GoAbroad Interview

Megan Brook - Executive Director

Megan Brook - Executive Director

Meg had her first international experience in 1988 when she was selected as an International 4-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) representative to Taiwan. Since 1989, Meg has been involved with VFP and developed international workcamps in Vermont, around the USA, in the former Soviet Union, and most recently in Haiti. She became the Executive Director in 2010. Meg has a Bachelor of Science in Management and Leadership and a Masters in Education from St. Michael's College.

You first went abroad in 1988 to Taiwan through the International 4-H Youth Exchange and worked with local farmers, how did you get connected to Volunteers for Peace a year later?

Taiwan was my first trip out of the country and I quickly learned that I loved to travel, learn other languages, and experience new things. My younger sister had done a few VFP projects and suggested I called them. I did and started an internship in the office. I’ve been with them ever since.

Summer camp in Uzbekistan

Visiting a summer camp in Uzbekistan in 1999.

You’ve held various positions with Volunteers for Peace, U.S. Program Coordinator, Outgoing Placement Coordinator, and Co-Director, how did these positions prepare you for your role as Executive Director and member of the Board of Directors?

VFP is a pretty unique organization and what we do is different. The only way to really understand the impact of our projects on the volunteers, hosts, local community and world is to participate. In each role I was able to learn the specific needs, opportunities and challenges. As Executive Director I have to support the staff who are overseeing all these pieces and having held the jobs myself makes it much easier to relate to all the aspects they must balance to be successful.

What does a typical day look like as the Executive Director for Volunteers for Peace?

As with many non-profits there is no “typical day!” As Executive Director I have to wear all the hats and fill in whenever and wherever needed. I spend about half my time on project development in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the USA. Sometimes I’m traveling and meeting with local community organizations, and sometimes I’m preparing volunteers to serve in these locations.

I spend a lot of time supporting my amazing staff, figuring out who can best do the needed tasks, how we will market VFP to future volunteers, and preparing for outreach at colleges and other public events.

Then there is the big picture stuff like working on budgets, payroll, grants, networking with other international organizations, preparing reports… 

I really like that each day is different and it keeps me alive and engaged in all aspects of the organization.

Volunteers in Haiti

Megan’s first trip to Haiti in 2011 with her 9 year old daughter and 29 volunteers!

You lived in the former Soviet Union for five years, how did this experience affect your work in the the field of volunteering?

When I was in the USSR it became my focus was to help new voluntary service organizations get established. One of the big pieces I focused on then, I still work on now. It is the difference between volunteering and voluntourism. A lot of my time then and now is on building the work project and explaining to the local host community why volunteers need to do something physical together. I experienced a lot of programs with good and bad work projects so really understand what it adds and what volunteers expect.

You have an academic background in Education and Russian, how does Volunteers for Peace incorporate language learning into their volunteer programs and what do you feel is its importance?

Personally I love to learn different languages and they come to me quite easily. Our focus isn’t on language, but because our volunteers serve directly in local communities almost all volunteers return with the ability to speak a little of a new language. I do think verbal communication is good and important, but what I learned more through traveling and volunteer reports is the importance of non-verbal communication. So much can be shared by holding hands, completing a project together, or a smile.

2014 International Conference on the Value of Voluntary Service in Puebla, Mexico

2014 International conference on the value of voluntary service in Puebla, Mexico, with representatives from Greece and Japan.

Many prospective volunteers want to know why they have to pay to volunteer abroad. What advice do you offer?

I wish volunteers didn’t have to pay because they are already giving their time, energy, and love to help make the world a better place. The reality is all our projects take place with not-for-profit organizations and those organizations are struggling all around the world. The contributions of time and labor given by volunteers has a huge impact on our world. 

There is a positive piece when volunteers share the cost of the program with their family and friends. When they get others to donate those people also have a vested interest in the project, its success, and the impact of the service. So in some way the price is an opportunity to impact even more people and connect the world in yet another way.

Volunteers for Peace has an aim to not only meet the needs of locals abroad through volunteering, but also the United Nations Millennium Declaration goals. Which are you most focused on currently?

What I see and hear is all about the environment. There are many goals that touch on this in many ways. Education, health, re-forestation, improving alternative transportation options, sustainable agriculture…the list is very long. It doesn’t matter what country you are from or if you live in a rural or urban location; every single volunteer can share the impact of climate change. They all want to talk about how our collective actions, and the actions of our governments and big business, are impacting the world.

Volunteers at a project in rural Vermont

Visiting an international project in rural Vermont.

What has been Volunteers for Peace’s biggest accomplishment since it started in 1982?

I think our biggest accomplishment is the fact we have exchanged about 35,000 volunteers. Each project and each experience has an impact on an individual but those impacts ripple far and wide. We don’t know each volunteer story but we hear so many about how this experience changed a career path, opened doors, impacted a family, or motivated someone to try something new. I believe each time an individual has a positive moment or experience it is good for the whole world. I think the work of VFP has played some significant roles from helping bring down the Berlin Wall and open Eastern Europe, to children who have been adopted by volunteers, to amazing non-profits that were started by volunteers, and more. I’m so proud to have been part of all these things. 

Volunteers for Peace works to promote International Voluntary Service projects, also called workcamps, can you tell us a little bit about what makes these types of volunteer projects unique?

Our projects are unique for two reasons. First, the volunteers live together like a family. They are spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week together. Most people don’t do that and that amount of time leads to deep friendships and also the necessity to work through some conflicts. Second, is the work project that brings a group of strangers together with a common goal. This goal, and the time they spend achieving it, allow for all other types of exchange to happen and for volunteers to learn, grow, and shine naturally.

Holiday Party at LaVallee de Jacmel in Haiti

Delivering glasses to the elderly at a holiday party, LaVallee de Jacmel, Haiti.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

Working with people! I love people and the diversity of our world. I love to help people discover different places and discover themselves. I love to help communities recognize their uniqueness and share it with others. I love to see people smile. I can’t think of another job that would be as satisfying to me as working at VFP.

You currently reside in Vermont, if you had to hop on a plane tomorrow to volunteer abroad in one of the locations Volunteers for Peace places volunteers, where would you go?

I would go to Haiti because I have fallen in love with that country and her people. There is such a level of gratitude, hard work, and appreciation there. Plus, the weather and food are great! I develop the projects there and have traveled to Haiti 11 times in the last four years, so it is really my home away from home.

What is on the horizon for Volunteers for Peace? Any new and exciting projects we should know about?

We are really excited the travel ban has been lifted on Cuba and would like to explore building some volunteer projects there. Both Americans and Cubans have heard a lot of media over the last 60+ years about our relations, but I think working side by side we would find we have a lot in common. I am particularly interested in environmental and gardening projects there but we will have to see what organizations are interested in voluntary service. Hopefully we will be listing projects in Cuba in 2016!