Volunteers Without Borders(VWB)
|Cross Cultural Solution Review (Russia) - 2|
The following review was written excusively for VolunteeringInfo by a previous Cross Cultural Solutions volunteer. For more information about CCS, please see their organisation entry.
Pre-departure, CCS held my hand the whole way through (though, if you're an experienced volunteer and really want to get your hands dirty and be thrown in the deep end alone, this organisation might not be for you). I don't believe there could be a single organisation better for the first-time international volunteer, and I'm constantly holding other companies to their standards now that I'm home and looking for more opportunities to get out there and help. Yes, CCS is expensive, but it is so, so worth it.
So worth it, in fact, that I'm saving up right now to do it all over again in Morocco. You have language lessons, transport to and from the airport (it's surprising how many organisations don't offer this) and your placements, three home-cooked meals a day, the support of translators, a guided tour of the city, help planning weekend trips (if you go to Russia, you have to go to St Petersburg. Just take my word for it – the twelve-hour train journey is worth every second), excursions to places most tourists would never see – and that's on top of the orientation packs, an indispensable programme manager, travel insurance, accommodation etc.
I'll be frank – it wasn't what I was expecting. CCS Russia runs slightly differently from the other countries in that you visit multiple placements (e.g. a women's psychiatric hospital, boarding schools for kids whose parents can't afford to keep them, orphanages, centres for the elderly) instead of staying in any particular one, so while it can be quite difficult to make bonds or see progress, you do at least feel as though you're helping a really wide range of people and you don't have the knowledge of however many weeks ahead of you full of a placement that you might find too difficult or upsetting. We also spent 90% of our time making crafts with people, which seemed so ridiculous to me in the beginning that I didn't even want to tell people back home what I was doing. Who travels thousands of miles to make pipe-cleaner animals with the elderly – and what sort of elderly would put up with our half-mimed, terrible Russian, mostly English origami instructions anyway?
I was, in all honestly, shocked and ecstatic to realise just how willing and wonderful the people we worked with were. I doubt many kids in England would have half the patience these completely neglected, mostly unloved orphans had. They embraced the language difficulty, they loved the crafts, they loved us – and I began to realise that it's not the pipe cleaners or the lollipop sticks or the glitter glue that matters. It's the time you spend with these people, doing these things. In the Women's Hospital, for example, those women don't get any other visitors, pretty much ever, and they don't even have books to read. I don't think they'd care if we were making giant paper mache replications of toilets; they're just grateful for the company. It shocked and saddened me, sometimes, to realise that we'd flown so far just to give some love and attention to people who are living and playing right in front of the very staff that could provide them with that exact comfort, but I'm glad I was one of the lucky ones who has been able to do it.
Advice wise, I would say ask as many questions as possible. I bugged my poor programme manager half to death with my questions on washing machines, plug sockets, placement questions, weather questions, crafting questions – but it helped. When we all arrived, I found I was one of the best prepared there, especially when it came to certain placements and knowing what to expect (Russia seemed pretty heavy on sedation as a primary method of treatment and, thanks to my programme manager, I knew it would be this way, but it seems some of the other volunteers hadn't asked the same questions and were quite shocked by it. CCS has an amazing community website for prospective volunteers and alumni – make use of it). And plan, plan, plan. I didn't realise, not realising quite how heavy the emphasis would be on crafts, just how involving and educational said crafts would have to be (nor how difficult it would be to plan something for a group of twenty when you only have six sheets of misshapen card, some Canada stickers and a room full of empty egg boxes). Take as much stuff as you can fit in your suitcase – they were constantly phenomenally low on sugar paper (construction paper, I think Americans call it?) and glitter.
Just... have the time of your life. You will never, ever regret it.