September 27, 1999
Deborah Stone (center) was one of nine Global Volunteers in Italy.
by Deborah Stone
Across three hills, high over the immense blue Adriatic, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, lies the town of Ostuni. Known as "the white city" for its whitewashed buildings set against a sky the color of lapis lazuli, this charming place was my home for two weeks this past summer.
I went to Ostuni as a Global Volunteer to teach conversational English. Global Volunteers, a non-profit organization based in Minnesota, was founded in 1984. At the request of local leaders and host organizations, Global Volunteers sends teams of volunteers to live and work with local people on human and economic development projects in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe. The organization has been utilizing short-term volunteers to teach English in other countries since 1990.
Volunteer teams teach in diverse environments including public universities, elementary schools, junior and senior high schools, businesses, government agencies, and language camps. They serve in a variety of countries, including Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Spain, Tanzania, Greece, Poland, and Italy.
Team members come from many different walks of life, but all have the desire to share their experiences with others and work toward cross-cultural understanding. For the people who live in these countries, a knowledge of English can open new doors to business, education, or employment opportunities. Working with Global Volunteers gives many students an extremely valuable opportunity to hear the English language spoken by native English speakers.
I had wanted to do a service project abroad for several years, but felt I needed to wait until my children were older. The timing was finally perfect for me to participate in a program this past summer, and I chose Global Volunteers based on its "Philosophy of Service."
The organization dedicates itself to building a foundation for world peace by "enabling ordinary people to make a contribution through service to others, and in the process to enrich the opportunities for mutual international understanding."
After reading about the various countries and types of service programs available, I selected a project that involved teaching English, as I am an ESL teacher by profession and felt I could contribute my skills and experience in this area.
I chose to do my program in Italy because I have always been enamored with anything Italian, especially after visiting the country some twenty years ago. The food, the warmth of the people, the sun-kissed landscape, and the languid pace of life where time is just a suggestion beckoned me.
I was one of nine volunteers from the U.S. who came to Ostuni last July. We were six women and three men, ranging in age from twenty to seventy-eight years old, representing a variety of backgrounds, nationalities and professions. For two weeks, we lived together, worked side by side, and shared laughter, tears, and a realm of memorable experiences. It was these experiences that unified us and made us a cohesive group; strong in our desire to leave a positive impression on this Italian community.
Each of us was given a class of students to work with for the two-week session. I was told I would be teaching middle school students with an advanced beginner to intermediate level of proficiency in English. Walking into class that first day, nine pairs of eyes and a host of giggles and nervous smiles greeted me. My class was comprised of eight girls and one boy, ages thirteen to sixteen years old. Two of the girls knew no English, several were able to speak at a bare basic survival level, and two were at the low intermediate level. It was a mixed bag of abilities and ages and I knew immediately that my initial expectations were too high.
The need to be flexible and willing to adapt is an important ingredient for success as a Global Volunteer. I fortunately had brought materials that could be utilized with a wide range of levels and was able to gear them to the needs of my students.
Teaching this group was a joy and each day brought new challenges and exciting moments. It was particularly rewarding to watch my students' faces as they experienced an "aha moment," finally understanding a specific concept or how to use a newly-taught expression.
This experience went two ways, for I also learned much about the Italian culture and the hopes and dreams of its youth. We explored Ostuni together, going into the grocery stores, clothing boutiques, ice cream shops, and simply strolling the streets of the town, identifying everything by its English and Italian names. My students were full of energy and curiosity about everything American. They were also enthusiastic teachers, acting in response to my curiosities about everything Italian. The concept of hands-on learning, using an experiential approach, worked well for both the students and me.
When I was not teaching or preparing lessons, the time was mine to use as I wished. At the lovely old villa where the volunteers stayed, it was pleasant to swim in the pool or simply sit outside amid the lovely gardens. I learned to take full advantage of the mid-day rest period, a delightfully sensible practice, especially in the summer months when it's so hot. On the weekends, our group of volunteers explored the outlying areas and points of interest together.
On the last day, our classes all came together for a final performance, which was open to friends and families of the students. Each class sang a song or did a skit in English. The repertoire ranged from "Old MacDonald" to "New York, New York," complete with choreography and matching outfits.
Saying "arrivederci" to this wonderful place and its people was very difficult for both the students and Global Volunteers. Many tears were shed, addresses exchanged, and promises made to keep in touch. It was amazing how close we all had gotten in such a short time period. As I look back on these two weeks, the satisfaction I feel from this enriching experience is not in how much I gave, but in how much I received.
Being a Global Volunteer is a gift that everyone should give to themselves. For more information, call 1-800-487-1074.