Sarah-jane Driver, a young parishioner of St Mary’s, Warwick, in southern Queensland, has had the experience of a lifetime in South America. This is her story
HOW does one make a difference in the world?
That was a question that young Queensland Catholic Sarah-jane Driver often asked herself.
“When I stopped and thought about my life as a young Catholic, although I knew that ‘someday’ I’d love to do some volunteer work to give something back to the world, I had never really made any plans.”
Early in 2009 Sarah-jane found that she had two great opportunities to make a difference, in the form of volunteer work in Mexico, within her optometry studies, and in Ecuador helping in the local villages.
“Needless to say, I jumped at the chance,” she said.
“I arrived in Mexico in the middle of November with a group of fellow optometry students. We joined with other students from Mexico, America and Canada as well as optometrists from all over the world.”
Sarah-jane said a clinic had been set up in a community hall and people came from surrounding areas lining up for hours to be screened.
“All of the glasses that we had to give away were old ones that people no longer needed or rejected glasses from optical companies, so there were huge rows of boxes full of glasses that we had to trawl through to find something that was vaguely similar to the script provided by the optometrist (or optometry student).
“I enjoyed dispensing the most because I could experience first hand the reaction when a person was given the new glasses and could read the chart.
“Despite the fact that we often presented people with glasses which were not quite right, that were old and ugly, that they’d had to patiently wait all day for, people were always gracious and genuinely grateful.
“Even though the days were long and the line was always longer, it was incredibly rewarding work, and we managed to see about 350 people a day.
“Each and every day I was blown away by the determination and generosity of the people I was working with, as well as the calibre of the people who came to see us.”
Sarah-jane said if the volunteers had time to stop for a morning “cuppa” there was always freshly baked cakes from the local community.
She said local community members were also always there to help volunteers with the lines, drive them to and from the clinic every day, helping with the local government as well as translating.
“Even though there was often a huge language barrier between us and the people we were helping (not to mention the other people we were volunteering with – between us all there were many different languages to contend with) it quickly became obvious that generosity and gratitude easily transcend language,” she said.
For the next part of her adventure Sarah-jane met up with a school friend and 38 other Australian students between 18 and 33 to join the Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (VESA) program.
“We flew to Panama City and then to Quito,” she said.
“An eight-hour bus trip followed, very scenic (although extremely winding) through the Andes to finally arrive in Misahualli where we were staying. Myuna, the village we were helping in, was just downriver and we caught a canoe there each morning before we started work.”
Sarah-jane said the people of Myuna lived in large one-room houses, with as many as seven or more people living in each house.
“There is an upper and lower primary, both one-room sheds which provided a noisy and somewhat difficult learning environment for the children,” she said.
“Each family grew a significant portion of their own food, and the only source of income the village had was a small tour group that comes through once a fortnight.
There were no toilets in the village, so that was our priority.
“Each day we loaded what materials we would need from Misahualli into a truck, unloaded and carted them down the steep riverbank to the canoe, into the canoe, up the bank on the other side and into the village.
“We built a septic toilet which entailed digging the septic hole, carting rocks from the river, hauling bricks and cement, mining and sifting river sand as well as constructing the septic and toilet block themselves.”
This was hard physical labour.
“We worked for at least seven hours each day in the humid heat of Ecuador with the local men and women,” Sarah-jane said.
“We were also put on roster to help teach the children English.
“When school had finished for the day the children would come and help us remove sand from the holes or cart rocks from the river.
“On the third day we presented a toilet block to the first family.
“The man of the house was almost speechless with gratitude. It was hardly glamorous work; every so often we would look at ourselves and laugh. Given the weather and working conditions, we were always muddy, dirty, sweaty and generally dishevelled!”
Sarah-jane said that during the group’s time in the village, two toilets were partially completed with many more to be finished by future groups of students.
“It was just incredible to work with the locals, and despite the extreme language barrier we developed strong ties with them,” she said.
“They were always happy and grateful for our help, and would often joke around with us or bring us fruit while we worked.
“On our final day the students spent the morning making gifts for us to take home; bracelets, necklaces, earrings and key chains made from seeds and twine.
“They presented them to us in a small ceremony after they had performed some traditional songs in their native language … and “The Wheels on the Bus” which we had been teaching them!”
Sarah-jane said after the week of volunteering the Aussies were taken on a “jungle tour” as a way of saying thank-you and to give them an opportunity to see more of the unique culture and landscape of Ecuador.
“During the day we trekked through the jungle and visited other small villages or farms.
“It was an incredible time and we were shown many things that we would have missed if we were an ordinary tourist.
“The guides told us what many of the plants were and how they were used by the locals, often specially prepared as food or as medicine.
“We were taught why the houses were built as they are, how the families make a living using their small plantations and the traditional way they pan for gold and create pottery.”
Sarah-jane said it was “an incredible experience” to volunteer for both causes.
“I can’t wait to do more similar work.
“This trip has had a huge impact on me and my view of the world.
“Each of us has the ability to make a real difference in the world around us if we are willing to devote some of our time and effort to the cause.”
Sarah-jane thanked the St Mary’s Parish, Warwick, for sponsoring her in her volunteering and encouraged other young Catholics to do the same.
“Anyone who has ever felt they would like to do some volunteer work should not to wait for the opportunity to come to you (like I did) but go out and make the opportunity – you won’t regret it.”