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UCLA VOLUNTEER CENTER: Volunteer Exper...
Jonaki Mehta is a first-year Pre-Communications major at UCLA and a UCLA Volunteer Center Social Med...

Volunteer Experience: Free the Children

February 18th, 2012

Jonaki Mehta is a first-year Pre-Communications major at UCLA and a UCLA Volunteer Center Social Media & Marketing Intern. Here is her experience as a volunteer with Free the Children.

I sat beneath a wooden structure which towered far above my head, resembling a large birdhouse on stilts. It was made with the bare hands of the woman who sat a few feet away from me, mashing boiled yucca root in a large leaf shaped bowl. This structure which stood as a sentinel from the large amounts of rainfall in the Amazon Rainforest was her home. It was one of the final days of our three week journey through Ecuador. We sat there in a circle, trying yucca and other freshly picked fruits and vegetables which she happily shared with us although she clearly could have made great use of it herself. We were there to learn about the indigenous people of the Amazon and their highly unique lifestyles. I sat amongst twenty six other young individuals who were there for the same reasons as I was: to reach far beyond our comfort into the lives of others who needed our help and to learn about their plight.

This cultural immersion aspect of my Free the Children/Me to We trip to Ecuador was only one of the many incredible parts of my service trip to Ecuador. Ranging from the hustle and bustle of the capital city of Quito to the heights of the Andes Mountains to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest, we had seen it all. A large portion and the main goal of my service trip was to build a school in the indigenous community of San Miguel in the Andes. This particular community has been served by Free the Children for several years, and watching the progress that access to education has been able to provide for the people of San Miguel was a life changing experience. The three people who guided me most throughout my year and a half long journey of finally participating in a trip were my Youth Programming Coordinator in California, Helen Ma who guided me prior to my trip, as well as Peter Nakamura and Nadia Sabessar who were facilitators on the trip itself.

Helen Ma works in the Northern California sector of Free the Children, the only one in the United States. The corporate office as well as other branches span throughout Canada. As I spoke to Helen about the history of Free the Children to learn more about where this incredible Non-Profit organization came from, I was able to truly understand the importance of the NPO’s namesake. Helen explained, “Free the children’s main mission is to free children from poverty, exploitation, and the notion that they are powerless to affect positive change in the world. And the most important message we want to get across is that we don’t have to wait to make a difference. The youth are the next generation, and they have the power and the tools to make a difference globally and locally.” Helen also went on to tell me the famous story of the founder, Craig Keilburger. Craig was just 12 years old when he read the heart wrenching article about Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy the same age as Craig who was murdered for speaking out about his terrible experience as a child laborer in a carpet loom. Craig brought this shocking issue to his friends and classmates, and Free the Children was born. As his concern grew on the subject and about child labor in general, Craig’s interest built. He began working towards a trip to Asia to see and learn about children in other countries so different than his own. Craig traveled throughout South-East Asia for over eight weeks to learn more about Iqbal and to help free children from labor. Throughout his trip, Craig met children who had never been to school, and even children who did not know what school was. His experiences in the developing world and with the people he met went on to change his life.

I too, like Craig, saw the importance of education on my trip. Children not only get a quality education with Free the Children’s help, but are given the tools to free themselves from the cycle of poverty. The children I met in San Miguel showed a great deal of enthusiasm in their new school and even joined us in building some of the time. The joy of these children along with their families was amazing to witness. Even with the simplicity of their lifestyle, this community was happy in a way I rarely saw back home in the faces of people with so much excess in their lives.

Over the duration of my trip to Ecuador, Peter Nakamura and Nadia Sabessar were our mentors and guides. From the plane ride to Ecuador to the flight back home, they were with us ensuring the safety and well being of all of the participants. Much of their role as facilitators involved challenging us as youth who are capable of change. With our group, we had many discussions about how we can better our global community and what our “action plan” would be once we returned. One of my main goals since returning home is to continue raising awareness about Free the Children. One of the ways I have been able to do this is by returning to the high school group I began my junior year and giving presentations to several classrooms about my experience. I also aim to begin a Free the Children group here on campus at UCLA. I learned from Peter on my trip that he began a group at Queens University in Canada where he did his undergraduate studies. Peter explained that after his own university trip to Kenya, he worked with his classmates, some of who had gone on the trip, to build a club on campus with the help of his university’s student government. With campaigning, holding booths at activities fairs, and having informational sessions, Queens University’s own chapter was started and is still growing. The club raises over $10,000 a year which goes towards Free the Children’s efforts.

In Canada, Peter works as a Youth Engagement coordinator. His job involves talking to young people about the opportunities offered by Free the Children to go overseas and guiding them through the entire registration process. He clarified the distinction between the for-profit partner of Free the Children, MeToWe, and Free the Children itself. Peter explained, “Me to We is the Free the Children charity partner and social enterprise. It generates profit through trips, child labor free clothing, books, and motivational speakers. But Free the Children is the educational partner for schools and students locally and globally. They raise awareness by talk about several issues such as homelessness, poverty, child labor, health care, and education. They send out development professionals and communicate with and maintain relationships with the communities they work with to understand their needs.” Overseas, Free the Children does sustainable development and has built over 650 schools in its sixteen years of existence. In addition to increasing access to education throughout the world, Free the Children has done work towards alternative income for women, clean water projects, and healthcare. Peter told me how Me to We plans to continue the flourishing process of Free the Children by eventually bringing its administrative costs down from its current 10% to 0%.

Trips are available for middle school, high school, as well as university groups. Free the Children’s highly professional and personal staff work with individuals as well as groups to customize their trips as appropriate for each specific case. Each year several trips go to Kenya, India, China, Ecuador, and the Arizona-Mexico border. There is also a new destination being added in Nicaragua. When asked what makes these trips so much more unique than other service trips, Peter answered “It’s being able to visit the FTC communities and seeing long term development. The progress of each community is shown over time and we have an opportunity to see the difference.” The Free the Children’s Adopt A Village Model was awarded the UN Human Rights Award in 2006. Free the Children also received the World Children’s Prize for the Rights of a Child Award in the same year. Each year, Free the Children and Me to We continue rapidly in their growth through awareness raising campaigns. There is hope for further expansion from Canada into the United States.

To get in contact with Peter Nakamura for interest in a trip or to find out more information, please email universitytrips@metowe.com or contact Peter directly at his phone number (1-877) 638-6931 ext 528. You can also visit www.freethechildren.com for information about the nonprofit organization’s work.

Do you have an amazing volunteer experience to share with us? We’d love to post them on our blog! Please send a write-up of your experience and any additional photos or videos to media@volunteer.ucla.edu.

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