Kirsten Roche - 2014 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international volunteer program?

I have always wanted to do international work, since I was 14.

Why did you choose Volunteer for the Visayans?

It allowed students (I was in my last year of nursing school) to participate, it had a cost that was low compared to many other "voluntourism" organizations that I was avoiding, and it had many different programs available. I also loved that they had mandatory homestay components!
Volunteers in the Philippines sorting donations

Preparing donations for delivery to typhoon-affected surrounding communities

What was your favorite part about Tacloban City? 

The feeling of being a part of the community, but I was still pretty close to big-city amenities.

What made your program experience unique?

The opportunity to be self-directed and initiate your own ideas.

How did the Volunteer for the Visayans staff support you throughout your program?

They contacted the programs I wished to join after I had been there for a while on a different program, they allowed me to utilize their office computers sometimes as needed, staff often stayed late to support us, and they initiated social outings for the volunteers to bond with each other.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Stayed longer!

Take us through a day in the life of your program.

  • 6:00 a.m. - Wake up, breakfast at my homestay, bucket shower, get dressed, and go through my anti-sweating routine of applying baby powder all over myself everywhere!
  • 6:30 a.m. - Head toward my jeepney stop to catch transit to work
  • 8:00 a.m. - Arrive at my rural health clinic, spend four hours assisting with intake of patients, prenatal checkups, or the occasional village visit to do immunizations
  • 12:00 p.m. - Start heading back to Tacloban City
  • 1:30 p.m. - Lunch, errands, socializing, napping, or whatever else I need to do!
  • 5:00 p.m. - Dinner at my homestay
  • 5:30 p.m. - Tutoring the sponsor children of the program in the neighborhood, helping with math, English, or whatever I could
  • 7:00 p.m. - Reading and socializing with other volunteers
  • 9:00 p.m. - Bedtime!

What were some of your favorite activities outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?

Deciding myself to put on two workshops for the girls' shelter, a project which was not mine but which I was allowed to join for a few days (workshops on women's health and healthy relationships), and a volunteer-planned scuba diving weekend a few hours away.
Foreign volunteers at a bar in Tacloban City, Philippines

Me and some other volunteers on a night out

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

I lived in a homestay in a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tacloban City; I enjoyed feeling like I was a part of the community. My homestay Mom made amazing vegetarian Filipino food for me, and I felt safe every night.

What was the hardest part about volunteering abroad?

I am very close with my fiance and my family, and communication with them was very challenging at times. Internet connections everywhere in the area were so slow that sending an email would only work every few days or so. Before noon is the best time to send emails, since the connection is faster at that time, but I was in my volunteer position until 2:00 p.m. or so each day.

My cell phone also only picked up clear service about two blocks from my homestay, but due to the 16-hour time difference between Tacloban and my home in Canada, there were only certain times that I could make the calls (including at night, when it was not considered very safe for a girl to wander off a couple of blocks from the neighbourhood alone). All of this happens when traveling, however, and you find ways to deal with it if you are flexible!

What surprised you most about Tacloban City and the island of Leyte?

Considering the size of Tacloban City, I was surprised by a few of the things I could not find, that would be very normal and easy to find back at home in a city of that size. For example, I needed to send some important documentation to my school in Canada in preparation for my final year, and it needed to either be faxed or mailed. As it was time-sensitive, I tried to fax it. I spent an entire afternoon in Tacloban trying to find a place that was able to send international faxes, business centers, internet cafes, even a hospital and several large hotels, but not a single place offered the service! I ended up needing to rush-mail my paperwork to get it home in time, and it cost $30 Canadian just to send a few sheets of paper!

My biggest surprise, though, was the amount of damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda, and the amount of recovery done. I arrived eight months after the typhoon, and was impressed to see how much of the recovery effort had been completed. Everywhere you look, stores and shops had banners reading "Grand re-opening!"; it gave me a lot of hope.

At the same time, the amount of damage left was astounding, especially in the rural areas. The clinic I was volunteering at was 75 percent inoperable, even that long after the typhoon. Ceilings had caved in, their ambulance was crushed and out of use, and walls had collapsed. We were working out of only two of the rooms that had survived. By the time I left, USAID was in the process of doing the paperwork to begin rebuilding the clinic.
Local staff at a rural health clinic in the Philippines

The amazing nurse and midwife at my rural clinic

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

It was surprisingly easy! Many people in the Philippines speak English, particularly the younger people and people with university educations. That being said, in the rural area I volunteered at and commuted to each day from Tacloban, I would say that it seemed that most of our patients spoke little to no English.

I learned as much Waray-Waray as I could, so that I could help with the intake/triage at the clinic and ask a few basic questions to the patients, but the nurses and midwife at the clinic helped me a lot with translation. People in the Philippines are incredibly warm and helpful, so if I ever had any issues with communication, there was always someone nearby who was willing to help!

What is one thing you wish you would have known before volunteering abroad in the Philippines?

Well, the language thing is important; people told me that everyone in the Philippines speaks English because they teach it in school. The fact is, a large proportion of the children in the Philippines live in poverty and are unable to attend school regularly enough to develop a high level of English, and many of the older Filipinos speak none.

In Manila and more affluent areas, or in areas with a high number of university students, English is widely spoken and understood at a high level, but elsewhere it is very hit-or-miss. Before I go back, I will be learning basic Tagalog so that I can more easily communicate with a wider number of people!
Thank you banner in Tabontabon, Leyte, Philippines

Thank you banner posted in the community I volunteered in

Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to the Philippines?

A lot of people from the U.S. and Canada told me that they didn't need to use a universal adapter in order to plug their electronics into outlets in the Philippines; bring one anyway! The one day I did not use mine, I burnt out my brand new electric razor that I had bought before my trip! Some outlets won't need the adapter, but some will, so just use it all the time to avoid risking damage to your electronics!

Also, unless you are going to be spending time in Northern Luzon, do not bother bringing jeans or anything warmer than a light cardigan. It is so, so, so hot everywhere else in the country!

Now that you're home, how would you say volunteering abroad has impacted your life?

All I can think about is going back! The trip was like nothing I've ever done, and I can not wait to start doing more international work now that I have experience and have graduated from my university program at home.

VFV helped me to understand what international and local work is all about, and I am forever grateful for their guidance and support!

What do you feel the biggest benefit of volunteering abroad is?

Oh my, where do you even begin with a question like this? To see the world, to learn about the similarities that every human on this planet has, regardless of their language and culture. To grow as a person, to gain perspective of the important things in life (do I really need to be upset that I can't afford these new jeans, when I've met countless people who struggle to afford the basics?), to develop an intense relationship with the world around you and to be inspired to make changes. To see different values, and different ways of approaching issues that come up. To start questioning yourself and the world. Everyone in the world should have the chance to volunteer abroad, it would be such an understanding and open planet if this were possible!

Would you recommend Volunteer for the Visayans to others?

One hundred percent! If you can do it, do it! You will learn so much and it will change your life!

If you could volunteer abroad again, where would you go?

I absolutely intend on returning to the Philippines! The warmth and friendliness of the people there have captured my heart. I am very excited to return. This time, I think that I would prefer to work at the girls' shelter, as the clinics and hospitals I saw tend to be highly-staffed due to the high number of Filipinos educated in healthcare-related fields. I would like to focus more on healthcare education, putting on workshops at shelters and for children. I have quite a few plans for my next trip to Leyte!