Volunteering Reflection - by Niamh Mawhinney.

In March 2020, having recently graduated with a degree in Politics, I found myself in the circumstance that many young people have found themselves this year. I had a passion and vision to gain experience within an international NGO but unfortunately, my placement on a livelihood project in Uganda had been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon browsing opportunities on the UN volunteering portal, I was instantly captivated when I saw Better Life Vietnam's mission. I have always had an interest in Vietnamese politics and history so I was intrigued to see how I could contribute to the lived experience of young individuals from Vietnam. During my first training meeting with the team, I could see how passionate Thinh and her team were about Better Life Vietnam. It inspired me to create engaging and fun lesson plans for the kids.

During my first session with BLV, I soon came to realize that the children also express a high level of passion for the programme. Initially, students were all at different levels in terms of speaking, listening and reading. However, they all showed an equal amount of enthusiasm to learn. At first, I was apprehensive about the dynamics of online teaching but I soon realized that the format of Google Meet and the size of the classes allows the opportunity to get to know the children's individual strengths, weaknesses and provide tailored feedback.

During our first sessions, some students would struggle to introduce themselves due to shyness, now I struggle to get them to stop talking! The students especially thrive when given creative tasks that allow them to practice English in a free speaking manner. For example, in our last session, I set them the task of writing a letter to Santa asking for Christmas presents. The answers they gave were truly thoughtful and elaborate, one student even said she would like peace in the world!

In the past eight months of volunteering with BLV, I have also come to realize how much I have personally benefited from the programme. In a year of UK lockdowns, political uncertainty and mass unemployment, I look forward to my weekly sessions with Better Life Vietnam. The positive and upbeat attitude of the kids has often provided an antidote to the chaos of 2020. The sense of companionship and support from my co-facilitators alongside the remarkable development of the children has allowed me to feel valued as a volunteer.

Although the whole experience has been undoubtedly positive, my volunteering placement has not been without its challenges. Whilst it is important to maintain a fun atmosphere, we have often encountered extra visitors such as baby brothers and sisters wondering into the session. While I appreciate the interest of the visitors, it has at times, proven to be quite distracting. Engaging student attention at the best of times is a challenge. However, it can prove impossible when there is a group of students all trying to say hello to a cute new visitor!

In summary, my experience volunteering has provided me with the opportunity to learn about myself, other cultures and the value of volunteering with local communities. I would recommend volunteering with BLV to anyone who has an inner passion to make a real difference to others. You will surprise yourself how much you can gain from an experience of offering a few hours a week of your time. Better Life Vietnam has shaped my intentions for the future and given me clarity on my vision of working for an educational NGO. I have recently been offered a position as a Volunteer Coordinator at an educational charity in London. An opportunity I would not have received without this great experience.

Thank you, Thinh, Candy and the rest of the BLV team for providing me with this opportunity and supporting me through this journey!

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