This past summer, our US Executive team had the privilege of taking three incredible volunteers from Lakewood High School on a 3-week Volunteer Immersion Trip to Uganda. Jessie Jennett, Siena Tornillo and Dakota Kisling joined us for their first trip to the African continent to work alongside us at our new primary school, Global Leaders.
Over the 3-week trip, we traveled nearly the entire length of the country -- from Kampala to Namasale all the way to Murchison Falls, with the goal of immersing ourselves in Ugandan culture, to learn about impactful community-driven projects on the ground, understand the power of cross-cultural partnerships and think critically about best practices in serving our global community. We also *might* have spent a fair amount of time introducing Siena as an American pop-star and teaching everyone in the compound how to roast the perfect marshmallow for S'mores.
This trip was not only special because it was the first time we've taken volunteers out with us, but it was also our Development Director for FAF, Kaitlyn's first time to Uganda after nearly eight years of studying African issues! You can read about her experience on our trip on CSU's blog right here.
We upon returning home, we interviewed Dakota (17) Siena (18) and Jessie (18) about their experience on our first Volunteer Immersion Trip.
What made you want to go Uganda?
SIENA: I wanted to go to Uganda because I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, and Far Away Friends provided me with that opportunity. I needed a new perspective on my life, and I got that in the most unique way possible.
How do you feel Far Away Friends' Immersion Trip was different than other volunteer organizations you could have traveled with?
JESSIE: Because I am so interested in traveling I have looked at many travel/volunteer organizations whether it was for a language immersion or a school trip, and in order to convince my parents I had to dive deep and know everything about the organization and the trip. Compared to the three groups I looked into previously, Far Away Friends had the best communication. Through the application process, the waiting period, and even with our parents through the trip, Jayme and Chris really made sure that everyone was on the same page and no question was left unanswered. Regarding the trip itself, I cant compare it to any other organization's trips, however I think because of the strong connections that Far Away Friends has within multiple communities in Uganda, that we received a more intimate and deeper experience than most people on trips like that do.
How did traveling with Far Away Friends changed the way you look at the developing world?
SIENA: Traveling to Uganda I had no idea what to expect, but when we got there my mind was blown. Generally Africa has a stereotype of being “unsafe” or “dirty,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The country of Uganda itself was beautiful the people were just beyond amazing. Although it’s developing, Ugandans are the most kind-hearted people I have ever met, and everyone welcomed us with open arms. Everyone that I met was so happy and so grateful for everything that they had.
In what way do you feel that you had the biggest impact?
JESSIE: I think that visiting Global leaders primary school, playing with the students, interacting with the teachers and staff, has definitely evolved my ability to spread the word at home. I felt that the more I learned about Far Away Friends, and the more I got to see first hand, the more I believed in what they stand for. I feel as if FAF is really one of a kind and that the work they do is genuine and across the board to benefit the world as a whole. They take the name Global Leaders seriously and I think they do a phenomenal job of working together with their staff and community towards a common goal of providing quality education and connections to those future global citizens.
Did you have any particularly special moments on this trip? Explain that experience
DAKOTA: I met so many people that changed my life, but two stand out to me the most. They are Mercy and Sam (two students at Global Leaders). From the moment I met Mercy I was in awe. She is so smart and loves school unconditionally. She made me realize how much school can mean to someone, and how much it should for everyone. We take it for granted here, but Mercy understands how important the value of schooling is for her future and for generations to come. Sam also touched my heart. Although he has Down Syndrome [in a community with little support for children with special needs], he has an unlimited capacity to love. He made me realize how much someone could mean to someone else. He made me realize how lacking our country is of true connection. I want to carry his love here [in Colorado] and show others 1/100th of what he showed me...THAT is how much he inspired me.
JESSIE: I felt most connected when we all went to Mama Cissy's, where we met Aunt Stella and Atat (Grandma), along with all of the children under mama Cissy's care, most of whom attend Global Leaders. We learned that grandmothers are the same even on the other side of the world, by being welcomed with soda and cookies. The children were so fun and full of energy, we were taking pictures, laughing, and talking to each other. We started showing pictured of our pets, then our families, and as I swiped through pictures of my parents and sisters, I felt like I was a part of their family and that I couldn't wait to show my parents and sisters pictures of my family in Namasale.
Who did you meet on your trip that had an impact on you and why?
SIENA: Everyone that I met on my trip was amazing. There was one little girl named Fiona (also known as Baby Fiona) who touched my heart in such a special way. She came to the school a few days after we arrived and although she is only three years old I saw the kindness in her heart. Another person who had an impact on me was one of Global Leaders’ older girls name Cece. As we were walking home from her mom’s house one night she was holding my hand and we were talking. I was telling her about how Uganda and America are very different; she was amazed at the fact that we think dogs say “woof.” She explained to me why she thinks being educated is so important and why she wants to continue going to school. This moment was so special because even though she is only in P5 (fifth grade) she knows how important education is and she inspired me to push myself harder in my educational goals.
What was one of your biggest challenges in Uganda and how were you able to overcome that?
DAKOTA: One of my biggest challenges was not the bugs, the squatty potties, the bucket showers, or the hotness. It was seeing how much people who did not have much give you everything they had, whether it be food or something else. It was hard for me because it made me realize how backward our own country is. We only care about ourselves and the very few people who surround us. Every person we met in Uganda embraced us as if we were their own child. We literally came from around the world and they loved us like they had known us forever. I know that does not seem like a challenge, but it really opened my eyes to something that I had never seen before, and I did not like that reality.
How has this experience changed you?
JESSIE: If not for this trip and experience with Far Away Friends, I don't know if I would have truly found my passion. The constant feeling I had being there with the FAF team, the friends and family made there, and witnessing the impact of an education. I also feel like I have learned a lot about traveling and looking beyond what I hear in the media and stereotypes.
What would you say to someone who is considering volunteering with Far Away Friends?
JESSIE: I would highly recommend volunteering with Far Away Friends, I think that everyone should receive the opportunity to meet the wonderful people of Namasale town and the students at Global leaders. Its an experiene of a life time and I genuinely thing that Far Away Friends provides a unique and unforgettable experience that not many people will ever go through.
SIENA: To anyone who is considering volunteering with Far Away Friends do it. It will be the BEST experience of your life. Before we left Jayme told me that during this experience you will be: the saddest, most afraid, most uncomfortable, yet the most insanely happy you have ever been in your entire life. This was 100 percent true. There were challenging moments were I thought I was going to scream or cry, but at the same time I was so happy. Jayme, Chris, and Collines were the most amazing team leaders. I felt so prepared and safe everyday I was there. Far Away Friends will give you the most unique experience of Uganda. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world, and now that I have met the students and teachers of Global Leaders I know how important my voice is so that this amazing place that I call home can and will succeed.
DAKOTA: I would say DO IT!!!!! It was by far the best experience of my life and even though it is hard to see some of the things we saw in Uganda, it is worth it. You will come back a changed person and have an amazing perspective of the world because of that. DO IT!!!!!!!!!!!