GoAbroad Interview

Kait Yankello - Senior Program Coordinator 

Kait Yankello - Senior Program Coordinator

Kait is a graduate of The College of Wooster where she received Bachelor of Arts degrees in Sociology and Dance. She began working at United Planet in 2013 as a Program Coordinator, coordinating volunteer experiences for individuals and families abroad. Kait is currently the Senior Program Coordinator; she supervises United Planet’s Program Coordinators and works closely with United Planet’s country coordinators in 10 countries as well as with the Vice President of Global Operations.

How did you get connected to United Planet?

After having the opportunities to volunteer abroad in Ghana and Peru, it became clear to me that the volunteer abroad field was something of which I wanted to be a part. I learned that United Planet was hiring for their Program Coordinator position - the person who guides volunteers through the process of preparing for their time abroad - and immediately knew that this was a position I would love to do every day. I made the decision to move from Pittsburgh to Boston and have been at United Planet since 2013 - the rest is history!

Volunteer in Ghana playing with a local child

Gomoa Achiase, Ghana in July 2010 - Kait with Kakra (three years old), a child at a small orphanage where she volunteered for four weeks.

What does a typical day as the Senior Program Coordinator look like?

One of the things that I love most about my position as Senior Program Coordinator is that no two days at United Planet are the same. For example, right now I am in the process of selecting our 2015 Global Health Fellows, so I have been reading through and evaluating applications, and holding interviews with selected applicants. I am also currently coordinating our summer Leadership through Service Quest in Peru, so I have been communicating with our volunteers for this program and guiding them through training and preparing for this experience.

Aside from these projects that I am currently working on, I am also generally communicating with potential United Planet volunteers and assisting them in finding a volunteer Quest that would be their best fit, supporting my team of Program Coordinators here in our Boston office, and working with our ten in-country coordinators on trainings and development of their programs.

How do you prepare and support first time volunteers?

We definitely understand that committing to volunteering abroad is a big (and incredibly exciting!) decision. We have many structures in place to support first time volunteers in order to ensure that they have a safe and successful Quest experience abroad.

Each volunteer is first set up with a Program Coordinator in our Boston office whose job is to guide volunteers through the pre-departure process. These coordinators are experts on the countries for which they are arranging Quests, and work to ensure that volunteers feel prepared, comfortable, and excited for their Quest abroad. All volunteers also receive access to our online community, the HUB, which provides many useful documents for volunteers to read through before their time in-country, such as a country profile, emergency contact sheet, and packing list.

Additionally, all volunteers are paired with a “volunteer mentor” - someone who has participated on a United Planet volunteer Quest in the past and who can answer questions, share stories about their experience, and give tips and advice to the volunteer who will be traveling. We work to ensure that volunteers are paired with a mentor who has traveled to the same country the volunteer will be going to, in addition to having worked at the same volunteer project as the volunteer as much as possible.

While in-country, volunteers have the support of our Country Coordinators who are available 24/7 should the volunteers have any questions, concerns, or need assistance while in-country. Our Country Coordinators are all natives, or have been living in the country where they work for several years, so they are able to act as a “local expert” for volunteers and assist in bridging the gap between the home culture of the volunteers and the new culture that volunteers are often experiencing for the very first time.

Visiting Machu Picchu in Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru in July 2012 - Kait’s first time seeing Machu Picchu; she spent four weeks volunteering at a center for malnourished children in Cusco and was able to travel a bit on the weekends and explore more of Peru.

What is United Planet’s newest program? How do you plan to further develop it?

Our newest program is our Leadership through Service Quest, which will be taking place in Cusco, Peru from July 9th to 30th, 2015 and is specifically offered to volunteers age 15 to 17. Our main goal is for our volunteers to succeed while abroad. For us, that means challenging themselves to go outside of their comfort zone but to also have support while traveling. In this way, we created a new program where under-18 volunteers would have the opportunity to travel as a group to Peru along with a Boston-based United Planet staff member.

This program is also unique in that it is designed to enhance and deepen the international service experience through guided reflections, team-building, and activities. Volunteers will meet in Boston, MA for a three-day pre-departure training weekend prior to departing for Cusco, and will have the opportunity to conduct a small research project while abroad, connecting what they learned prior to traveling to their first-hand experience in-country.

United Planet’s offers volunteer opportunities in 35 countries, which nations are the most popular among volunteers, and how has that changed over the last five years?

For our short-term programs (one to 12 weeks) specifically, our most popular destinations are Peru and Romania. This has actually been the trend over the last five years for a few reasons. For our programs in Peru, we offer many different volunteer Quests, so there is really something for every volunteer. In addition to the volunteer work, volunteers also receive an excursion to Machu Picchu, Spanish language classes, and cultural activities such as a Peruvian cooking class and salsa dance class. This is such a great way to really be immersed in the local culture in addition to living with a local Peruvian host family.

Romania is a great option for younger volunteers, families, and first-time travelers as volunteers live right on-site so there is no need for taking daily public transportation. Additionally, there is no language requirement for our Quests in Romania, and volunteers can participate in a variety of tasks such as assisting at a local orphanage, organizing activities for children with mental or physical disabilities, assisting with small, hands-on projects (i.e. painting, gardening, etc.), or assisting in the community’s clinic.

Cuicocha Lake, Ecuador

Cuicocha Lake, Ecuador in August 2014 - Kait with United Planet’s 2014 Fellows who were selected for their pilot Global Health Fellowship program, the students had the opportunity to travel to Ecuador for ten days and learn about the healthcare system from an international perspective.

United Planet boasts volunteer experiences that offer cultural immersion, how do you go about making sure volunteers are immersed in the local community they are volunteering in?

The cultural immersion aspect of our programs is something that is really important to us here at United Planet. We don’t want our volunteers to merely be tourists while traveling, but to be fully engaged and immersed in the new culture of their Quest country. We have several program elements in place to ensure that volunteers are getting the most immersion possible while abroad.

As much as possible, we aim for volunteers to stay with local host families or in on-site accommodations throughout the duration of their Quest. We have found that this is a great way for volunteers to create some really meaningful relationships with the local people and really engage in the culture in a meaningful way. For example, we recently learned that one of our volunteers in Chile from several years ago still keeps in touch with his host family from his time abroad!

To us, this is one of the most important aspects of traveling abroad - making connections with the local people and learning from others.

We also aim to include, as much as possible, language classes, cultural activities, and excursions in each of our programs so that volunteers are gaining an authentic and well-rounded cultural experience, and are able to learn much more about the culture. 

How would you define a successful volunteer?

For us at United Planet, a successful volunteer is someone who is first able to be flexible and open-minded during their travels. As much as you prepare for your experience abroad, there are always going to be unexpected factors (which is one of the reasons why traveling is so fun!). We feel that it’s important for volunteers to be able to adapt to different situations, even those that may be a bit more challenging.

A successful volunteer is also someone who is tolerant and respectful of other cultures and those with differing values and beliefs. We don’t expect volunteers to always agree with the differing viewpoints of the culture in which they’re volunteering, but to accept these viewpoints for what they are and be respectful of their importance to that culture. And, of course, a successful volunteer is compassionate - someone who has the desire to help others and dedicate their time to assisting developing communities.

What has been your biggest accomplishment as Senior Program Coordinator?

United Planet Staff in Costa Rica

San Jose, Costa Rica in February 2015 - Kait at an on-site training with three of United Planet’s four Latin American Country Coordinators, the local, in-country staff. From L to R: Kait, Pablo Proano (Ecuador), Andrea Cascante (Costa Rica), Theresa Higgs (United Planet’s Vice President of Global Operations), and Manfred Molin (Peru - though originally from Belgium!

Since working as the Senior Program Coordinator here at United Planet, one of my biggest accomplishments has been working on our pilot Global Health Fellowship program. The goal of this program is to invest in Boston’s future healthcare leaders, providing them with the opportunity to travel and learn more about global health issues in an international context.

In its first year, this program was specifically offered to sophomore and junior Boston Public School students who showed an interest in the healthcare field. Selected Fellows received full scholarships from sponsoring companies to spend ten days in Ecuador learning about the health care system and the challenges faced there, while exploring the local culture. The program also required them to remain involved in the program upon returning home, including giving presentations at their schools or communities about the Fellowship program in order to educate and inspire future healthcare leaders.

I played a role in interviewing and selecting our 2014 Fellows, led pre-departure trainings and orientations to prepare the Fellows and their parents for their time abroad, and ultimately traveled with the group of five to Ecuador in August of 2014. It was such an awesome experience to watch the Fellows grow. For example, one of our Fellows had never even been on a plane before, so it was a really great opportunity to witness first-hand how rewarding this experience was.

We are now in the midst of preparing our 2015 Global Health Fellowship program and I cannot wait to work with our new Fellows!

If you were to go volunteer abroad on one of United Planet’s programs, which would you choose?

I have had the opportunity to visit our projects in Ecuador and Costa Rica and was super excited about the opportunities in which our volunteers can participate.

I would next be interested to participate in any of our volunteer Quests in Nepal. Not only have I not yet traveled anywhere in Asia, but I’m incredibly fascinated by Nepali culture. Additionally, we constantly receive phenomenal feedback about the volunteer projects, host families, and our local staff from our United Planet volunteers in Nepal, so this has definitely helped to spark my interest in traveling there.

What is your favorite part of working for United Planet?

Aside from the work itself, I am constantly energized by the awesome environment at United Planet. Everyday I get to work with a group of 20 people who are so excited about travel, volunteering, and learning more about the world around us. We’re also known to do fun things like hold team Olympics games and ice cream sundae socials, which certainly make the work days that much more enjoyable!