Upon completing her 50th service program, Volunteer Coordinator Phyllis Thompson paused to consider what first motivated her in 2003 to join a Global Volunteers team, and what inspires her to enable others to serve. We asked her to share with us her insights as a volunteer, team leader, and employee of Global Volunteers. What advice does she have for new – and veteran – volunteers? Read on to learn more!
How did you get on the “vacation volunteer” track with Global Volunteers?
After a successful and fulfilling career in health care and academia, I felt a need to add a new and productive dimension to my retirement lifestyle. Always being active and engaged, I knew I needed to continue some activity where I could make a worthwhile and meaningful contribution to society. Luckily, I viewed a segment of the NBC Today Show in 2003 when Global Volunteers was featured. The minute I viewed the happy, smiling Italian primary school children singing “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat” with a Global Volunteers team, I knew what I was going to do!
And then, I did just what I saw on television – became a part of an organization, Global Volunteers, waging peace and promoting justice through simple everyday activities, small steps, one at a time, uniting all countries for this common goal. And I’m still doing that – 50 service programs and 20 years later.
What is the greatest contribution volunteers make?
Giving something back to the community is very important. Quite selfishly, so many times I feel I have taken more than I have given. Speaking for myself, I feel I’ve contributed in these ways:
- I’ve been instrumental as a team leader and now, as a Volunteer Coordinator, to help volunteers make new friends, as team members and as Global Volunteers ambassadors worldwide.
- I’ve provided services that make an impact in all parts of the world while giving a sense of pride and self-worth to volunteers and community members.
- I’ve promoted the importance of the English language throughout the world.
Throughout my service, I’ve felt a sense of purpose in my life. I never realized how much until the pandemic kept me landlocked. How wonderful we can be out now, fulfilling our goals, gaining new skills, and making new friends!
What are some memorable moments you’ve had while serving abroad?
There have been so many – 50 memorable moments and counting. Every service program has provided me with more than one memorable moment. I must mention my times with the many children whom we serve primarily in conversational English lessons. I’ve seen, and kept in contact with, many from early childhood and seen them grow into productive adults. Many have obtained advanced degrees while others have become excellent family role-models, assets and leaders in their communities. For instance:
A former student, now a young man, even found me on Facebook several years ago and asked, “When I was five years old, were you the teacher who made me lay on the floor, traced my body, and then I learned my body parts in English?” This young man is now an accomplished professional in the financial world and one of my favorite Facebook friends.
Another memorable moment occurred as I was being wheeled into an operating room in Italy to have an open reduction on my broken ankle. My apprehension was immediately eliminated when the anesthesiologist looked at me and said, “ I know you – you teach my daughter English”.
And there were many times, volunteers returned from a very busy and challenging day at school, smiling, yet looking worn, “Can’t wait til tomorrow. I have so many more ideas, thoughts, and lessons to share. We need to stay here longer!”
What advice do you have for new volunteers?
I have always shared my “4 F’s” for successful volunteering with all volunteers: friendship, flexibility, fitting in, and last, but not least, fun.
- Regarding friendship, be a good and respectful friend to your teammates, students, teachers, and the local community.
- Regarding flexibility, be able to cope with changes and think about problems and tasks in new and creative ways.
- Regarding fitting in, this is probably the easiest. Community partners and locals always welcome volunteers with open arms.
- Regarding fun, this is what learning and life can and should be. Every day may be challenging, but we will have fun.
What experiences with local people have stuck with you the most?
Many local people spend their time – above and beyond the norm, with volunteers. I fondly recall one local man in Italy who would take time to visit with volunteers, bring flowers from his garden for our table and spend time sharing stories of his family and lifestyle. Once he brought a basket of walnuts for us to harvest and showed us how to remove all the layers to reach the meaty “drupes.”, which were delicious.
And in Cuba, the ladies in the community center make delicious buffet lunches for our volunteers. Every day is different, and you can taste the love and culinary talents these gracious women put into each and every dish.
Local drivers sometimes will go a bit out of their way to point out a historical place or stop to let you take a photo.
Community partners and local hosts seem to always have a multitude of stories and local facts to share and always strive to make you comfortable and welcome.
Why does short-term volunteering appeal to you?
I find short-term volunteering appealing primarily because of the time constraints involved in today’s lifestyle. One can easily spare a week or two from their commitments, without infringing on the necessity of family, work, or household responsibilities. Time passes quickly, thus making one feel energized and spirited and, I believe, more productive.
What community would you like to serve next, and why?
Most definitely, Nepal. I particularly want to provide service at the Astha Women’s School to help women who could not complete their education when they were young.
Has the volunteer experience changed for you throughout your 50 programs?
Many may not agree with me, but the volunteer experience for me is still the same. It is always challenging, fulfilling, exhilarating, and meaningful. Yes, the dynamic remains the same. The service programs will have changes, the country sites may change, and the “cast of characters” evolves, however, I feel the original mission of our organization, although tweaked now and then, remains constant.
What do you do in your role as a volunteer coordinator?
My role is multi-faceted and includes numerous tasks that include but are not limited to:
- Communicating with prospective volunteers and alumni to provide service program information and answer their questions.
- Providing guidance after listening to their needs and goals as well offering advice.
- Screening interested parties for their suitability for service programs and determining if any limitation might impede their success.
- Advising volunteers regarding the registration process and assisting them whenever necessary and processing registrations.
- Establishing long term relationships with prospects and alumni.
- Managing contact records, promotional materials and making certain the record is current and correct as well as keeping promotional materials current.
- Assisting with development and disbursement of promotional materials.
- Working and collaborating with Global Volunteers staff worldwide, such as, directors of international and domestic service programs, development, marketing, country managers.
Why did you decide to join Global Volunteers as an employee?
During the pandemic, I had many moments to reminisce about my many Global Volunteers service programs and the lifestyle fulfillment they afforded me during my retirement years. When I saw the posting for the volunteer coordination position, I immediately knew, “When the masks come off, I will move forward, and this is what I will do next!”
I was already confident my areas of expertise from my career in health care and education would align well with the requirements and expectations for the volunteer coordinator position. But truly, realizing I could continue with Global Volunteers in another capacity and fulfill my personal goal of “making people happy” and still be intimately a part of waging peace and promoting justice in our world today, were the decisive factors.
Would you encourage other alumni volunteers to consider joining the Global Volunteers staff?
Yes, I certainly would. Why? I have observed and believe there is no better volunteer than an alumni volunteer. Alumni hit the ground 5 steps ahead of their team, and likewise, alumni joining Global Volunteers staff will offer advantages to themselves and our organization. It will be genuinely synergistic, and long-lasting satisfaction will be realized. They will collaborate with other staff members worldwide and share their knowledge and experience with prospective volunteers. Communicating with a volunteer coordinator (alumni) who has served will give prospective volunteers a greater insight into their ability to serve, where they might best be suited, and where their personal goals will be met.