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Passion for volunteering

Once bitten by the overseas volunteer bug, these very special faculty and staff members find the work so rewarding that it's hard to give it up

By JUDY NOORDERMEER | JUN 09 2008

While most Canadians were celebrating Christmas last year in the relaxed company of their family and friends, Dean Sandham was holed up in an air raid shelter on Kandahar Airfield Base in Afghanistan.

“We had a warning of a rocket attack so we were advised to go to the shelters,” recalls the dean of the University of Manitoba’s medical school. “It was dark in the shelter, and people spontaneously started singing Christmas carols.”

Making the most of challenging circumstances was standard procedure during Dr. Sandham’s five weeks on the base. The lone civilian physician, he was there with a team of Canadian military physicians tending to the often formidable medical needs of casualties among NATO forces, Afghanis and insurgents.

The penetrating wounds from improvised explosive devices were especially devastating, he says. On Christmas Eve, he treated three wounded, teenaged Taliban fighters who were injured by the premature explosion of an IED. “As the story played out, we realized they weren’t committed to any particular ideology,” he says. Likely unable to read and write, they had been pressured into becoming members of the group, he says. “One of them left with severe disabilities … So it’s a very sad story.”

It was on the recommendation of a University of Manitoba medical school alumnus and veteran of medical service in Kandahar that Dr. Sandham found himself in Afghanistan. “When he asked if I would volunteer, I said ‘Of course. Get me the job and I’ll go.'”

As a specialist in intensive care, Dr. Sandham was well suited to the role. “It’s hard to describe it,” he says of his seven-day-a-week stint in the hospital on the dusty airfield. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t miss for anything. I learned a tremendous amount.” Most of all, he says, it felt good to contribute in some way to the “really committed people in our military” who are there for extended periods of time. “Of course I missed Christmas with my family. But most of the people there are young people with children. They’re there for six months.”

Dr. Sandham has spoken little of his experiences since returning to Canada – only to family, friends, intensive care residents and his dean’s advisory council. When he does, he talks about how the experience heightened his appreciation of being Canadian.

“It reinforced how fortunate we are having a stable society and stable civilian government. As imperfect as our government is and as impatient as we get with it, we are so fortunate to have the societal structure and institutions we have. If you don’t have that kind of social structure and governance, all of the important things that need to flow out of it – education, health, research – are stifled.”

Grateful for the opportunity, Dr. Sandham donated the money he earned for his time in Kandahar to the university (he continued to earn his salary while he was away).

Dr. Sandham is part of a select breed of university employees – staff and faculty who have used their own time and often their own money to volunteer overseas in their line of work. Calls to numerous universities produced few leads for this story. But those we found seem to have in common a passion for making a difference in the world, a willingness to make personal, financial and sometimes career sacrifices to do it, a sense of adventure and, not surprisingly, a lack of urgent family responsibilities. Many of the volunteers have grown children or are single.

A remarkable sense of courage is also a recurrent quality. The work of these volunteers often takes place in dangerous, risky situations.

When Rosemary Tulett first travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan on a volunteer mission in 1993, she had to enter Iraq across the politically tense Turkish-Kurdish border. Because president Saddam Hussein didn’t want foreigners in the country, all aid workers were there unofficially, says Ms. Tulett, secretary to the dean of arts and social sciences at Simon Fraser University.

“In the earlier days, we were aware that anything could happen to us at any time. So when I was with my Kurdish friends, they felt that I was endangering my life in order to be there. Yet, I felt that they were endangering their lives by being with a foreigner.”

Ms. Tulett, who holds a master’s degree in intercultural studies, made her first visit to Kurdistan to assist with a physiotherapy clinic and teach English while working for a non-profit organization based in Amsterdam. The night before she left Iraq, the director of a Kurdish aid organization approached her to ask for help finding sponsors for 10 children left orphaned by the genocidal Iraqi regime. “I knew in my heart that it was a long-term commitment,” she says.

Fourteen years later, Ms. Tulett has raised close to $250,000 to sponsor more than 100 children. Many of them have finished high school, some have gone on to university and others now have children of their own. “I’m a grandmother many times over,” she jokes, “even though I’ve never been married and don’t have children.”

Earlier this year, SFU gave Ms. Tulett a humanitarian award for her work on behalf of the orphans. Working with her mother, she continues to send regular updates on the children to their sponsors and ensures that payments arrive on time. She funds all of her own administration and travel costs so that every dollar she raises through sponsors can go to the orphans.

Kurdistan remains close to her heart – a word she often uses when describing her experiences there and her love of the Kurdish people. “If any of us had gone through the amount of suffering that the Kurds had gone through, I really don’t know if we would have had the same resilient, positive attitude,” says Ms. Tulett. “You want to stand there with them shoulder to shoulder.”

Last year, she spent her SFU vacation in Kurdistan. It was the first visit out of six since 1993 in which she was able to travel without bodyguards. That reinforced her determination to continue the work. “Even though our sponsorship of these children will end in the next decade [as they become adults], my involvement will carry on. I know that my commitment to Kurdistan is lifelong.”

While Ms. Tulett says her volunteer work has helped her in her job, enhancing her appreciation and understanding of the many disciplines in the arts and social sciences faculty where she works, Michelle Burlock found that her international volunteer work helped her get an exciting new position at the University of Western Ontario last year.

Ms. Burlock had been working for six years in the university’s registrar’s office when she decided to take a five-month leave of absence in spring of 2007 to embark on a volunteer adventure around the world. The trip was a dream for the self-described travel lover. It built on a growing need she felt in recent years to get off the tourist track.

In the Yukon, she worked with the Canada Games and in Ireland she worked at a camp for sick children. In Madagascar, she helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity. She ended up in Tanzania for almost three months, volunteering at a Catholic church office and with children at a nearby school.

A graduate of “clown school,” Ms. Burlock knew how to keep kids entertained with singing and games. “Young kids would come running as soon as they would see me outside,” she says.

“We played soccer with a ball that was plastic bags all wrapped around each other.” She recalls how such simple pleasures brought joy to the Tanzanian children. “They were just happy and singing. It was so different,” she says. “When you volunteer, you experience things you’d never do on a tour.”

One day, standing in a soccer field to get a strong enough signal to use her cell phone, she got an e-mail from Western: the position of international liaison officer had come open. Did she want to apply? “Well, I can’t send you a resumé, but yes, I do!” she fired back.

On her return to Western last summer, she immediately moved into the position. In the fall, she travelled to Mexico, the United States and the Middle East to recruit international students to the university. Ms. Burlock says her intercultural experience helped her understand what international students go through when they come to a university in a new country and culture. “It’s not an easy process, but there are big benefits for them in having an education from Canada.”

Volunteering has meant sacrifices for Ms. Burlock, as for the others – although none of the people interviewed see it that way. The constant travel has made her a bit of a drifter, with no fixed address, she says. “I have a mailing address, but I’m staying with a friend right now.”

Volunteering internationally gives her “a direction that has meaning.” David Precious echoes that sentiment.

Since 1995, the dean of dentistry at Dalhousie University has travelled annually to Vietnam, at his own expense, to perform surgery on children with cleft lips and palates. Since 1999, he has also been going to Tunisia, and recently he began teaching the procedure to colleagues in Brazil and India. With the five colleagues who have joined him over the years, he estimates they have performed close to 1,000 surgeries, investing some $200,000 of their own funds in the process.

“It’s a life-changing operation,” explains Dr. Precious. “From a surgeon’s point of view, doing something at an early age that makes a difference is very compelling.”

The charity missions, the first international initiative for the dentis- try faculty, have set an example at Dalhousie. “If other faculties see a successful model,” says Dr. Precious, “then they are more likely to initiate a venture themselves.”

He’s proud of the dentistry charity missions, which he differentiates from short-term medical missions. The ultimate goal of the missions he organizes “is to work ourselves out of the need to go,” he says. With more surgeons being trained all the time, he sees that happening eventually in Vietnam and Tunisia.

Some medical missions – dubbed “safari surgeries” – are short-term, in-and-out visits by clinicians on a tour of the country. While these can be helpful in some ways, they are not properly integrated with local health authorities, often don’t include follow up with patients and don’t have a long-term impact because they don’t involve much or any teaching of local doctors. “Safari surgery can be problematic,” says Dr. Precious.

Like many volunteers, Dr. Precious finds that fellowship with his co-workers has been one of the most rewarding benefits. “We’ve learned from each other,” he says, in particular of the Japanese colleagues he’s worked with in Vietnam. “I’ve made lifelong friends.”

Reflecting on her experiences volunteering and travelling around the world, Western’s Ms. Burlock says, “we all want the same things” – health, opportunity, security and happiness. For faculty and staff who use their skills to help people in other countries achieve these “things,” the rewards – of changing lives and making connections – make it an addictive venture.

SFU’s Ms. Tulett is already planning and saving for a return to Kurdistan in two to three years. Ms. Burlock recently completed training to be a leader for a Habitat for Humanity building project overseas next year. Dalhousie’s Dr. Precious is preparing to return to Vietnam in the fall. And Dr. Sandham says of Afghanistan, “I really consider it a privilege to have been there, and I would go again if I could help.” He hopes others take up the challenge as well.

“You always think you have to save the world when you go and do stuff,” muses Ms. Burlock. “Some people don’t do anything because they feel they can’t do enough. But when you go and see that you make a difference for one or two people … I guess that’s why I do it.”

“Not quite” volunteer work

It’s not uncommon for faculty to work overseas on behalf of the university. But it is rare for staff members to have the same opportunity.

Chris Mota, Concordia University’s director of media relations, jumped at such a chance in November 2004, at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. At the urging of her boss, she flew to Kiev to help North American journalists reporting on the efforts of reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko to become the country’s next president.

“I can honestly say it was the convergence of everything that was perfect,” she recalls.

A Canadian of Ukrainian descent, Ms. Mota was fluent in the language and had many contacts in the country. As the Ukrainian protests heated up after the contested election for president, Canadian journalists on their way to cover the events had begun calling her at Concordia for advice on what to expect and where to go when they arrived in the country.

After half-joking with her boss that she wished she was going to the Ukraine with them, she got approval the same day to travel to Kiev and left the day after. Her boss recognized, says Ms. Mota, that “this would buy [Concordia] some collateral with journalists and show that we go a little further than is required.”

During her intense week-long visit, she used her language skills and local contacts to help journalists from Maclean’s, La Presse, Le Journal de Montréal and other media connect with sources in the Ukraine. She was also interviewed daily by Canadian radio stations and submitted regular journal entries for Ukrainian Times.

Her work in the Ukraine paid benefits for Concordia, says Ms. Mota. “It helped the credibility of our office among journalists. I know that they enjoy coming to us [for information and sources] and that they will come to us before going anywhere else.

“For me personally, it was an incredible experience. But, I also have to tip my hat to the university, which saw the value in playing a role outside of the daily requirements of our job, that we have something to contribute to the news media and by extension, to society.”

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