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Hear From 2020 SOSA Recipient Michelle Collett

We wanted to take the time to tell our community more about some of this year’s award recipients — we hope you find their stories and advice as inspiring as we do! Below, read more about Michelle Collett, who worked in Libreville, Gabon to help advance environmental protection and awareness both inside and outside the mission, coordinated a speaker program at a local military English school, won a grant to drastically improve an orphanage and children’s shelter, helped family members stay informed in the early days of COVID-19, and more! Congratulations again to Michelle for her outstanding job giving back to her community.

Michelle helping put bathrooms in an orphanage

What inspired you?

I was raised by two parents who often offered service to others. My dad was a volunteer soccer coach, youth leader, and Boy Scout leader. My mother was a classroom mom, a youth leader, and a Girl Scout leader. When I was a child, and we lived in Brazil, my mom did not speak Portuguese and driving was very difficult there (I can’t even imagine navigating Sao Paulo alone as a woman without a GPS or cell phone in the ’90s), but while my dad was at work and all of us kids were at school, she would drive herself to an orphanage and just hold babies and play with children. Her courage to do that inspired me.

How did you find the opportunity?

I was involved in a few different service activities, so the answers vary to this question. For volunteering with church and school, the opportunities existed due to me seeing a lack and offering to fill it. For the choir, I met a woman at a party who had heard from someone else that I had some musical experience, and she asked me if I would like to join. The expat community was small in Libreville, so word travels. For the orphanages, I first got involved due to the Marines’ Toys for Tots drive. A woman contacted our Embassy asking for help, and the Marines chose it for their drive, but when they visited they realized the kids needed necessities of life a lot more than toys. 

Then after the drive, I just kept visiting and organizing food drives for them and eventually received the J. Kirby Simon grant to build the well and improve the bathrooms. Now after I’ve gone, the DCM and his wife have continued where I left off, and they are organizing help as well. For the swingsets and school supplies, I met another mom at school who ran an NGO, and we just started talking, and then it happened. 

With the turtles, it began by joining a local staff who ran an NGO. We were at a beach clean up with children from two different orphanages, and there were turtle eggs just lying in the sand. The nest had fallen victim to erosion, and my family tried to figure out what to do with these eggs. I started contacting people, and I heard of Project Tortues. I became friends with its founders, and they approached me and some friends about expanding their capacity to do research and conservation. And so it began.

What barriers did you overcome? How?

French was a barrier, because English is not very useful in Gabon. Nor were Spanish or Portuguese, so to get involved really required me to be able to communicate in French. With the turtle project, there were other barriers in trying to get training, connect with the local government, set up relationships with the trash and recycling companies, but with my network of friends it was all possible. Another barrier in service and moving so often is the willingness to build knowing that you won’t get to see the growth. You’ll start projects and set things up and then have to move on. It can be discouraging, because you don’t always find someone willing to fill your shoes after you’ve left. 

What would you suggest to others thinking about volunteering abroad?

Becoming ingrained in the community is vital to volunteering. I had connections through the Embassy, church, school, and social groups. When I wanted to do something and couldn’t find a group already doing it, then I started one. Some thrived and others flopped. I also think it is important to be open to opportunities. When I lived in Utah, I was a hospice volunteer and a volunteer with an accessibility center. When I lived in Virginia, I was a soccer coach. When I lived in Juarez, I led a children’s choir and organized outings for the Consulate elementary and preschool aged kids. 

When I lived in Gabon, as you know from the SOSA, I was able to get involved in so many different ventures, and many of them new to me. Now in Mexico City, I volunteered to edit and design a cookbook for the Diplomatic Spouse Association to sell with all of the proceeds going to their charity fund. Every location has opportunities if you are willing to try something new and do things that you aren’t great at. 

Often willingness and a good attitude is more important than skill. Skills can be learned. A tip to those who do not have school and church communities to join or whose posts do not have active CLOs or service clubs is to search for facebook groups of locals and expats in the area. Often service groups will post announcements and invitations there, and it is a great way to hear of what is going on.