Volunteering abroad requires courage, compassion, and an appetite for adventure. Find out if it’s the right choice for you after reading our conversation with RSJ contributor Dana Bruxvoort.
Pure, unadulterated courage. We all require a certain degree of it to venture far from home, but how much do we require, and under what circumstances? As I sat down to review the information RSJ Contributor Dana Bruxvoort had sent me regarding her decision to volunteer in Pattaya, Thailand, my overwhelming emotion–among many–was admiration.
Amidst the common travel concerns of “where is the nearest Starbucks?” and “will my appliances work there?”, Dana set out to face some of the most baffling tribulations of our lifetime: Why does there still exist a region of oppression where women are forced to turn to prostitution for survival? And–perhaps more profoundly–what can I contribute to fighting it? The threshold of courage required to step into an experience that will change your heart as much as it will change you mind is mind-blowing. And this girl has crossed it.
Perhaps the most telling piece of information from the following interview with Dana comes in an elegantly simple admonition:
“…even though you’ll go into the experience with the goal of making a difference in other people’s lives, your life will probably end up being the one that’s most changed.”
Dana has acquired some profound wisdom throughout her stay in Thailand, which comes to a close in the following month. Without further explanation, here are her experiences and suggestions for anyone considering a similar path.
RSJ: What factors led to your decision to volunteer abroad?
Dana Bruxvoort (DB): Entering into my senior year of college, I started getting waves of thoughts about doing overseas volunteer work after graduation. And to be perfectly honest, as a Christian, most of these thoughts were influenced by my faith and by what the Bible demonstrates about caring for the poor, the underprivileged and the oppressed. I knew that if I truly wanted to live like Jesus did, if I truly wanted my life to reflect his life, then a big part of that included loving the “least of these” in the world.
Also, as someone who – by the majority of the world’s standards – has led a very privileged life, I was looking for an opportunity to widen my perspective, to see how “the other half lives,” so to speak. Rather than succumb to the pressure to immediately settle into a stable life and career, I longed for my eyes and my mind to be opened in a way that only an experience like this would be able to open them. I longed for more adventure. And I knew I wanted to go for several months, because I loved the idea of really getting to delve into a new culture.
RSJ: How did you go about choosing and pursuing your host organization (in this case, Pattaya Slum Ministries)?
DB: Originally I was only looking into volunteering in Spanish-speaking countries because, well, I actually know a little Spanish! Then one day I was chatting with a friend who had spent some time volunteering in Cambodia at a safe house for young girls who had been victims of sex trafficking, and my heart began to break for Southeast Asia. I casually looked into volunteer options in that region, and when I stumbled upon YWAM’s Project LIFE Foundation in Thailand, I was immediately drawn to these organizations that reached out to the poor, the widows, the elderly, the children and the oppressed. I applied, and they placed me with Pattaya Slum Ministries, an organization that works primarily with women and children living in the slum communities of Pattaya (a city known internationally for sex tourism and sex trafficking). I’ve been helping out by teaching English to kids in the slums and using my marketing/communications background to help raise awareness and fundraise for PSM. As I near the end of my stay here, I know there’s nowhere else I’d rather have been!
RSJ: What challenges (emotional, physical, environmental) should potential volunteers prepare for?
DB: One of the biggest challenges (and I was warned about this prior to leaving America) is the inevitable feelings of isolation and loneliness. There are very few people my age here that speak English, and since I decided to come on my own as opposed to coming with a larger group, I have lots of time to myself. So if you’re someone who is pretty extroverted, definitely prepare yourself for what may be times of feeling isolated. Or even better, find a friend who’s interested in volunteering with you!
Culture shock was also lot more intense than I expected. I tried not to come in with any expectations, because how can you begin to prepare for something that will be so drastically different than everything (and I mean everything) you’ve known for 22 years of life? Its been a continuous journey to understand how Thai culture “works,” and I’m still sure I commit cultural faux pas all the time!
Learning the language has also been a challenge, but oh-so-rewarding. Although it still would’ve been ”easier” for me to go to a Spanish-speaking country, I’d encourage anyone to go where they truly feel their heart leading them, regardless of the language spoken there. My experience in Thailand has been so rich and full of joy, despite language barriers. Just be prepared to spend some time learning!
RSJ: What has been your greatest reward so far?
DB: Hands down, the kids. We hold kids’ clubs in three different slum communities every week, reaching between 100 and 120 kids, and also hold a Saturday youth club for the older kids. There are no words to describe the feeling when you walk into a room and all the kids exclaim Sawadee ka Kru Danaaaa (Hello Teacher Dana!) and scramble to be the first to hold your hand or give you a hug. Knowing and loving these kids has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I’m probably going to fit at least a few of them in my suitcases when I go home.
RSJ: What would you say to someone who is trying to decide whether or not they are right for this opportunity?
DB: I would say that anyone could be right for this kind of opportunity! And even though you’ll go into the experience with the goal of making a difference in other people’s lives, your life will probably end up being the one that’s most changed.
But, on a practical note, if you are considering volunteering, go into the experience knowing that it will be different than studying or vacationing abroad. Yes, I’ve gotten to do some cool things (like ride an elephant) and visit some beautiful places (oh, the beaches of Southern Thailand), but for the most part, these months have been less about the adventures of sightseeing and more about the adventures of what it looks like to completely dive into life as a “local.” In my opinion, though, those are some of the best adventures.
RSJ: What is one thing you wish you had packed, and one thing you could’ve left behind?
DB: Wish I would’ve packed: Cheese. You may laugh, but I’m serious. There is an unfortunate shortage of cheese in Thailand.
Wish I would’ve left behind: About half of the clothes I brought. You can buy awesome (and cheap!) clothes and shoes at the markets.
You can learn more about Dana’s incredible adventures at her blog www.danabrux.com.
If you are interested in working in Pattaya, Thailand, check out the Pattaya Slum Ministries and the Project Life Foundation for more information. You can see additional volunteer destinations at Youth With A Mission. Lastly, get access to thousands of opportunities worldwide at GoAbroad.com’s Volunteer Directory.
All photos in this article are published with the permission of Dana Bruxvoort. Introduction & interview conducted by Gillian Kemmerer.