• Taylor Piotrowski

Abroad as a Grassroots Volunteer

Everyone has their reasons for wanting to volunteer abroad. Some want to travel and experience new cultures, become a part of a community, make a difference or gain a new perspective on life. Personally, each of the reasons listed above applied when I decided to volunteer abroad. Though, my main motive for volunteering and the reason why I chose to work at the grassroots level, rather than with a large NGO was to create a more intimate and lasting impact on a community, one which would continue long after my service.

Since I was a child I was known as the girl who volunteered. Instead of going to the movies I would be working the ticket counter at fundraisers, planting trees in the town park or raising money for a local women’s shelter. From a very young age I was introduced to the value of giving back to your community and recognized the significant impact I can make on one’s life. Local volunteering or grassroots work was and remains a very important part of my life, and although I love to work close to home I can also remember the nights when I’d scroll through google and search for volunteer abroad opportunities in Kenya, India or Ethiopia and would dream of being able to service a community in other parts of the world. As I grew up this childhood aspiration never seemed to wane and after coming to University I finally decided to make my dream a reality. So, in September 2016 I joined the McGill student club, Borderless World Volunteers (BWV)[1] where I was guided through the fundraising and planning for my own volunteering trip.

BWV was founded in 2001 and has the goal to help undergraduate university students lead development projects across the globe while contributing to the wellness of their own local communities. The vision and values of BWV ticked every box of my ideal school club and I knew that joining would allow me to extend my volunteer efforts around the world. BWV’s will work build the capacity of locally based NGO’s or “Grassroots NGO’s”. I first heard of the term grassroots after joining Borderless, and after learning that grassroots organizations will service disadvantaged groups or areas at a local level, I realized that childhood volunteering was always at a grassroots level.

The basis behind the BWV mission is to support students in making sustainable development efforts around the world. With this being said, Borderless executives do not actually plan anything, they merely support and aid members throughout the process. The club members are responsible for sourcing reputable grassroots organizations, building and planning their projects and eventually implementing the project abroad. BWV executives will help make the project a reality by planning fundraisers, help in the construction of specific projects, and provide information sessions and training prior to the volunteer trips.

BWV makes it easy for students to create a sustainable impact on the world and I was extremely thankful to have had the opportunity to experience all that I did on my volunteer trip in Laos, PDR. When I first joined the idea of finding an organization, creating a project was extremely intimidating. But, with the help of my friends in BWV and some inspiration from my calculus tutor I had decided to focus my efforts on improving the access to education within Laos.

As soon as I decided what I wanted to do when abroad the rest of my project seemed to fall into place. Luckily, my calculus tutor was also a software designer for an online tutoring program and had offered me access to creating my own course for free. After this opportunity was presented my project was set, I would implement an online course which students in Laos could access throughout the day and be able to work with Montreal tutors via the website. After I had planned my project I then found Sae Lao[2], a grassroots NGO with educational and environmental projects in Laos. Sae Lao advertised having a computer lab for their students, which would be perfect for my project and after emailing the coordinator it seemed like my plans would be successful in the Ban Nathong Village, where Sae Lao was located.

However, this streak of luck quickly ended after the first set of Borderless volunteers traveled to Sae Lao and informed me that the computer labs as advertised didn’t actually exist. Though their reports were optimistic that I would have plenty of projects to work on within Sae Lao, and that I could still teach English for the students of Ban Nathong Primary School.

So, with an open mind and an eagerness to experience a new culture and fulfill my dreams of volunteering abroad, I packed my 50 Liter backpack and travelled to Ban Nathong Village.

As soon as I arrived I was introduced to the impact of grassroots efforts and quickly realized why BWV had put such a strain on working with grassroots organizations and why it’s important to volunteer at a local level, whether it’s at home or abroad.

The great thing about Sae Lao was that its founder was born and raised in Laos, so he ensured that the organizations efforts would directly impact his community. Each of the projects that I ended up working on were building a brick wall for the community workshop, clearing land for a new banana field, weeding the organic garden, and harvesting crops on the rice fields which had directly impacted the surrounding community and/or the Sae Lao beneficiaries.

Though the biggest impact Sae Lao made on the community was their education project. My favourite part about volunteering at Sae Lao was when the volunteers would teach daily English classes to children from the surrounding villages.

I personally found that teaching English was the most rewarding part of my trip in Laos, especially working in a community where there is such a high demand for English education. My student’s dedication to improve their English never seemed to fade and no matter what the whether weather or how worn-out they were, the students would always come to class wearing smiles that would light up the dark and rundown classroom.

After teaching in Ban Nathong I realized the importance of education and after my students had successfully passed their year-end examination I left Ban Nathong village with a feeling of fulfilment.

Volunteering with Sae Lao has truly changed the way I approach my own academic pursuits and has inspired me to continue to volunteer in the future. Not only was Sae Lao a place of employment for local villagers, but it helped form a community hub where students could play, laugh and share their passion for learning. Sae Lao was a second home for many, but a forever family for all who lived, worked and volunteered there. Sae Lao will forever have a huge place in my heart and I hope to return one day soon.

[1] Borderless World Volunteer. (n.d.). Retrieved September 05, 2017, from http://www.borderlessworld.org/

[2] Home. (n.d.). Retrieved September 05, 2017, from https://www.saelaoproject.com/



Borderless World Volunteer. (n.d.). Retrieved September 0

5, 2017, from http://www.borderlessworld.org/

Retrieved September 05, 2017, from https://www.saelaoproject.com/

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