… and on hindsight, I am truly so glad we persevered to have experienced this whole spectrum of possibilities this one-year journey could offer us.
Semester of Service (SoS) 1 for us was an environmental advocacy project called “Office Go Green” at the Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA) building, working with Vietnam counterparts who have become our favourite Vietnamese. With support from our community partner Hemispheres Foundation, our team had scrambled to find our footing in the unfamiliar environmental scene compensating for our lack of exposure with double the diligence in our research.
SoS 1 was a lot about reconciling between theoretical knowledge and cultural adaptations. As with many overseas service projects, the challenge lay in the lack of deep understanding of the context of VEA staff and management. It took recce trips, consultations with our community partners (who are experts in the field) and day-long meetings with the management to piece our environmental plans for the office building together. While our months of preparation before the implementation trip had translated into an extremely detailed plan for the management of the building, we arrived with the management of the office only to have our plans deconstructed and then, reconstructed once more together with the management staff to better suit their needs. Our team learned to forge friendships and treasure ties in an culturally unfamiliar environment as our Vietnamese counterparts were extremely helpful in working with us, and also to be ever-ready to readjust our expectations and plans in face of the uncertainty that accompanies overseas service projects.
And now on the recently concluded Semester of Service (SoS) 2, where Washington 1 proudly presents the ‘Little Learning Club Program’: a pre-schooler program meant for children aged 4-6, to encourage early exposure to the English Language and cultivate an interest in the language from a young age. Working with Lakeside Family Services, working on this cause that tugs at the heartstrings of most of the team, has been absolutely incredible. This project began with the assessment of gaps in Lakeside Family Services’ existing programs for children in the neighbourhood, and with the guidance from our amazing Community Partners, we pieced together the vision to bring together a community of pre-schoolers who could ‘Learn, Play and Grow together’. The dream was idealistic, but aiming high and pushing ourselves to our limits, the result was beautiful.
Testament to our efforts, our ITE NYAA Volunteers wrote heartwarming reflections that reflected a precious journey of personal development for themselves and our beneficiaries’ parents shared with us the children’s woes of having to leave after only 1.5 hours when the lesson was over. I cannot describe how incredibly proud I am of our team for having created an experience so precious to the volunteers and children who are all here to stay, and for earning the trust and confidence from the parents whose only request was for “lessons to be longer”. From this, I have learned amongst other things, that authenticity can be exchanged for some of the most valuable and incredible things in return.
From our incredible hundreds of hours (collectively, nearing a thousand in this past year) that have been dedicated to project meetings, trainings and working on the go, I have been inspired by this amazing bunch to consistently challenge my limits. I have found strength and courage to step out of my comfort zone, to (I suppose) what they call the ‘learning zone’ thanks to this Washington Family consisting of not only Aspirants, but community partners and mentors we have been so blessed to have with us. I hope I remember the anxiety of presenting to various audiences (the NYC board of staff on the judging panel, Youth Corps Aspirants, VEA management directors), and the exhilaration of sharing little moments of ‘success’ with everyone on the team.
This year with Youth Corps has taught me more than resilience and the value of love, it has also shifted my outlook in the possibilities that can come with a great deal of compassion and dedication. When I think of us collectively I am, too, confident that “a small group of people with great love can change the world”; and to the naysayers who brush off ‘world change’ as an impossible feat, they surely surely will change their minds when they look at who we are and what we’ve done.