• Lucy Nelson

The Rewards of Grassroots Volunteering: An Interview with Rhea Bisaillon

A lot of people want to make the world a better place, but sometimes that is easier said than done. Borderless World Volunteers (BWV) makes it possible for enthusiastic students to do some good in the world, without paying a lot of money to do so. BWV is an international organization that empowers youth for leadership in global development and creates educational, agricultural, and economic development projects. Every year, BWV sends a number of students abroad to implement these development projects with local NGOs. One group of McGill University students planned a gender empowerment project in Colombia through BWV. When that was cancelled, Rhéa Bisaillon and five others were left to take over an abandoned trip to Peru, which ended up being an amazing experience for everyone involved.

Rhéa Bisaillon is a second year student at McGill, double majoring in International Development and Women’s Studies. When her trip to Colombia was cancelled, the group ended up taking over a children’s education project in Peru. The group spent nine weeks living and working in Cajamarca, one of the poorest regions in the country. They worked for a local NGO, called Incawasi. Incawasi seeks to improve the educational, social, and nutritional conditions of children in the area. The NGO also provides around 40 children with homework help, fun activities such as sports and arts and crafts, and two balanced meals a day. The children are signed up for health insurance when they enroll with Incawasi and they receive biannual check-ups from the local doctor. Many of the children come from female-headed homes and Incawasi holds periodic meetings with the mothers and other family members to keep them involved with the children’s development. Incawasi also runs a sponsorship program, in which donors can help pay for children’s educational, nutritional, and medical costs.

Rhéa and the other McGill volunteers’ general job was to help keep the programs running smoothly. They served food, ran activities, and helped students with homework. Rhéa took on the position of social media consultant while she was there; she created the NGO’s Facebook page and twitter, which she still updates from Montreal. But the group began their work for Incawasi before they even arrived in Peru. “I came up with a donation project because I realized they didn’t have many school supplies and the NGO was buying the supplies,” Rhéa noted. The result of this project was 50-something pencil cases full of rulers, glue, maps, and other materials, as well as medical supplies, which the group brought with them to Peru. Since leaving, the group has set up a micro-financing program by selling hand-made items from the children’s mothers here at McGill’s Market Cooperative. They also hope to organize a musical show of some sort as a way to fundraise and send money back to the NGO.

Apart from helping with daily operations at Incawasi, the group also developed strong bonds with the children. When asked what her favorite part of the trip was, Rhéa described her relationship with the kids she met, “I miss them so much, we still Skype with them occasionally,” she admitted. Their relationship was much greater than just that of your average volunteer or tutor. Rhéa decided to pay for one boy’s education through Incawasi’s sponsorship program, but before she could tell him, he asked her to be his godmother. The boy, a ten-year-old named Yeral, had been abandoned by his parents at three and grew up with his grandmother. Rhéa obviously became an important part of Yeral’s life and, to stay in touch, Yeral created a Facebook page so he could message Rhéa after she left. Not only does she plan on sending letters and gifts for his birthday, but Rhéa also hopes to continue her work with Incawasi next summer. Out of the McGill group, five of them became godparents to a child, which shows the enormous impact they had on these children’s lives.

Rhéa not only plans to return to Incawasi next summer, but she also hopes to continue working with local grassroots NGOs after university. “Local NGOs know more about the needs of the population. They know a bit more about the situation,” Rhéa stated. International organizations often do not know the full extent of problems in developing areas or the best way to deal them, which is why local NGOs are so important to global development. Grassroots NGOs often have limited funding, which is why programs implemented through organizations such as Borderless World Volunteers can make a huge difference on local communities. Rhéa and the other Incawasi volunteers prove that development projects do not have to come from massive amounts of funding or multi-national corporations. The six of them were able to make an enormous impact on children’s lives with a little bit of love, a lot of hard work, and some school supplies.

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