By Rebecca Hunt, Communications Intern
Growing up in Swaziland, Sara Hooker was aware from a young age that some of our communities are facing extraordinary challenges.
Swaziland has been decimated by HIV/AIDS at a rate that would shock most of people in developed countries. Since the first cases were reported in 1986, the virus has spread at an alarming rate, and today one in four adults there are living with HIV. With so many adults dying, nearly four in 10 Swazilands are under age 14. Life expectancy now tops a mere 32 years, and the nation has the highest infection rate in the world.
The disease is a serious threat not only to the country's economic growth, but to its social stability too. And so with the specter of collapse in the background of daily life, Sara grew up in a society where opportunities to get involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS were everywhere.
During high school, Sara volunteered to teach English to children orphaned by HIV and AIDS. It was her first act of direct service to others. It not only gave her the chance to use her own education and experience as a platform to help others, she was quickly overturning her own ignorance about HIV infection.
"For the first time, I started to seriously think about volunteering and using my time to give back," she says.
Sara didn't stop there. During her gap year, when she had time off between high school and college, Sara used her background growing up in Africa to spend four months working with an Irish NGO, Value Added In Africa, which promotes business links with African countries and encourages ethical trade. Again, volunteering became the door to a new range of experiences and options.
Today Sara is pursuing a degree at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn.,and the health crisis of her childhood home is thousands of miles away. But according to Sara, she's still using her experiences from Swaziland. For starters, her decision to study economics is no accident – she's determined to understand how trade can help developing countries reduce their reliance on aid. By following this career path she can help the continent of her childhood.
Moving to a new place can be hard, but Sara has embraced the challenge of making friends and being accepted – by using her background as a volunteer with lots of local projects and organizations. Once again, seeing the community as a volunteer, she says, is helping to introduce her to the local community, explore the area, become familiar with life in the U.S. in a very tangible way.
"Having traveled and lived in different cultures throughout my life I find the most honest approach to understanding a place is to contribute in some way to its community," she says.
The good news, Sara says, is that volunteering in the U.S. has more than surpassed her expectations. "[It's] been easy to find amazing and cool events to help out at!" She said, noting that VolunteerMatch has been especially helpful in her searches. "Volunteering in the U.S. is different because the organizations I have met here are probably the most generous with their volunteers."
Whether it's helping out at the children's Scavenger Hunt at The Bakken Museum, a center dedicated to exploring the nature of electricity, an event greeter at the Independent Filmmakers Project which supports the production of independent films, or block captain at the weekly Uptown Market Fair in Minneapolis, Sara has a busy summer ahead!
But that's not to say it has always been easy. She admits that at first she found many of the new volunteer projects intimidating. She was especially conscious of being the youngest volunteer – and she found herself outside of her comfort zone more than once.
But the rewards have been worth it. "It has definitely built my confidence and communication skills," she said.
What advice would she give new volunteers or those just starting out?
Pick projects carefully, she says. Be sure to maintain a constant communication with your supervisor to make sure you are contributing to the level they expect. Finally, have clear objectives to guide what you want as a volunteer and review these objectives. Otherwise you may end up working on projects that don't interest you. Take time to find out about the organization's mission statement and how you fit in.
Volunteering has now become so much more for Sara that just a social and political need; it's become a key part of her lifestyle: "Someone described it to me as a service component of life. I'm looking forward to meeting the next set of new people!"