Kelsey Vargas - 2013 Program Participant

Kelsey (left) in Uganda
Kelsey (left) in Uganda.

How did you first come to get involved with Pangea Educational Development?

I met Drew Edwards (Director of International Operations for PED) while I was a student at DePaul University. He was on the track team and I was a tutor in the Athletic Academic Center. I would walk into the tutoring center for a session with one of the other athletes and I would see these white boards that had random scribbles containing political or philosophical themes with ideas and drawings in every corner. I wondered who it was that was maddeningly covering these white boards with such ideas.

Then one day I saw that it belonged to Drew Edwards. This was the year that PED was solidifying itself as a nonprofit organization and getting through all of the paperwork and red tape. Time went on, and the white boards continued to be covered in new ideas. Then one day Drew got off the phone and had this frantic smile on his face—PED was now officially official! It was inspiring to see him put so much of his energy into this foundation that he and two of his colleagues were starting up. He was busy with track and class, yet whenever I saw him he was thinking up new fundraisers or trying to understand an aspect of the Ugandan lifestyle and politics.

I figured that any foundation being led by such a hard-working and inspiring fellow was worth putting my own efforts into. I expressed my interest in joining one of the summer trips, met Andrew and Kevin, and immediately loved how they make every person feel like they are a part of the PED family. I have been hooked on PED ever since.

What does a typical day volunteering in Uganda consist of? 

If you are at Abdul’s house, you wake up to the choir of chickens. One chicken clucks, then two, then all of them chime in. If you are able, you sleep through it. If not, then you either get up and grab some coffee or you go on a run. As the rest of the volunteers trickle in to grab breakfast, you begin to slather on sunscreen, and prepare for the day ahead. We would walk or drive (depending on the distance) to the school we were working at that day and immediately start playing with the kids when we got there. Once we were reeled in by the bosses, we would get to work digging trenches, or laying bricks, or whatever it was that needed to be done.

Making games out of the hard work was one of the ways we found to get ourselves through the physically daunting tasks. One of the games we played was water races—we would fill up the water jugs and race back to the work site (these things were so heavy). By the end of the day we were surprised we could still stand, but we would get home, shower, and then have family dinner. If there was time in the evening, we would play games together, chat, or watch shows that had been loaded onto one of the laptops. You get really close with your travel mates and by the end of the trip you are so sad that you have to say goodbye to everything and everyone.

What advice can you give to others who are considering volunteering abroad in Uganda?

Just do it. I hesitated for about a year and a half trying to get funds together and being nervous about whether or not I should actually go. Finally, I decided to just do it. And I am so glad that I did. I wish I could return every summer, but right now it is not feasible for me. If you are on the fence about whether or not you should go, then my advice to you is to put your worries and your fears behind, because once you get there you’re going to realize that it was the best decision you have ever made.

What is one of your favorite aspects of PED as an organization?

One of the main things I admire about PED is that they put meticulous thought and planning into each project they decide to undergo. The projects bring things that are helpful and necessary to the schools, but also bring profits and a way to invite the community to be a part of that school’s family. PED’s goal is to help provide the schools with what they need, but also to make sure that when it comes time for PED to take a step down, that the school can continue functioning at a high and independent level.

What did you learn from your living conditions in Uganda?

I went to Uganda with a lifelong learned high-maintenance shower/bathroom routine, but after one week there I realized that it was an unnecessary habit. It seems trivial, but this added to my volunteer abroad experience tremendously. One of the main reasons I have not traveled so much in the past is because I always felt that I needed to maintain that routine wherever I went. As long as I got any kind of shower at the end of our workdays (hot or cold water, loofa or no loofa) I was happy. Having to be without my regular rigid routine made the entire trip more enjoyable for me. I don’t know if this is something experienced by other Type A personalities, but it was one of those random things I learned about myself that I had not planned on learning.