ConU student looks poverty in the eye

The vision came to her in 1999 when she was 18 years old. Making a difference and growing personally was a very exciting prospect. So, what did Concordia studio arts major Sarah Mangle do? She went to Costa Rica on a three-month Youth Challenge International (YCI) exchange.

“I wanted to feel good about the way I was living my life… to get out of the town I was living in and challenge myself. I didn’t want to go straight to university,” she says.

Mangle also wanted to get involved with building something with a group. “I didn’t want theory. I wanted hands-on practical experience.”

Created in 1989, the Toronto-based non-profit organization YCI offered just what Mangle was searching for. Working with Youth Challenge Guyana, Reto Juvenil International in Costa Rica and Youth Challenge Australia, YCI puts together international teams of volunteers aged 18 to 35 that participate in exchanges and attempts to make a difference in third world countries through community development, health promotion and conservation projects.

From winter 1999 to 2000, Mangle spent three weeks in a small Indian village called Irazu and six weeks on the West Coast in a small town called Villa Real, helping to build trails, latrines and a temporary school building. Living with ten people within a very small proximity, she says the group dynamics were extremely challenging. Adapting to culture shock and learning cross-cultural views of white women was equally difficult.

In fact, Mangle admits the overall trip was challenging.

“It was hard for me to figure out whether or not my participation in the project was beneficial to the two communities I was in…. I felt like a young and confused Canadian girl. To some extent I could influence how I was interpreted and treated, and to a great extent, I could not. I had to accept my cultural history of oppressing and dominating other cultures.”

What Mangle needed to do was to forget her definition of poverty.

“Poverty looks very different than popular pictures of rundown shacks. Poverty looks like lack of access of healthy resources and that’s a lot harder to spot. Dirt floors aren’t poverty; illiteracy isn’t poverty. The Canadian perspective on the correlation between need and want isn’t the reality for the rest of the world. We don’t get to determine what is best for everyone else,” she says.

Having her world “flipped upside down” was exciting. Exciting things she learned were letting go and working hard to communicate and make loving connections with people.

“This experience directly challenged me to ask questions about my life: to take full responsibility for my life and the way my actions affect the rest of the world. I had fun, I learned and grew and played, and it was a lot of work. I worked externally, physically… and learned Spanish, and also how to salsa dance and play dominoes and soccer without shoes on,” she says.

“And I worked internally, challenging my perspectives on community, charity, volunteerism, need, first world/third world politics, sexual politics and roles across cultural boundaries, poverty, family and group dynamics.”

This is exactly what YCI wants for its participants. More than 50 field programs have been implemented since 1990 in seven countries with the help of over 2,500 volunteers. Approximately 175 people go on exchanges annually. In addition to Costa Rica, Guyana and Vanuatu, YCI is looking to expand volunteer opportunities to Ecuador, Ethiopia and Tanzania this year.

The YCI programs remain fairly consistent from year to year, says Program Officer Shauna Houlton, evolving only as community needs evolve. Changes include occasional additions of more countries and departure dates.

There is one thing Houlton insists is unchanging.

“The job market is very tough, and a university degree is not a guarantee of a job the way it used to be. Nowadays, employers are looking for employees with some real world experience. Volunteer work is an excellent way to gain the skills that employers are looking for, especially for those individuals… wanting to work internationally,” she says.

YCI’s Executive Director Adrienne Clements agrees. “Graduating students may not want to jump right into the employment market for a lot of reasons. They may not know what they want to do or they may feel they need more hands-on experience. YCI provides an opportunity for students to broaden their life experience, gain important, marketable skills and see the world in a way they may never have before. This contributes to making well founded career decisions.”

She adds, “Hands-on experience can be the best and most lasting way to learn. Often times, YCI participants will have the opportunity to participate in activities they might not have a chance to do back home.”

For example, Clements refers to the close-knit working with local groups to lobby the government to change national HIV/AIDS policies, and work with Amerindian women to develop small businesses, and to help in a medical program that is bringing improved under five healthcare to remote areas.

This, in turn, has touched thousands of lives internationally. Approximately 10,000 people in isolated communities now have access to fresh water; 7,000 have had access to important HIV/AIDS education; 9,500 people in four countries have benefited from primary health workshops; and 95 schools or health posts have been repaired or built. In addition, over 4,500 youth have undertaken local environmental action projects.

Teams range from single placements to mid-size from four to six people to larger teams from nine to 15. Exchanges vary in time from five to eight, ten- or 12-week programs, with eight-month and one-year placements sometimes occurring.

While participants choose their destinations, YCI facilitates the decision-making process by providing helpful information.

Going on an exchange can cost from $2,400 to $3,850 Canadian, but YCI has an internship program that pays participants monthly stipends and covers their travel and accommodations.

The application process is not complicated. The form can be filled out online or sent in via mail or fax and there is no application fee. Suitable applicants are chosen through an interview process, either in person or over the phone, and must understand the setting they will be going to and able to work within a group setting. Some people pull out after the interview says Clements, because they do not want that type of experience.

For those willing to try something different and challenging after graduation, Houlton has a special message.

“Life experience is not something that you can learn in a classroom or from textbooks. The number of soft skills, like communication, cross cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution, team work and leadership, that you walk away from a Youth Challenge project with are infinite. I find that I use these skills in every aspect of my life.”

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If you are interested in going on a Youth Challenge International exchange or want to find out more info, you can visit their web site: www.yci.org. YCI can be reached at (416) 504-3370 or [email protected].

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