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Associations Now

A DAY IN THE LIFE: Giving Back

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, June 2008 Intelligence


Name: Becca Nelson

Position: Project assistant

Name: Becca Nelson

Position: Project assistant

Organization: VanDamme Associates

Location: Pittsford, New York (currently working in Ongata Rongai, Kenya)

Organization size: 23 staff

Role: A jack-of-all-trades around the VanDamme offices, helping with managing resources for web projects, sales writing and coordinating, and product testing and documentation.

History: Nelson has worked as a full-time nanny, a brand ambassador, and a writer. But her passion is hands-on, international philanthropic work. She has studied in Croatia; visited Italy, Bosnia, and Serbia and Montenegro; and volunteered in Ramallah in the Palestinian territories and in Bethlehem.

While in the West Bank, she taught children guitar and English, helped disabled refugees, and worked on two websites. Currently, she is spending three months working for a nongovernmental organization in Kenya, and her hope is to spend at least three months a year volunteering outside of the United States in the future.

Nelson originally became a part of the VanDamme team through a co-op program during her undergraduate years at Rochester Institute of Technology. (She will finish a master’s degree in professional studies, also through RIT, this fall.) At VanDamme, she has worked as a technical writer, a bug tester, in sales, and in marketing; currently, due to her annual volunteer trips, the company has created a new position for her that takes advantage of her skills when she is stateside but doesn’t create a huge gap during the three months of the year that she is abroad. Nelson greatly appreciates the flexibility and support she has received from her employers.

Voluntary impact: Nelson enjoys traveling, gathering new experiences, and meeting new people. But her time volunteering abroad has shown her the depth of need in many poverty-stricken areas outside the United States. Nelson says, “In the States, we often have to search for a volunteer opportunity that will fit, or make sure there is really need before we give. Here, opportunities abound. And any person who tries really changes things.”

She also gains inspiration from a quote from a friend she met in Kenya: “Just because you can’t help everyone doesn’t mean you can’t help someone.”

5:00 a.m.: I normally wake up early, even on Saturdays, to use the internet while it’s still pretty fast. As soon as others begin to wake up and get online, working on websites and online courses just isn’t possible.

6:30 a.m.: I go to prayer with some friends. Afterwards, we often go for a run in the gorgeous countryside before the sun is too hot. I’ve actually seen gazelles, baboons, and 28 zebras during my runs or walks in the morning!

8:30 a.m.: I pack up my computer, my curriculum, and a mango, and I’m ready to leave for class. My apartment is at Africa Nazarene University in Ongata Rongai, 10 kilometers outside Nairobi. To get to work, I march three kilometers through the village to the terrifying public minivan (matatu) stage. Matatus are, legally speaking, 14-person vans that actually seat up to 25 if you’re unlucky, and they are known for having wild drivers and blaring music videos. Think of a rolling club with holes in the floor, passing other cars on a curve while pieces are falling off of the van.

Today, I pay 40 bob (50 cents-ish) and board a large matatu called “The Rebel” toward the city. I alight at Mbagathi Road, my own six-kilometer, uphill shortcut, which I use to avoid going downtown and getting another bus.

It’s hot—very hot by this point—so I drink water and try to go a bit faster.

10:30 a.m.: I arrive at class, where my students are always almost an hour early and ready to learn. Is the internet working? No. That’s okay! Today we’ll work on non-web computer basics. I usually change my curriculum on the fly.

11:00 a.m.: I teach Microsoft Word and internet basics for two hours, speaking as slowly as possible and waiting for feedback. It’s difficult to teach computer lessons with no overhead or PowerPoint—I usually walk about another five kilometers around the room going from computer to computer.

1:30 p.m.: After class, I meet with a pastor, who is also one of my students, to discuss his children’s ministries and how we can organize people and funds to begin a school in the surrounding slum of Kware. Today’s meeting is about budget; we need to cut the one we have, so we can get started as soon as possible.

I’ve been fundraising in the States and feel confident that it’s okay to give to this particular startup. With the money raised since I began working here, we have enough to open a school for 60 children. As soon as the school is begun (facilities are prepared), I will completely back out of the project. What I’m looking to provide is a beginning the community can run with.

2:30 p.m.: I take another bus to the other side of the city, to a school just like the one we are starting. It began as a kindergarten in a church because there was no local public school, and more and more children came because of its reputation. I take photos for a website and spend time teaching the kids for a few minutes, being bombarded with “How are you?” and “MZUNGU!” (white girl) shrieked in tiny voices. Next there’s tea (in Kenya, there’s always tea) and a short meeting with the headmaster, who gives me more advice.

I have managed to get contact information for a possible connection with Feed the Children. Networking is as important here as in the States, and most people working in nonprofits here, whether faith based, water and sanitation, or children’s programs, all want to help each other help others. No competition, just pure networking.

While the new school will be able to sustain itself on a long-term basis without any outside funds, it will be easier to feed the kids if we can receive aid. None of our school-aged kids in Kware will be able to stay awake or even walk to school without fainting if we do not feed them daily. During my first visit to Kware, kids laid on benches through a church service, too tired to sing, stand, or go play.

4:30 p.m.: I start the hot ride back to the city. A long matatu ride home during rush hour can take upwards of three hours to go 15 miles. I usually spend time texting directors of the other programs I am starting—notably one in the Mwiki slums. Guardians and single parents are working together to plant and harvest a field, make jewelry for me to take home and sell online, and make soaps to sell in the community. Today’s text concerns materials for the jewelry. Family Focus (our new name) is asking for a 5,000 shilling ($90 U.S.) loan to get started. I’m confident that the beautiful things they’ve created will bring many times that in the States.

6:30 p.m.: I walk back up the road to the university where I live. Then I enjoy Kenyan food for dinner in our dining hall. It’s my favorite—matoke (stewed bananas). I can’t lie, it’s been difficult here for me as a “chicken and fishitarian.” Meat is for lunch and dinner almost every day. Sometimes it is accompanied by oil-covered cabbage or fried frozen peas or kales; we alternate. As my friend warned me, “In the States, we eat the vegetables. Here, the animals eat the vegetables, and we eat the animals.”

After dinner, I go back to my room, where a few friends stop by for Scrabble. We drink tea, I win, and they head home before the dogs come out. Every evening, around 11:50, at least 35 dogs are released on our campus to guard against animals/predators; they’re very noisy, and I’m terrified of them.

It’s late. I get ready to work on my online courses and websites. That is, if the internet works tonight …

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