The Power of a Short Term Volunteering Experience

Margaret Fitzpatrick volunteered with VMM on our short term programme in late 2018 as a nursery nurse in Uganda. Here, in her own words, follows the story of how she came to join VMM and the experiences she had on her placement which guided her journey to committing to the mission of volunteering; to “share who we are, not just what we have”, and contributing to the vision of “a world where we live in the shelter of one another”.

Short term volunteer, Margaret Fitzpatrick, on a new departure with new friends

Becoming a Short Term Volunteer with Volunteer Mission Movement

My husband owned his own construction company, loved what he did and didn’t want to retire early. I, however, had recently retired and had no intention of working longer. What to do? We made plans. He would retire in July and we would travel; visit all 50 states of America, Australia, Asia and travel all over Europe. My husband had talked a lot about volunteering, as being a builder he could help a lot. So, we would also seek opportunities for him to continue to work while sharing his knowledge, and skills and I would tag along and do what I could. We had our first trip booked – Moscow and St Petersburg. Then, in June, he suddenly and unexpectedly died and I was left alone. My world and our plans shattered. My children rallied around me and I coped.

One weekend I went to church, sat in my usual seat and heard a lady from VMM give a talk on the merits of volunteering. I dutifully took her leaflets and went home. Then, after a few weeks I came across them again, sat down, read them and thought, I could do that. I needed to get out of the house and the thought of doing something useful appealed to me. And since having done it, it appeals to me even more. 

Joining VMM was very straightforward and after two emails I was accepted.  However, the application process was pretty time consuming, as VMM have high standards, and the paperwork put me off. I changed my mind. I decided it was too much for me. I wasn’t going. But, I hadn’t reckoned on Fiona, the short term programme manager, who wouldn’t let me give up. She sympathised, encouraged and supported me through the process and before I knew it, I was in Uganda! I was terrified but needn’t have worried because as soon as I landed I was picked up at the airport and ‘mothered’ by my landlady for the 6 weeks I was there. 

volunteer Margaret Fitzpatrick school in Uganda

The primary school in Uganda where Margaret volunteered as a nursery nurse

The Warmth of the Welcome in Uganda

With such a young population in Uganda, almost 50% being under 14 years old, I was struck by the need for services in the communities. However, despite the common daily struggles, what also struck me was the contentment of the people. They were among the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The children rose early to do their chores before walking to school, sometimes for over an hour.  It wasn’t uncommon for them to put their heads down before the end of the day and have a sleep before returning home to do more chores. In this context, I felt a little ashamed of myself when I had got annoyed when the heavy rain knocked out the electricity and wifi in my accommodation and left us wandering around wearing head torches and with no way of calling home.

volunteer Margaret Fitzpatrick packed classroom

Classrooms in Uganda can have up to 100 students

With twenty years’ worth of experience to share, I was allocated a placement as a nursery nurse in a primary school where the children were an absolute joy and the staff very welcoming. They were amazed at first by my whiteness and the little ones kept trying to rub it off to see where my black skin was. The children all wanted to say hello to the mzungu (white person) and get a ‘high-five’ and I have never felt so at home and relaxed. So much so that, most days I forgot to take the medication prescribed to help me cope with my grief. I didn’t need them. The best part of the day was when I got to play lollipop lady and take the children across the road after school. Oh, the power to stop traffic – great!

volunteer Margaret Fitzpatrick new school desk

Volunteer Margaret Fitzpatrick donated two desks to the school

 

The Volunteering Experience with VMM

In my school there were 70 children in the class, hardly any room to move and not enough seats for all. So, I bought two desks in memory of my husband. He was a carpenter and if he had been there with me he would have made them himself. I would recommend to those interested in short term volunteering that you learn as much as possible about the choices available before requesting the role you would like, and are best qualified, to do. This is so that you get the best from your placement and can be of genuine help. VMM look after their volunteers very well. Nothing is a problem and there is nothing that can’t be overcome either at home or on placement. Help is just a phone call or email away and the on-site staff are a godsend.

Discovering Uganda While On a Volunteer Placement

volunteer Margaret Fitzpatrick in transit

Volunteering also means time to travel and explore with new friends

Things weren’t all work and no play though. My landlady cooked for me during my stay and also arranged a wonderful weekend safari. We stayed in a lodge and saw loads of animals, including rhino and a herd of elephants with wee baby ones trotting alongside their mum. We took a trip to Lake Victoria, including lunch in a posh restaurant, and another trip to the equator where we saw a demonstration of water flowing clockwise and then anti-clockwise. Very weird! We also went on a day trip to Kampala. What a place! The streets were a permanent traffic jam, hundreds of people rushing about and we had no idea where we were going. I vowed never to repeat it. But, I actually went back, twice! The local buses were such fun. 

 

An Introduction to Volunteering Becomes a Conversion

It was a hassle and very tiring getting to Africa, including travelling for 12 hours, but I had a wonderful time and I feel good. It helped me to cope with my loss and am now medication-free. I enjoyed my volunteering so much that I’m going back again with VMM for three months, and best of all, this time I will be working in a nursery. I think short term volunteering is a great way to get your feet wet and I feel that maybe I’m almost ready to go as a long term volunteer, taking on a project from beginning to end, as now, having been properly introduced, I have fallen in love with Africa! 

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