Volunteering on International Citizen Service (ICS) involved a life without the internet, without chocolate, and a lot of tears. It was also the best two months of my life.
Last year I volunteered with VSO ICS. I knew I wanted to help people and I knew I wanted to go with a reputable organisation, so I applied with VSO (ICS have about 6 charities they have partnerships with), and they assigned me to an ‘environmental education and conservation’ program in the Philippines. I’m going to do a Geography degree next year, shocking right!
What I believe makes ICS special is that you work with national volunteers and live with a local volunteer and host family. My work counterpart, Art, was 25 and my home counterpart, Myla, was 21. Both were from Manila (the capital). They were perhaps the sweetest people I have ever met, and creating such close bonds with national volunteers helped you to identify with the country and start calling it home.
The host family also worked in the same way. The children of the host family became my little brothers and sisters, the local school children, my little friends, and the bonds formed helped you feel part of the community in a way that isn’t offered by any other volunteering program.
Challenge yourself to change your world
People talk about “voluntourism”, or volunteering to get a new profile picture. That is not what ICS is about. It is authentic and genuine, true to it’s message: “challenge yourself to change your world.”
Within the time of our placement we had a lot of challenges that we had to overcome. First there was a 7.2 Richter scale earthquake on the island we were volunteering from. There was this terrifying fear that enveloped me when I heard this apocalyptic tremble beneath our feet. Luckily I had watched enough American movies to realise we needed to get down to the floor. However this logic didn’t stretch far enough to get out of the shed. After the earth stopped shaking around us I collapsed into my friends’ arms and can still remember the pounding of his heart as we tried to comprehend what just happened.
The earthquake brought with it lots of challenges: the schools were unsafe and thereby closed and we were evacuated for 4 days due to landslides in the local area. Nevertheless, we got to help out in the relief effort which was truly meaningful work. Volunteers of the group helped look after children at an evacuation centre; collected donations, packed these donations, and distributed them to the worst affected areas.
Then came Typhoon Haiyan
And then as things were getting back to normal and training sessions were getting underway, there came Typhoon Haiyan. While I was safe and asleep as the typhoon was pouring outside, I had my Mum calling me up from London screaming down the phone.
“It’s the biggest storm ever on record!”
I had to calm her down.
“I promise I’m ok, Mum, we are just staying indoors”.
Of course I didn’t want to alarm her, but we were ok. We had no electricity or clean water, but after seeing photos of Tacloban we could have been a lot worse off. We found out that if the typhoon hadn’t changed direction 24 hours before everyone on the island we were on would be dead. Which is scary as hell.
We had to diversify, or evacuate
When we returned to our office, everyone at the local government hall had their heads on their desks. It was clear there were higher priorities than our project, so how could we alter our objectives to focus on the current needs of the community? We worked on this, with a visit from our Programme Supervisor.
However a few days later at our team meeting we were told we were being evacuated. Our programme had become redundant and due to food and water shortages, we were becoming more of a hindrance than a help. It was an incredibly emotional day, with tears all round. It was too early to say goodbye and we didn’t want to leave the incredible people we became so close with.
Before the British volunteers were sent back home, we volunteered at a massive relief centre in Manila. This was a once in a lifetime experience and was so fulfilling, being able to be part of a huge group effort to help people who have lost so much. We packed food goods, and although there was a lot of dirt and sweat (none of which touching the food!) it was totally worth it.
I would advise anyone to volunteer with ICS. Your time probably won’t be as dramatic as mine, but you will have an adventure, the likes of which you have never experienced before. It’s demanding, humbling, and you grow as an individual while benefiting the community around you.