Where Are They Now? – Alison

In our latest installment in “Where are they now?” we check in with Alison who volunteered for one month with our Wat Doi Saket project in October of 2011.  Read below to find out about her time in Thailand and her reflections about her time with ATMA SEVA!

atmaseva1) How did you get connected to ATMA SEVA? Why did you choose to volunteer with the Wat Doi Saket project?

Back in the summer of 2011, I decided to take a sabbatical from work and travel/volunteer abroad. I sent an email to friends and family asking for any suggestions for volunteer options or recommendations for specific programs. My friend Chris Poppe responded that his cousin was running a volunteer program in Thailand. After reading some scary reviews of various programs, the idea of having a contact I could trust was very appealing. Coincidentally, I was invited to a wedding in India around the time that I planned to go abroad. Thailand and ATMA SEVA quickly became the best option.

 2) How did you like teaching English at a Thai government school?

Teaching at the school was absolutely amazing, although the road to amazing is not always a straight one. Initially I found the teaching to be incredibly stressful. I didn’t feel I was bringing enough value to the children and it made me feel like I was failing. Once I learned to relax and just enjoy being with the kids, everything changed.

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Me teaching at the government school!

3) What were some of the challenges you faced?

I felt very isolated in the guest house I initially chose, classes were canceled often, and the teacher didn’t always show.

4) What is the most memorable moment from your trip?

So many wonderful places and people were a part of my time in Thailand – Wat Doi Saket, the kids at Ba Mai Dang School, the Australian missionary Peter (also known as the most positive person I’ve ever met). I’m not sure what would be the most memorable, but I can say that the most “spectacular” moment of my trip was watching my lantern fly up into the sky during the Loi Krathong festival!

Loi Krathong festival!!

5) Where are you now and what are you doing currently?

I’m back living and working in New York City as a Director on the regulatory consulting team for Kinetic Partners, an asset management consultancy.

6) Any travel plans on the horizon or other places you’d like to visit?

I’m heading to New Orleans next week for some jazz and a sazerac, but the next big adventure on the horizon is South Africa.

7) What did you learn from your time in Thailand and volunteering with ATMA SEVA?

Although research and planning is usually a good idea, sometimes you just need to let a place wash over you.

8) What advice would you give to someone who is looking to volunteer overseas?

Don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions about every aspect of the trip. The more information you have about your day to day activities and down time, the better. I was lucky with ATMA SEVA, but if you do not have a connection to the program, I would also recommend asking for testimonials from prior volunteers and the ability to reach out to them if desired.

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I taught briefly at Wat Doi Saket and pictured is me with some my students!

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Where are they now? – Anton

In this edition of ‘Where are they now?’ we checked in with Anton, a former volunteer with our Wat Doi Saket project who is from France.  Read his answers below to hear more about his time in Thailand with ATMA SEVA and what he’s been up to since returning home to France.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

Anton after his English class at Wat Doi Saket with teacher Natch.

1)  How did you first get connected with ATMA SEVA?  Why did you choose to volunteer with the Wat Doi Saket Project?  

Initially, I was just looking for an internship somewhere in Southeast Asia; the country and the activity of the organization did not matter as long as their mission was in line with my own philosophy. I found a short message written by programs director, David, on a forum so I contacted him to learn more about ATMA SEVA.  After hearing about what this experience could be, I immediately said “yes”. For me, the appeal of the program was being able to explore Asia in a rural and traditional area while also teaching kids. The idea of living in a Buddhist temple was also exciting, and even if I am a mostly convinced atheist, I knew I would discover new points of view and ideas about life with the monks, which is exactly what happened.

2) Tell us a bit about your time at the temple and teaching at a Thai government school. What were some of your favorite moments? 

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

Anton with teachers, volunteers, and children after his school play production.

At first, it was hard to adjust to the temple schedule with a lot of free time, teachers living in the temple, and often changing class times.  I like teaching and it was quite pleasant to teach in these places. I had a lot of freedom in the classroom and I could talk about whichever subjects I chose. The hardest thing was that so few people spoke English at that time in both the temple and the school.  This meant that I really had to make an effort to learn the Thai language, which is difficult to learn, in order to integrate and communicate.  Despite the challenge, it was really interesting to get into it, and very valuable for my work with the kids. Some of my favorite moments were bonding with the kids in both the government school and the temple. I also really enjoyed a theatre project I worked on at the government school.

3) What was it like being the first volunteer?

Intense! I was glad to be the first volunteer and help to continue building relationships with these monks and teachers who are continuing partners with ATMA SEVA. It was a challenge to figure out how to communicate and work with so many new people, but I enjoyed sharing our ideas about education and teaching.  I hope my work has been beneficial and that the links between ATMA SEVA and its partners continue to grow and strengthen.

4) How did you find your transition back to France after being in Thailand for several months? 

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

Anton with a teacher from a Thai government school

Actually, after Thailand, I spent two months in South America and then five months in Quebec.  The whole year was crazy for me. The transition between Asia and South America was really a shock because these two cultures are quite opposite in many ways: quietness and meditation, “soft human contact” for Asia; intense social life and passionate feelings for South America. The difference was pronounced and it was incredible to see how diverse human life and culture can be.  Once I got back to France, it took me about a year and a half to get used to French people again and appreciate them, but that’s part of traveling!

5) What are you doing currently?

I am actually finishing my master’s degree in political sciences in the cultural field. I am on an internship in the French countryside, working on a theatre project involving an equestrian show mixing classical text and modern direction with hip hop music.  I manage the administration of the project by looking for funds, places to perform, and setting up partnerships to communicate about the project.

6) What are your plans when you finish university? Would you consider any more work internationally?

My plans are still tentative, but I would like to finish this project that runs up to summer 2014, and find another job in the cultural field. After this, I would like to go to Quito, Equator, for a master’s degree in video documentaries. Eventually I’d like to get back to Montreal, a city that I love, and spend a part of my life there.

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

Anton with some mons from Wat Doi Saket

7) What did you learn from your time in Thailand volunteering with ATMA SEVA? 

I learned how to integrate to the unique Thai culture and how to communicate with people who don’t share a common language. I learned about how to teach effectively, what life is like in a Wat, that French food is not the best in the world, how to drive a motorbike… and more! I learned so many things that I can’t list them all!

8) What is your advice for anybody interested in volunteering or traveling abroad?

First, make sure to get enough information about the country and the organization that you are considering working with. I didn’t do as much research as I should have. I was lucky that ATMA SEVA was a good NGO, that David was so helpful and that Thailand is such a welcoming place. I have a few friends who landed on an unfriendly territory, and had a bad international experience. It’s good to know a little about where you’re going and what to expect before committing to work abroad.

Once you’ve arrived abroad, I recommend forgetting about what you know or think you know. Everything is relative, and it’s really dangerous and inappropriate to think your culture and your ideas are the one correct way. Understanding a country and its people doesn’t depend on simply the language or politeness, but on your capacity to think as others do and understand perspectives other than your own.  Always keep in mind that your views derive from a history you did not choose. Meeting different people is a great opportunity to challenge your ideas and beliefs in a search for your own personal truth. And don’t forget to have fun with the people you meet and enjoy your time!

Anton helping set up for a temple festival at Wat Doi Saket.

Anton helping to set up for a festival at Wat Doi Saket.

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Where are they now? – Sara Hutcheson

This edition of ‘Where are they now?’ features Sara, who was a volunteer coordinator and worked with ATMA SEVA for several months in 2010-2011.  We caught back up with Sara to check in and see what she is up to at the moment. Read her answers below to hear about her time in Thailand, with ATMA SEVA, and where she is now.

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1) Tell everyone about yourself, what brought you to Thailand, and how you got connected to ATMA SEVA.

I went to Thailand with a one-way plane ticket in the fall of 2010 and a vague notion of finding a job teaching English so that I could stay for an undetermined length of time.  I ended up staying for just under a year and, about half way through my stay, became friends with Dave Poppe (Programs Director for ATMA SEVA) through another job that he had at the time. He told me about ATMA SEVA and, because of my background in English teaching and in non-profit program administration, I volunteered some time during my last few months in the country.

2) What was your involvement with ATMA SEVA?

Dave was working on a new website for the program at the time, so I helped with the writing and brainstormed with Dave about program development. I also got to co-host a few volunteer teachers and showed them the sights of Chiang Mai and Doi Saket and helped them with lesson planning.

Sara pictured above after one of our very first monk chats

Sara pictured above after one of our very first monk chats

3) What is your most memorable moment from your time overseas?

My most memorable time in Thailand was the motorcycle trip I took with Dave, his girlfriend, and another friend (4 friends, 2 bikes, 1 week). Our first stop was the Lawa village and for me that was the highlight not just of the motorcycle trip but of my year traveling in Southeast Asia.  We were only able to spend several days there but between the hiking, food, and meeting different people it was truly once in a lifetime.

Sara with the principle of one of the government schools we work with

Sara with the principal of one of the government schools we work with

4) Where are you living now? What are you doing?

I’m now back in my hometown of Philadelphia, working at a Thai restaurant on Sunday nights so I can maintain some little connection with the Kingdom. Although I was open to the possibility of never coming home, I always thought that I would.  So here I am, back in Philly, and with a much more highly developed sense of “sanuk” (Thai word for fun) thanks to my ten months in Thailand.  I still train volunteer English and literacy teachers at the library, but have otherwise, happily, left my former career in education (which was a main reason for leaving home in the first place) and am now in the middle of renovating a big old house in South Philly with my boyfriend.

5) Was there any culture shock or difficulty moving back to the US?

Nope! Just a terrible, aching lack of Thai street food.

6) How did your time in Thailand and with ATMA SEVA affect you?

An amazing trip abroad is sometimes all you need to remember  “there’s no place like home.”

7) What would you say to someone who is thinking about volunteering or traveling with ATMA SEVA?

DO IT 🙂

Sara on the back of a motorbike with volunteer Rachel

Sara on the back of a motorbike with volunteer Rachel

By David Poppe

david@atmaseva.org

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Where are they now? – Pascale

The ATMA SEVA blog is adding a new category called ‘Where are they now?’. Each entry will feature a former volunteer or ATMA SEVA traveler to highlight where the person is and the work they are doing, things they have taken away from their travels, any past reflections, and a platform for them to share.

In addition to the work ATMA SEVA does (cultural and educational tours, volunteer placements, & community work) we are striving to create a community for people to join, to get and stay involved no matter where they are in the world.  (check out our ‘Join our Community‘ page)  We hope this section is a source of motivation to get out and travel, volunteer, help people, and to learn from others experiences.

Enjoy, and if anyone has any suggestions or comments please leave a reply below!

The first entry is about Pascale, who volunteered with the Wat Doi Saket project from October 2010 – February 2011.  Pascale is from France and before coming on this trip she was working as a webmaster to create, develop, and maintain various websites.  She had a feeling that she wanted to do more and to possibly get involved with the non-profit sector, but wanted an overseas experience first.

After her time with the WDSP, she returned to France with a new outlook and goals in mind.  Pascale recently started her own NGO that works in Senegal.  Read below to learn about her new organization, her time with ATMA SEVA, and more!

Pascale Pollak and friends at Podor.

1) Tell us about your new NGO in Senegal? 
My NGO is called “e-nexus” and its aim is to create and organize solidarity programs to help bridge the digital divide.  A full partnership between schools, organizations, and local communities to provide access to computers and to learn how to use them and learn other IT skills.

2) How did you get involved with this project?
One day, a friend of mine said, “hey Pascale, you just came from four months of volunteering in Thailand and you like technology and are a professional in the IT sector.  You want to help, you are on the move and strong, you should do something for the digital divide, e-education… There are so many things you can do!”  This is when my project began.

African girls with traditional braided hair.

3) What inspired you to start e-nexus?
Having the ability and knowledge for how to use a computer is necessary in our society for education, information, and work.  For many kids and people in the world it’s impossible because of the digital divide and poverty.  E-nexus is one way to help provide IT education and training.

4) Why is your project beneficial?  Who and how does it help?
WHY
– 80% of IT users represent 20% of the worlds population.
– In France each year, 2.5 million computers are thrown away by companies.  50% of these computers are in working order.

WHO
Our projects are for everybody: from kids to teenagers, students, and adults.  I’m very passionate about the education of women as well.

HOW
– Have access to the IT resources that will help them to build their future.  IT education is a way to help improve literacy as well.
– To bring the materials isn’t enough. (not e-waste! Africa isn’t the dustbin of developed countries!)  Supplements are necessary to help learn and use computers and programs in an efficient way.  Programs are developed with local people (NGO’s, schools, town council, etc) to ensure that the resources or being used in the most productive fashion.
– At the end of the courses, students will be tested to obtain a certificate similar to an ECDL. (European Computer Driving License)
– We also keep watch on the second life of the computers in Africa until their last destination: recycling programs.

Ibrahima teaching the first steps of how to use a computer. (Podor)

5) How can people check out your project and get involved? 
All in French language at the moment…
Website: www.e-nexus.net
Facebook page (don’t forget to ‘like’!):  www.facebook.com/ONGe.nexus
Soon, online donations will be possible through: http://www.mailforgood.com

6) What did you learn from ATMA SEVA, and your time with the Wat Doi Saket project?
So many things!  I decided to try a four month experience to learn about volunteering, Buddhism, Thai culture, and how and who I am really in all-purposes.  How can I understand other cultures, education, and the way of life in real situations (the situation of Thai people) and not like a “farang” in a resort or Sunday market.  This was possible to observe and be immersed in the culture as the Wat Doi Saket project focuses on exposing volunteers to authentic Thai culture and showing them a wide variety of locations.  Four months confirmed what I wanted to be and do from now on.

7) What was your most memorable moment volunteering in Thailand?
Teaching was very funny and sometimes puzzling as the planning doesn’t have the same weight as in the West, but I still very much enjoyed being in the classroom.  I’m also very interested in Buddhism and I learned a lot with the monks who became my real friends. (thanks to social networks we can continue to be friends 🙂 )

Pascale at Doi Inthanon with the monks

The special “Christmas party” at the temple with a gift exchange made me so happy and I felt lucky.  I was able to take part in a very special moment at the temple, which most people do not get to experience.  I was honored to be invited.

I spent new years eve 2010 to 2011 listening to the monks chanting near the pagoda.  It was a very spiritual moment for me.  I recorded them with my smartphone and enjoy them frequently still.

I can’t forget all the travels with the monks and novices to different parts of Thailand. Riding in the back of a pick up truck with fresh air blowing in my face and also riding the motorbike on small roads in the rice fields was a new and fun experience for me.

8) What would you say to people thinking about volunteering or traveling abroad to help?

Bank of Senegal river at Podor

Don’t hesitate: GO ON!!  Learn, look, smell, taste, smile, sing, pray, be curious and share.

If anyone has any questions for Pascale about her new organization you can reach her at: pascale@e-nexus.net.  Subscribe to this blog and stay tuned for the next edition of ‘Where are they now?’

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