On Campus

Volunteering abroad combines student's desire to travel and do more

Charlotte Blackmore spent summers in Kenya, Nicaragua

Charlotte Blackmore got into the car where her mother had been waiting to pick her up and started crying.She had just left the building where she had attended a leadership conference in Peterborough, Ont. While there, she heard a speech by child rights advocate Craig Kielburger that motivated and inspired her to pursue her desire to travel while doing something to benefit others.

Within a week, the 17-year-old had signed up to volunteer in Kenya the summer before starting university.

“I think it was just the combination of the travel and do amazing things while you’re doing it,” Blackmore, now 21, recalled of the message that resonated from Kielburger’s speech. “It was the first time I had ever thought or imagined the possibility of going to a place like Africa which at the time had seemed (like) a foreign concept to someone of my age. … That was probably what I think really evoked that emotion was just that, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are these opportunities and what’s stopping me from taking advantage?”‘

Blackmore teamed up with Kielburger’s organization, Free The Children, and joined a group of volunteers living at a camp in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, spending half-days teaching English, math and science to children at the Emorijoi school. In the afternoons, the team would help construct two schools to replace an existing building that was made of sticks and mud.

Blackmore said that initial experience of rolling up her sleeves to help others in need overseas was just one that had an “incredible impact” on her — but it wouldn’t be her last. While studying at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., she heard another speech — this time from the organization Volunteer Abroad — and was once again bitten by the volunteer bug. Glancing through the brochure, she said for some reason the idea of Nicaragua “totally stuck out.”

But unlike her experience with Free The Children, where volunteers travel in a large group and do everything together, this time out, she’d be on her own — but not alone. Support staff on the ground in the Central American country were a resource for Blackmore when she spent the summer there at age 19.

She also had a seven-day orientation period during which time she learned about the culture and how to travel, and received four weeks of language training. “When I arrived there, I didn’t know more than one word of Spanish, and when I left I was conversationally fluent.” The organization also has base camps where volunteers could choose to live, or a home stay could be arranged if they were too far from the city.

Blackmore was based in Jinotepe, a small town 45 minutes southwest of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. She worked at a health clinic, supporting community health workers starting work as early as 7 a.m. to travel to small, rural villages delivering anti-parasitic and malaria medicines. Blackmore would also pitch in with the administration of vaccination programs, recording names and ensuring all the children were being inoculated. “It’s a lot of proactive work on behalf of the nurses and doctors which makes their job very challenging on an already stressful job.” She also helped doctors at the clinic offering care to pregnant women by checking the rotation of the baby, weight and height, allowing physicians to do their assessments more quickly.

Blackmore said the four months in Nicaragua cost about $4,000, including the flight, room and board, spending money and program fees. But the experience has also yielded rich dividends in return. She keeps in touch with her host family who she affectionately calls her “Nica family” and has been back three times to visit.

Blackmore recalls the precise moment where it went from more than just a volunteer stint abroad to become transformative. “We had just come back from working on about a 10-hour day in a really, really, rural clinic and I was riding in the back of a pickup truck, and we were coming down the side of a mountain and the sun was setting,” she recalls. “It was just a pristine moment, I couldn’t probably ever repeat it … but it was the moment when I realized that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

She is heading to London, England where she plans to complete a master’s degree next year in sexual health and reproduction and also plans to go to medical school in the future. Blackmore said she would ideally like to work with organizations like the World Health Organization or the UN, but ultimately would like to end up with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders.)

“I think a lot of where I am today both educationally and personally has been a result of Nicaragua specifically. Since coming back from that trip, I have changed so much as a person,” she said. “It was kind of the moment I realized what I wanted to do and discovered my passion in that – and that’s a very powerful feeling.”

-with a report from CP 

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