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Just Do It: Volunteering in the Foreign Service

By Leslie Ashby

Recently, AAFSW sat down in cyberspace with the six winners of the 2005 Secretary of State’s Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA), and new AAFSW members, to learn their thoughts on volunteering in the Foreign Service. They drew from their own experiences to offer advice on getting and staying involved in volunteer efforts.

Getting involved

While many in the Foreign Service volunteer their time and energy to worthy causes, many do not. “I think most people want to give back to their community, but they are not sure what to do or how to start,” says Mark Wilson. “My advice would be to find something that you enjoy doing and seek out opportunities to help.” He suggests doing research online or talking to USAID and Peace Corps colleagues.

Tsunami People-Animal Welfare Coalition vaccinates animals at a refugee camp in Sri Lanka.

Jaimee Neel believes a perceived lack of time can hold people back from volunteering. “Some may feel that two years at a post is not long enough to make a difference,” she states. “It doesn’t matter how much time we have but what we do with that time that matters.” Neel decided she could best make an impact in her community by working with an established organization rather than build one from scratch as Robi Keyes and other SOSA winners did. However, Keyes points out that this is the first time she has been able to volunteer full time because her children are older. Before, she volunteered at her children’s schools or for short-term projects.

Sandra Patterson believes fear stops many from volunteering. She encourages people to get past worries of not being able to do enough, reluctance to develop personal contacts with people in difficult situations, or guilt about having so much while others have so little. “I try to let people know that no matter in what capacity they are capable of connecting with a less fortunate person, they will make a difference in that person’s life,” she states. “No one alone is going to solve the overwhelming problems of a third world country but they can touch another human being.” Robert Blumberg agrees and advises, “Learn to accept that in many overseas situations, obtaining an 80% solution may be the most efficient cost/benefit point.”

Two young boys take their dog to get vaccinated in Sri Lanka.

Staying involved

Sticking with a volunteer activity can be difficult when obstacles seem insurmountable, progress is sluggish, or enthusiasm wanes. For SOSA winners, motivation and rewards come in many forms.

Keyes urges volunteers to “follow your heart and don’t quit!” She faced considerable opposition from Bangkok bar owners and businessmen who benefit from the trafficking and prostitution that Keyes and her organization, NightLight, are trying to combat. She admits to having gone into the project rather naively, but despite unforeseen difficulties and tediousness, Keyes says, “the girls who come to the NightLight Center have kept us motivated. Their gratitude has been abundant and has kept us going.”

Wilson shares a similar experience: “After setting up the first computer lab at a mental health facility in Demir Kapija [ Macedonia ], I will never forget the look on the faces of the residents as they typed on computers for the first time in their life…and the laughter. It was an indescribable feeling-incredibly rewarding-and something I will never forget.” Patterson adds, “Every hour I spend at the school I am regenerated. The children, the caretaker, teachers, and community show me the resiliency of the human spirit and remind me to be grateful for things big and small.”

Residents of the Demir Kapija mental health facility in Macedonia enjoy their new computers.


Beyond the intangibles, volunteering is a way to meet and work with local colleagues, as well as representatives of international NGOs. Volunteers can also gain marketable skills from their experience as Neel discovered. Not only did her Portuguese vastly improve, she learned about grant writing, the operation of non-governmental organizations, and intricacies of building and running an orphanage/youth home.

Blumberg also points out that the mobile Foreign Service lifestyle affords us the unique opportunity to “accumulate and share lessons learned from other places and introduce new approaches.” While this can greatly benefit projects, Blumberg stresses the importance of listening to the guidance of your host country colleagues about local ways before offering input. Just because an idea worked in a pervious post, does not mean it will in the current one. Others agree that volunteering has given them a deeper appreciation of their host country. “.I feel an instant connection to our host country nationals, and I better understand the culture, as well as the challenges the host country faces,” Patterson says.

Support system

Eglal Rousseau also believes volunteering is intrinsically rewarding and educational, but credits her husband and her hospital colleagues-doctors and other volunteers-for helping her create and sustain an enjoyable experience. “Volunteering also gives us the opportunity to meet wonderful people who have a lot of love and care to give. I am surrounded by a great group of women who share the same objectives. Our friendship is fantastic because it is built on a shared ideal.”

Youngsters watch the borehole being dug in Zambia.


All agree that a support system is critical. Wilson says he could not have made Computers to Classrooms a success without the support of his wife and the other volunteers. “It was truly a team effort,” he says. Patterson says her husband and four children inspire her to be a good role model, and she is grateful that “they are willing to share their mom with so many children.”

Volunteerism has been an important aspect of Foreign Service life from the beginning, and organizations like AAFSW have been founded on the very principle. It is something we can all do regardless of time, location, or resources. “Even volunteering for a few hours each month might just empower, educate, and inspire community activism in others,” says Wilson. “As they say in the Nike ads, ‘Just Do It.'”

Borehole and pit latrine celebration in Zambia.

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