Monday, June 18, 2012

Group Volunteering- A Report from Kuantan

Group Volunteer Project Report
As required by our program, the girls of YES Abroad Malaysia began planning our community outreach project towards the end of April. Because of our slim budget and even slimmer schedule, we determined it would be the best use of our resources to lump our volunteer and bonding trips together into one week. We originally thought it possible to incorporate a cultural element to our trip by going to Sabah or Sarawak during the Gawai celebration, but that wouldn't work out financially and the idea was dropped in favour of a Taman Negara trip, which would include volunteering with the local orang asli group and doing various national park-related activities. This idea, too, was denied, due to insufficient funds and the challenge presented by booking online. After going through a few more plans and realizing the improbability of cooperation with local schools, we were dangerously close to our deadline, which was extended a few times by our understanding coordinator/volunteer, E Laine.
In the end, we opted for a later date, a few days after our original departure day, which would give us a few days with our host families between the End of Stay Camp and our travel. We found a church to work with that wound up being the best cornerstone for a volunteer project, and we were slightly disappointed in ourselves that we hadn't come up with the idea of church-involvement sooner. The people of St. Thomas negated the need to stay at a hostel in Kuantan and supplied the majority of our meals in addition to transportation to and from the sites they organized for us to volunteer at. We are forever in their debt for really putting together a plan that proved difficult to make for a group of connectionless teenagers, stuck somewhere between local and foreign. If there was ever an experience to cause us to realize this balance maintained by exchange students worldwide, it was the weekend we spent with the people of St Thomas.
We arrived in Kuantan mid-morning after and early bus ride most of us slept through. Our group hit the ground running, quickly dropping off our things in the dormitory at the church and getting into cars headed towards a food bank of sorts, where we piled bags of rice and containers of oil and tins of powdered milk and bags of clothing into the trunks. Cradling the cartons of eggs in out laps, we wondered who these supplies would belong to over the brief drive. Our first stop was a shabby-looking house down a long kampung road, where we unloaded some of our goodies to an awaiting mother of six, a refugee from Myanmar. A beautiful woman, the volunteers with us described her as much healthier looking than last year. The children ran around our legs, pushing their school workbooks at the volunteers before scrambling back inside. A few of us went into the house and saw what a home was made from so little, and it impressed us all. We had to leave before we wanted to, but we knew that the foodstuffs were needed elsewhere, too. Our next place was a similar house, crowded with an extended family of a kind, all living together. We gathered that the two mothers were sisters, and most of the children were girls of about 9 to 13. They accepted the packages gratefully, and before we left they offered us cold drinks, which we were embarrassed both to accept and reject. By this time, it was early evening, and we still had one house more. That was more of a frat house than the others, composed as it was of 10 to 15 men of ages 18 to 25 approximately. They were more than happy to have the food and the company of six young american girls, so we sat with them for a short while. I'm sure there were meals taken and discussions had, but the memories fade into the faces of the refugees. That night was quiet, we bonded over a card game or two before turning in.
The second day began early with a bus ride to the local orang asli settlement, where the orphanage made use of our presence and had us move a refrigerator and a washing machine, followed by a few wheelbarrows of mixed rocks. Were were happy to oblige and just as happy to accept their thanks in the form of coconuts, carved by the original expert. After arriving at the church, we took an unanticipated nap before a kindly sponsored banana leaf lunch, courtesy of a parishioner and active member of the church. We had planned to go to the pot luck dinner organized by the Kuantan AFS Chapter, but we elected to cancel because we couldn't bring food and wished to spend some time together. A few elementary school games followed by and American-style dinner at Pizza Hut was a welcome break from the intense volunteer service, that would only heighten in the coming day, which for half of us began with a Catholic service.
We were recognized at this beautiful mass, and returned to the dorm to rouse the sleepy-heads to the light of our busiest day. We spent the morning with the Cancer Link group, plating games with children affected by cancer in some way or another. It was sad to consider the fragility of their lives, so we did the hokey-pokey instead. Three of us went with the volunteers and some laptops to the same area as we visited the first day, and there we helped refugees file for UN status. Those who didn't accompany the first group went and witnessed the absolute worst living conditions to help the children of the family learn what couldn't be taught by the caretakers. Then, they visited the Vincent De Paul community to distribute rations and books to assist their living situations. All in all, this was a morally fulfilling day, and a few tears were shed when we were reminded of the ages of both the victims of cancer and teh rejection of a home country. We were inexplicably considering what it would be like if we were in the shoes of the people we were with and how we would respond to life as we knew it. During each of these global-thinking, local-acting services, there were times we would catch eachother's eyes and share a look of understanding, through sweat and frustration and the occasional tear, it was certainly a weekend of meaningful looks. If we hadn't already planned to move to Tioman for the relaxation part of our trip, we would have wanted to stay at the church and keep volunteering. But like all beautiful things, this year especially, our time in Kuantan came to an end and we were moved along by bus and fate.
We would like to ttake this opportunity to thank our understanding, committed volunteer E Laine Chong, Mis Choo Ching the Kuantan Chapter Leader, Miss Kok Meng, Mr. Peter, Miss Wendy and Father Daniel of St Thomas Church, and especially Mr Dato Lionel for all their help and support and kindness throughout this project. Thank you for helping us make this a success, we couldn't have done it without you!

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