Elsa Thomasma - 2011 Program Participant

Volunteer dance teacher in the Philippines with local students

Elsa with some of her dance students after their final performance

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I had volunteered with VFV in 2009 and fell in love with the organization, the community, and the Filipino people. There was no doubt in my mind after that trip, that I would have to go back and volunteer again. Also, I needed to fulfill a practicum requirement for my sociology degree, so it was a win-win.

Why did you choose Volunteer for the Visayans?

I chose VFV because of my past experience with them. I knew they would be flexible and allow me to utilize my time and skills to benefit them and the local children most greatly. I wanted to see my host family and spend time with all the amazing children I met during my first visit.

What was your favorite part about the Philippines and Tacloban City?

My favorite part about the Philippines is the local culture. The welcoming, friendly, positive, and laid back atmosphere is entirely contagious. It can't be fully described in words, but once you experience it, it is something you can't quite forget.

As far as Tacloban, I loved the size of the city. It was big enough that there was plenty to do, but small enough that I eventually knew my way around. Also, public transportation is amazing, maybe not in quality, but in affordability and accessibility.

What makes the program you participated in unique?

VFV has a very unique relationship with every community they work with, which makes the program exceptionally engaging for volunteers that are willing to throw out their own ideas, get their hands dirty, and do what needs to be done for the organization to sustain itself.

Volunteer in the Philippines handing out candy to children

Elsa handing out candy to some of the children in the village where she built houses

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

The volunteer coordinators worked with me before arrival to ensure all my documents for my academic credit were completed and my homestay accommodation was all sorted out. Upon arrival, they helped answer any questions I had, from how to best help a specific child during my one-on-one tutorials to all types of cultural advice.

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

I can't say there is anything I would have done differently. I utilized my time to the fullest!

Volunteer at an orphanage in the Philippines

Elsa with one of the children from the orphanage

Describe a day in the life of your program.

Wake up and have breakfast with my friend at our homestay. Head to the orphanage around 7:30 a.m. to play with babies all day, all the while changing diapers, making bottles, helping with bath time, and assisting with lunch and snack time. At noon, go to the local mall to grab lunch with fellow volunteers. Then either head to a rural village to work on building houses or head back to the center to write a blog or journal.

After the children got out of school, around 4 p.m., I would have a one-on-one tutorial with an elementary school student or teach dance lessons to groups of youth. At 6:30 p.m. I would head back to my homestay to stuff my face with delicious Filipino food until I could hardly move. After dinner I would usually spend time with my host family or go to an internet cafe with other volunteers. I would usually be in bed by 10 p.m. at the latest, utterly exhausted from the heat, but in an amazing way.

What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?

I loved traveling to incredible beaches on the weekend. Sleeping on the sand of a remote island completely uninhabited by humans or relaxing at a resort where my room was literally on the ocean was extraordinary. I also really enjoyed spending time with my host family, whether singing Karaoke or just telling funny stories.

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I lived with a homestay in the community that VFV's main office is located in. I shared a room with my friend Erica, whom I came on the trip with. We shared a bathroom with our host family and were provided with two meals a day. My favorite part was our wonderful, spunky host mother, who would prefer to be called our host sister. She wasn't old enough to be our mother, and she didn't seem like it either. It was so great to have someone I could really share my challenges and triumphs with every day, and someone who was always happy to chat.

Volunteer holding local girl in the Philippines

Elsa with her host family's granddaughter on the community fiesta

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

I am actually living permanently in the Philippines now! After I returned home in 2011, I couldn't get a certain village out of my head and I dedicated a year to fundraising for their needs. After spending 6 months working in the community, I was offered a full time job by a company in Tacloban, and here I am today! The Philippines completely changed my life. I know this is what everyone says, but it isn't a lie! It is the truth. Volunteering abroad will impact your life in ways you cannot imagine.