Volunteering: building community

On International Volunteer Day 2017, Australian volunteer Krissy Wilhelmsen reflects on what she learned and how she's grown as a result of international volunteering.

When I think of volunteers, I think of my parents. Since retirement, my father has been volunteering for Meals on Wheels: a valuable service that delivers nutritious hot meals to people in the community. My mother volunteers on the weekends as a phone counsellor for Lifeline, providing support to people in times of crisis. 

Volunteering is an experience I share not only with my family but also with many close friends. They volunteer their time to give back to their communities, to connect with other people, and to fight for causes they are passionate about. I think the desire to volunteer lies at the heart of what it means to be human: to connect with others, to care, and to make a meaningful contribution to society. Volunteering has given me many opportunities to feel engaged within my local community, whether it’s my hometown of Rockhampton, Queensland, or a community on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar.

Krissy Wilhelmsen_IVD2017_street stores

I have a long-held passion for wanting to help others, which is what first drew me towards becoming a physiotherapist. I also have a recurring sense of wanderlust; a curiosity about the world and a keen desire to travel and explore. I am drawn towards opportunities that I know will challenge and change me. It is for these reasons that I applied for a volunteer position as a physiotherapist at the Eden Centre for Disabled Children in Yangon, Myanmar. 

I went into the experience with an open mind and open heart, trying to listen to and observe everything around me. I was warmly welcomed into the organisation and took my time getting to know my physiotherapy colleagues, as well as all of the other wonderful staff that worked at the Eden centre.

Krissy Wilhelmsen_IVD2017_Eden Centre

Life around me was very different to anything I had experienced before. My daily commute to work was a multi-sensory experience. I remember the smells of incense burning away in shrines, curries being cooked in street-side stalls, and polite greetings from a line of Buddhist nuns, covered in bright pink and orange robes, passing by me on their way to collect morning donations.

Eden Centre for Disabled Children itself was founded on volunteering and a strong desire to care for others. The organisation’s founders U Hta Uke and Daw Lillian Gyi were extremely passionate about ensuring children with disabilities enjoy equal opportunities in communities free of discrimination, and dominated by love. They volunteered their time and energy to start the organisation (the first of its kind in Yangon) and provided physiotherapy and special education to children and families. They challenged community perceptions about disability. The Eden Centre has grown, and now supports a variety of programs, from community outreach and early intervention programs, through to supporting people living with disabilities to advocate in front of parliamentarians for their rights to education and employment. 

Krissy Wilhelmsen_IVD2017_Eden Centre staff

I was quickly inspired by everyone I met at the Eden Centre, and felt so thankful to have been given the opportunity to travel halfway across the world. I was able to exist in a world so unlike the one I grew up in. Many of my colleagues travelled two hours or more on crowded buses and trains to come to work, and they loved working with the children. The inspiration my colleagues provided was matched only by the children and their families. 

One boy I met was thirteen years old the first time he came to the Eden Centre. He grew up in a small village and while he was very much loved by his family and community, he had no opportunities to go to school, and limited ability to leave his house as he needed to use a wheelchair for mobility, which he didn’t have. His family moved close to the Eden Centre so that he could attend school for the very first time. It was the first time he’d had friends his own age, and the first time he’d been able to use a wheelchair to access his community. He, and many other children like him, may never have had access to these opportunities if it wasn’t for the tireless work and dedication of the people I now call my colleagues, friends and mentors. When you come in contact with the Eden Centre, you become a part of their family, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to find this kind-hearted and compassionate family. They have inspired me to keep finding opportunities to grow and challenge myself, and to fight for and promote equal opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Krissy’s volunteer assignment was part of the Australian Volunteers program, an Australian Government initiative. In 2018, Krissy will undertake her third volunteer assignment, as a physiotherapist for the Ann Harding Cheshire Home in South Africa.