We love hearing from our volunteers and earlier this month we caught up with Alice, who spent a month digging, laughing and experiencing Karen hospitality on a clean water project in the village of Ban Pang Tong in 2016. Prior to volunteering in Thailand, Alice gave up her time to intern in the UK KHT office where she first found out about the work of KHT and is today completing her Masters in International Development at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Find out below just how big an impact volunteering in a Karen village had on Alice’s life.
Why did you choose to volunteer with KHT?
During my time as intern, I learnt lots about the projects that KHT works on with the Karen and liked how local ownership and sustainability were at the forefront of all the work. This community led focus also expands to the volunteer projects, which is in contrast to the ‘voluntourism’ of so many other organisations.
They aren’t working for the Karen, instead working with the Karen.
I also was interested in a career in international development and wanted to gain practical experience working in the field with communities.
Was the experience what you expected?
It was more emotionally challenging that I thought it would be but it was great to be able to overcome this and I learnt a lot about myself. The community led aspect of the project is very much what I imagined as you really do experience living with the Karen people and seeing life through their eyes.
What was the best thing about your time volunteering?
The best thing was how it allowed me to develop personally, as you have the space and time to reflect due to being so removed from normal life. As the project is so independent and you do initially experience a big culture shock, it gave me the confidence to realise that I was capable of working within the development world.
It gave me a good idea of what field work is like and I left feeling like ‘I can!’
It was also fun to experience the project in a group, as you come away with unique memories shared and really do end up supporting each other as you overcome difficulties, such as the isolation.
What was the most challenging part?
You do experience a sense of isolation and are thrown in at the deep end but as I said before, having a supportive group to share these things with really does help. Equally, spending so much time with the same group can be challenging and tensions do inevitably arise.
Were you able to build relationships with the Karen despite language barriers?
The villagers, particularly the women, were very sweet to us and did try and communicate. Something that normally ended up with lots of laughter! We were made to feel very welcome, and they really did make an effort, taking us on trips at the weekends, inviting us over and presenting us all with handmade Karen tops at the end of project.
Has your experience had an impact on what you are doing today?
It has given me great practical knowledge of sustainable projects in action and equipped me well for the International Development Masters I am now completing in Geneva. It also has helped me to adjust to a new culture in Geneva and helped me to see people far across the world as humans just like me rather than too far away to imagine. Whenever I share my experiences with people in Geneva, they are always very impressed too!
What advice would you give to future volunteers?
Don’t be scared of bugs or any scary diseases that you might hear about and don’t panic if you do fall ill. It often is simply your body adapting to a new environment and the KHT staff really do support you. This is something I had first-hand experience of as I fell ill in my very first few days.
Prepare yourself for a culture shock and a feeling of isolation, everybody inevitably experiences it at some point. With the support of your team and some perseverance you will be able to work through it and come out the other side of your project having had a great experience!