Recently, I contacted Emmeline Weinert, a college graduate (LMU '14) from Ann Arbor, Michigan (United States) about her experience serving in South Africa with Young Adults in Global Mission. Here are her description and perspective on the whole of her experience from work she participated into the process of becoming a volunteer and the goals of the organization itself.
Volunteer Organization: Young Adults in Global Mission*
Volunteer Location: Soweto, South Africa
Home Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Duration of Volunteer Activities: 11 months
- How would you characterize the overall mission and work of this organization?
Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) is a program through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Global Mission. YAGM sends young adults to more than ten countries every year for a year of service. Global Mission, and the YAGM program, really stress the idea of accompaniment. We go to communities around the world to walk with others; to be a companion for their journey and to allow them to be a companion in our journey. It's about practicing mutuality and educating more open-hearted young adults.
- How would you characterize the specific mission and work of your location/post?
In South Africa, we were told not to focus on achievement, or being productive in a very American sense of the idea. Instead, we were encouraged to listen to people's stories, share meals and do odd jobs whenever possible. I worked at an AIDS Ministry, funded by the Lutheran Church in South Africa, but my mission, or reason for being there, wasn't tied to that assignment. Many Americans only hold a single narrative of the African continent, let alone South Africa, and so living the daily lives of my neighbor's and sharing what that looked like with people back home was a part of the mission. In the same way, many South African's have a very narrow image of the United States, and so I would try to paint a broader picture for my colleagues.
- In what specific activities did you participate during your time volunteering?
I lived and worked at the Diakonia AIDS Ministry, and through that did a variety of things. I worked with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children Department's after-school programs, helped with computer literacy in the office, swept floors, etc. I attended a Lutheran church in the neighborhood and ended up joining the church choir and competing with them against other choirs in the diocese. I was also fortunate to travel the country, visiting other YAGM volunteers at their sites and for group retreats sprinkled throughout the year.
- What can you share about your personal process of deciding how/when/where to volunteer?
Going into my senior year of college I was pretty sure I would do a year of service after graduating. This was partially because I had no idea what else to do, and of course, because I wanted to give back after spending four years receiving the benefits of a college education. I got it in my head that I wanted to serve in Latin America, partially based on my studies in Political Science and also because I felt I needed to buckle down and learn Spanish. I applied for YAGM because the program in Mexico sounded so good, but the Universe had other plans. I ended up in South Africa and could not be happier (not that Mexico isn't great!).
- What can you share about the formal process of becoming a volunteer with your organization?
YAGM does ask that applicants be somehow affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), either through an ELCA college, congregation or outdoor ministry, though applicants do not, themselves, have to be Lutheran. Applications are due Feb. 15 and then there is a phone interview scheduled. If accepted, applicants receive two possible country placements (I was given Mexico and South Africa) and are invited to DIP (Discernment, Interview, Placement). At DIP they learn more about YAGM overall, as well as their two country programs, and then interview for both. The YAGM staff ultimately selects where program volunteers serve. I walked into DIP 85% sure I was going to Mexico and walked out 100% ready to go to South Africa.
- Describe life in your volunteer location relative to life in your home country/city/region.
Neighborhoods in Soweto are more tightly packed. Houses were smaller and closer together than I was accustomed to, and that makes more difference than you might think. When I arrived back in the U.S., I was shocked at the distance between residences: the yard space, drive ways, sidewalks, medians and wide roads. That is one of those unexpected things that blew my mind. Another shift was never driving a car. Like most of my neighbors in Soweto, I used public transportation to get almost everywhere. Traveling this way takes longer and I could only buy as many groceries as I could hold in my lap. It was a privileged adjustment. Those things really just magnify the impact of the other life changes, however.
I was a foreigner. I was typically the only white person in the vicinity, and languages I didn't speak were constantly swirling around me. I often had to rely on the kindness of neighbors or strangers to point me in the right direction to buy airtime (minutes for my phone), teach me how to cook corn porridge (pap) or get the correct taxi to get home (taxis are like micro busses stuffed with people). This was a major shift from my American home life, which is built on being self-sufficient and convenient.
- What impact has your volunteer experience had on you? (your perspective, goals, relationships, etc.)
It has certainly instilled a new kind of confidence in me. Before I didn't consider myself someone who could just go somewhere and find my way around. I assumed I always needed some type of tour guide, or arranged transportation. I've learned that if you're bold enough to ask locals for help, people all over the world want to assist you (if you're friendly). I think this extends into many areas of my life. Just ask for help.
- What advice would you give to those who plan/hope to volunteer with your organization?
Prepare to have your life changed. The support network within YAGM is amazing and full of people with very different perspectives. While its parent body, the ELCA, is considered a very liberal church institutionally, of course membership is ideologically diverse, and when we say all are welcome, we mean it. It is very spiritually oriented as well, so be ready and willing to talk about your faith or beliefs and to be honest. No one with fault you for your openness.
- What advice would you give to those who plan/hope to volunteer in your volunteer location?
Read before you go, and continue reading while you're there. There is an abundance of literature about South Africa, take advantage. Before I went I read some of Desmond Tutu's sermons and speeches, and part of Nelson Mandela's “Long Walk to Freedom” but I wish I had read more. While in country I got my hands on a lot of books through a regional YAGM program library. To understand some of the modern politics in SA I loved “Memoirs of a Born Free” by Malaika Wa Azania and in understanding transitional thinking in the last decade regarding HIV/AIDS Johnny Steinberg's “Three Letter Plague” was invaluable. Whatever your interest, a South African has written about it.
- What advice would you give to those who plan/hope to volunteer in other locations/organizations with the same mission/objectives?
Don't view this experience as a stepping stone to anything. If you're in this to build your resume, longterm service work is likely not the right option. The benefits of this work are going to primarily be internal, in you and in those you meet and touch. Do it for its own sake. I would also encourage you not to view your time of service as a year away from your life or a “gap” year. You take your life with you, this is just another year, two years, six months, whatever.
- What else would you like to share about your experience?
I had a very fun year. Certainly I went through periods of depression and loneliness, but overall I had an accessible support network which was enough for me, and really friendly, helpful neighbors and co-workers who took care of me in the way that I needed. I just want to name that this isn't the case for everyone. Some people's service period is really rough, and even when people around them are friendly or helpful, it doesn't solve everything. This is not a result of a volunteer doing something wrong or being bad at volunteering. It's just a fact. I have heard from a lot of volunteers who have those experiences that the time is still incredibly valuable to them. So I encourage people not to compare experiences and rate them. What will be will be, and as a fellow YAGM always liked to tell me “let go and let God.”
Further information on Young Adults in Global Mission* as well as their other opportunities in Africa, Jerusalem, Europe, and Central America can be found here.
* This article serves only as a reference for people who are interested in volunteering in a particular location (South Africa), but we cannot guarantee that the organization mentioned above meets VOFAIR fair volunteering criteria. See our PROJECTS page for certified fair volunteering projects.
Interviewer: Iselee Hill