Several people have asked me questions as they consider volunteering. I am happy to share my personal experience volunteering with Nurture Project International. I would like to remind you of the limitations of sharing my experience because of the ever changing situation at the work sites and the diversity of volunteers.
How did you make the decision to volunteer?
When I saw the initial advertisement from Nurture Project International for lactation consultants, I was immediately interested in going. I sent an email to NPI right away. Having never done any work of this nature, I had many questions. Most of the questions I had to answer within myself. My most pressing concern was if I would actually be helpful. I wondered if I was the right fit for the work. I haven’t traveled internationally much. I worried that I would not adapt to working in a culture and circumstance so difference than my own. It ended up not being a problem for me at all. My second concern was my personal safety. I visited the US Department of State website to look for travel advisories to Greece. The US did not have any recommendations against visiting Greece. I believe I first learned of NPI in mid-March 2016 and booked flights in mid-April. I started my trip to Greece on June 2nd and returned home on June 16th.
How long do you recommend a volunteer stay?
I asked this same question to NPI. I was advised that 2 weeks is the recommendations because longer stays become increasingly more challenging. Not knowing what to expect, I decided to stay 2 weeks. Leaving to go home is hard for everyone. I felt like I was doing good work and developing relationships with refugees. I was sad to leave them in the hands of other volunteers. I wanted to stay longer and I still wish I had stayed longer. However, I understand the 2 week recommendation. The work is emotionally tiring. I could see from others that after working longer, frustrations begin to grow. Those frustrations can prevent the volunteer from being effective. With a stay of two weeks, I was able to work everyday. If I had stayed longer, I would need to take a day off at regular intervals.
How much does this cost?
As a volunteer, I was responsible for travel, food and lodging. My airfare from New Orleans, LA to Thessaloniki, Geece was $1300. I rented a car in Thessaloniki (which was optional) for $286. I purchased travel insurance through Seven Corners for $108. NPI rented a house for volunteers. I donated the recommended $10 per night to NPI to cover the house rental. I borrowed an “unlocked” smart phone from a friend and purchased a SIM card with phone minutes and internet. I think I paid about 20 euros. Food in Greece cost less than the US. On a tight budget, you could get by on a few euros a day. But even eating out for most meals, the cost is under 10 euros a day.
What did you do to prepare?
I applied for a passport and international driver’s license. I met with a physician who specialized in international travel. She recommended several vaccines that I compared to the vaccines recommended by NPI and decided which ones I wanted to get. The doctor provided a prescription for an antibiotic just in case I fell sick during my travel (thankfully I did not need it). NPI provided a list of required on-line reading and training that focuses on the topic of infant feeding. I completed the training and uploaded the documents required by NPI. Deciding what clothes to take was a challenge for me. I needed to pack light and make sure I took the right things. NPI requires covered shoulders and legs to be culturally sensitive. I think it also projects an image of professionalism which is important for gaining respect from the authorities and the refugees. I chose to wear long skirts, short sleeve shirts and sandals. I carried a small backpack, but I wish I had also taken a bag to wear around my waist for my phone and passport.
What was the work like?
As a lactation consultant, my job was to meet with individual mothers of children under two years old and support them in safe feeding. I worked at 3 different camps (Hara Hotel, EKO, and Kalichori at SK Market) and the arrangement was different in each. Whether, I went to their tent or they came to us, my goal was to establish trust with a mother and learn about her children and how and what they were eating. If it was a mother we already had a relationship with, I asked for an update. Every day was a little different, but I will share an example of a “typical” day. We would start to get the team together around 9a. It always took longer than expected to get everyone and everything together. Each day there were supplies to be loaded in the car, along with anything we needed personally during the day (perhaps a packed lunch or cold water). We arrived at the camp and set up our tent (base of operations) around 10a. During the work day, we had busy times and slow times. As women stopped by, we would greet them and sit down for a conversation. Depending on the camp and supplies available, we give mothers various items. We visited with the mother to discover if she had any concerns we could help with. If we couldn’t help, we simply provided a kind ear or a referral to a different NGO. We usually started packing up for the day around 3p. It would take some time to clean up and pack up. Once back home, there were always tasks to be done; sometimes researching something for a mother, purchasing supplies for tomorrow, washing furniture coverings for the tent, or speaking with the NPI site coordinator about a specific case. After all the teams were back at the house, we would gather together for a debrief. These are important for several reasons. The meeting provided a much needed ended to the work day, it was a time to pass along any new information or updates to the team and is helpful for the emotional health of the individual volunteers. After the meeting we would often eat dinner out together. More often than not, we were saying goodbye to a volunteer or greeting a new arrival. By the time dinner was over, it was time for bed.
Who is a good volunteer for NPI?
When I first learned of NPI, I wondered if I would be a good fit for the job. Each of the volunteers I met and worked with were absolutely wonderful. They were able to work in an environment that changes constantly, they were willing to jump in and make decisions in the moment, but also knew when to collaborate with NPI coordinators. They were self aware and could recognize their own limitations. A good candidate to volunteer with NPI is smart and kind. If you are considering volunteering, I am happy to visit with you and help you understand the work environment and if it is a good fit for you.
One month ago I was traveling to Polycastro, Greece a step into the unknown. I left my wonderful husband and two children at home in Mississippi to do something I had never done before. I was going to provide lactation support to Syrian refugees.
That last sentence sounds so simple and straight forward. I am a mother who breastfed her own children. I am a volunteer lactation counselor with La Leche League. I have helped many mothers breastfeed. I knew the two weeks in Greece would be full of new experiences. What I did not know was the intensity with which my heart and spirit would change.
Last year, my dad died unexpectedly and a few weeks later I miscarried a baby girl at 15 weeks gestation. Both came with such a shock, my happy world was changed. As I emerged from those devastating events, I found myself with a feeling that is difficult to describe. I was restless. I didn’t trust what I had previously believed to be true. I wanted more from life. I had discovered emotions deeper than I knew existed. I wanted to put the depth of my heart to good use.
While mindlessly scrolling through facebook, the ad shown above appeared. It was speaking to me. Someone, somewhere needed the skills I had. Someone needed my raw heart. Someone was in a deep unexpected pain and I knew what that felt like.
I didn’t know anything about Syria, Greece, refugees or the entire Middle East. I stopped watching the news years ago. I quickly discovered that Syria was in ongoing, complicated war. After years of fighting and hoping for a resolution, thousands upon thousands of Syrians were leaving. They packed a bag, picked up their kids and walked out their door in search of a safer place. I know if I had to do that, I would want a friendly face on the other end of that journey. I decided to go to Greece to offer an empathetic smile and a hug to the mothers who made that journey.
I am happy that Nurture Project International found me. As an organization, we share the same values. We respect mothers and recognize that through supporting mothers we can make the world a better place for generations to come. We know that breastfeeding not only saves lives though better health, but has the power to build strong mothers. While working in refugee camps, I met with mothers one on one. I offered technical assistance and breastfeeding support. But more often, I showed that I cared. The refugees are in terrible circumstances and the kindness of a Nurture Project International volunteer can give them hope to keep going – to keep hugging their children – to keep waking up – to keep hoping for a bright future. Nurture Project International volunteers save lives.
When I told people about my trip to Greece, they wanted to send things. Baby carriers, diapers, clothes, formula, bottles. There are all kinds of important reasons not to send stuff. More importantly, I can tell you what the refugees in Greece need: They need YOU.
I know you have reasons why you can’t go. I had reasons too. You don’t have money. You have family to take care of. You have school. You have work. You don’t have a passport. You don’t speak Greek or Arabic or Farsi. You are scared to travel overseas. You have people at home that need you. You feely panicky when you think about walking into a refugee camp. You don’t know about refugees. You don’t know about Muslims. You are scared.
Take a breath. Breath in Peace. Breath out fear, pain, anything that is not love and peace. The families in refugee camps escaped a terrible war. They ran away from terrorists. The world is stuck. Tens of thousands of people are looking for a peaceful home and the world was not ready for that. World leaders don’t know what to do. But, you can do something. You can save a life. You can spread love and peace simply by your presence.
I am asking you to go to raise your hand. Be brave. Be part of the change. I will help you.