Mark Rook - 2015 Program Participant

Volunteers with children at Khayelitsha in Western Cape, South Africa

A group photo during the winter holiday program at Khayelitsha

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

After taking countless classes with political theory after theory on how to improve the world, I decided I was tired of the constant conjecture on what could be done. At that moment I knew I had to get some real, hands-on experience interning in human rights, in an attempt to make a tangible impact on the lives of others. I've also always had a passion for travelling and meeting new people too. With college coming up, and with my life having been fairly sheltered up until this summer, I knew that I needed to do something significant with the little time I had left.

Why did you choose Projects Abroad?

Funny story, I didn't actually choose the program with which I ended up. I had planned to do a two week high school volunteer program with Projects Abroad. Unfortunately, this didn't work out as well as what had been intended because there was not a sufficient number of high school students signed up for the program. I had no idea that this change of events would turn out very fortuitously for me.

I was then transferred to a two week law and human rights internship at the PAHRO (Projects Abroad Human Rights Office), normally reserved for law students. Getting the opportunity to do an internship at my age was huge. It also happened to be a much more intense program than what would have been originally planned, something I was thrilled about. This truly helped to make the program mean something to me.

What was your favorite part about South Africa?

South Africa is a stunning place. As I went on the Garden Route Tour I was able to see the beautiful mountains, plains, and wildlife. Cape Town itself is incredible, with clear skies, great weather, but most beautiful of all, the constant rugged and majestic skyline of Table Mountain, that can be seen from anywhere in the city. This bustling city, tucked between the permanence of the ocean and the strength of the mountains, is a must-visit location.

What characteristics of your program made it unique?

My program was unique in that it was a specialized internship with a diverse variety of options. PAHRO is a law clinic with more than just the ability to take on clients; this was especially good for me, because due to my young age, I couldn't have represented clients or examined cases. The human rights side of PAHRO allowed me to attempt to get government grants for struggling families in poor townships, play games with the children at schools in the townships during their winter holiday program, and visit juvenile detention centers to give educational presentations to troubled youths. Additionally, I got to consistently experience living in Cape Town and commuting in the local, cramped, but charming minibus fashion.

Volunteer with children at Khayelitsha, Western Cape, South Africa

Selfie with some of the kids at Khayelitsha

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

From beginning to end, all of the general Projects Abroad staff were incredibly welcoming and informative about every aspect of the program in which we were about to participate. Before coming to Cape Town, coordinator Flora Mbambi gave me all the advice I needed about any belongings I needed to take with me and what I should expect.

On the first day, I learned immediately about my duties, was introduced to the stunning city of Cape Town, and made some new friends. After my introduction, I met the two staff members with whom I would spend the majority of my work days: Ricardo, my supervisor throughout the trip, and Shuan, the head of the social justice area of the human rights office. Ricardo was incredibly helpful in helping me to settle in and in teaching me all about Cape Town; he even showed me many of the local attractions in the short time that I was in town (including Table Mountain). Shuan was hilarious and incredibly helpful in guiding me through all of the social justice programs. He also gave us a bit of insight into the lives of the children awaiting sentencing in the facilities.

The Projects Abroad staff also helped by organizing the weekend Garden Route Safari Tour for me with a few interns from other programs, which included a lion walk, full safari, bungee jumping, and cave spelunking.

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

I'm not sure there's much that I would've done differently, though if I had to think of something, I think I should've asked for more legal-related responsibilities; my internship ended up being comprised of 95 percent human rights work. I would've like to see a bit more of the other side of things at PAHRO, if that could've been possible.

Describe a day in the life of your internship.

I would wake up at around 7:00 a.m. to the sound of my host mates eating breakfast. They were on different programs and had to go to work slightly earlier than me. I would then get out of bed, get ready, and eat a delicious, home-cooked breakfast by my host-mother, Faye. Ricardo, my supervisor, would then come to pick up my host mate Rohi and me at 8:00 a.m. to walk to the minibus station. We would then take the minibus across Cape Town to get to Wijnberg, the area where the Projects Abroad office was located. We would arrive at around 8:45 a.m., leaving us 15 minutes to converse with the other interns and check social media before the work day started.

At 9:00 a.m. I would work on any presentations I had to give to the kids later that day. At 9:30 a.m. I would take a shuttle along with 10 to 12 other volunteers to a school in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's largest township. Until around noon, we would play various games, educational and recreational, as teachers and/or assistants with about 250 to 350 kids aged four to 15 at the school, along with interns from other places.

I would get back to the office at 12:30 p.m., with just enough time to grab the sandwich from my backpack, before getting on the next shuttle and leaving to Lindelani, one of the three detention centers we visited for boys and girls aged 13 to 17. Until around 3:30 p.m., we would give a presentation (either practical, safety-related, or educational), do ice breakers, and attempt to have deep conversations with the kids about their lives, aspirations, and generally try to establish a connection with them.

I would get back at around 4:00 p.m. and spend the next hour helping the other interns around the office and packing up. I would then head back with Rohi and Ricardo, arriving back at the host house between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.; it would now almost be dark outside.

I would have about an hour to rest before Faye made an incredible, local, home-made dinner, of which everyone had to take two or three servings. She would then take myself and a few of my host mates to the largest mall in the southern hemisphere, full of hundreds of stores of every kind. After shopping for souvenirs, she would take us back to the host house. My host mates and I would finally watch a movie in the movie room together, and then head to sleep at around midnight to prepare for work the next morning.

What was your favorite activity outside of your placement?

The Garden Route Tour during my middle weekend was definitely the highlight of my trip. I was able to go on a safari, a lion walk, an elephant walk, visit a nature reserve to pet a cheetah, and perform the world's highest bungee jump. This program lasted from Friday to Sunday and was absolutely incredible. I would recommend it to anyone who visits Cape Town.

Posing with lions on the Garden Route Tour in South Africa

Third wheeling with some lions on the Garden Route Tour

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

I would be remiss not to include my incredible host family experience. I was fortunate to have a large host house with hot water, working wifi, and amazing people. My host mother was Faye, an amazing and sweet woman who has been hosting kids for the past decade. She would cook breakfast and dinner every day for all five of her volunteer kids, although she has hosted up to 30 at once. She made us incredible local food of every variety each day, and refused to let us pass it up. She helped to show the new volunteers different parts of Cape Town and was very gracious every time any one of us had a request. With Faye, it was almost as if she was our real mother.

Now that you're home, how have your experiences interning abroad impacted your life?

It has made a huge impact on how I view the world and my future. Now I realize that most of my life has been dedicated to serving only the betterment of my own future. I now realize that I want to make a change in the world, not for my sake, not for the name, but to improve the lives of others on this mercurial planet. I realize that I've spent a lot of my time procrastinating because I was scared of the future, now I'm ready to embrace it. I definitely feel more confident meeting other people as well.