Retiree Undaunted to Serve Amidst Pandemic
Minnesotan Penny Louise Flavin said that when she discovered Global Volunteers in 2019, she was looking for a way to volunteer, give back, and learn about other cultures after retiring from her career. That year, Penny Louise served in Peru and immediately planned another service program in 2020. Although the pandemic delayed her return to service until October 2021, her experience in Poland inspired her to share with others how she was prepared to return to service amidst the pandemic, and why she loves volunteering.
by Penny Louise Flavin
Finding the Right Organization to Volunteer With
In 2019, I knew I was going to retire and I knew I wanted to travel. I wondered what opportunities were available, and where I could volunteer as well as experience other cultures. I found Global Volunteers through an internet search. The organization had a positive reputation of giving back. The financial statements aligned with my passions and values. It surprised me to find its headquarters were right here in St. Paul, Minnesota. I read that Global Volunteers was an international charity focusing on international development and relief services. Reviews gave the organization 100% for accountability and transparency. I was intrigued.
My Motivation to Volunteer Abroad in 2021
Once I retired in 2019, I was volunteering and traveling both domestically and internationally during eight months of the year. I served in Peru with Global Volunteers in 2019 and had an incredible experience. In early 2020, I was on the Princess cruise ship that returned from Hawaii and floated around for an extra few days until we were permitted to land in California. Yes, I was on “that” Princess ship that was all over the news. So I was actually one of the first in the United States to be quarantined in March 2020.
When quarantines were lifted and travel opened up, I was ready to experience being out in the world again. No, I never experienced the distressing claustrophobic irritability or restlessness others were experiencing after such a prolonged isolated confinement to quarters over the past year. It was simply time to go back out in the world again and not be fearful or frightened or even limited in my coming and going by COVID-19.
I chose Poland as my first service program this year because it was on the list of countries Global Volunteers mentioned that was opening for international travel. It fit in to my schedule. My personal interest in Central Europe would be satisfied through this trip. Upon researching, I found out I would be teaching English. The students were described as eager and engaged. The promise of experiencing Poland’s extraordinary history intrigued me. I read frequently and have read of Poland’s history and the resilience of the people.
“The countries we can now volunteer in are so hungry for volunteers.”– Penny Louise Flavin
In speaking with teammates in Peru and with Directors and Volunteer Coordinators at Global Volunteers, Dorota Wierzbicka’s name came up frequently as a shining star for providing a perfect experience while serving in Poland. I’ve heard of her so much, I knew I wanted to meet her. I can say with authority that she lives up to her reputation! We had a cohesive team, much laughter, an exceptional offering of experiences, more laughter, and assistance with logistics to and from our assignments as well as during our free time. Did I mention abundant laughter? Oh boy, it was 100% a “trip of a lifetime!”
The Importance of Volunteering After the Pandemic
There has been a break, obviously, the world over. The countries we can now volunteer in are so hungry for volunteers to return. It lifts a burden off their shoulders, also. Two people lifting up another is easier than one lifting one. I believe volunteering before or after the world lockdown is vastly important for all involved. The importance of volunteering abroad after the pandemic goes both ways: I am expanding my knowledge and experiencing another culture.
My Travel Experience
Travel today is much the same as it was pre-Covid-19. The difference is added safety measures. You must be vaccinated. You cannot fly internationally and I believe domestically without a vaccination card. This is easily obtained through your primary clinician’s office or state public health department. When people received their vaccinations, they were most likely handed a card and or paperwork to complete. Every state has access to the official CDC proof of vaccination card. Travelers must wear a mask on the plane. No exceptions. Even on an extended flight, it was not insurmountable. Just do it! For yourself and fellow travelers. Both Global Volunteers and Dorota kept me updated as to the requirements for entry into Poland and our connecting flight countries. Simply following the advice provided made the travel experience a breeze. Absolutely no delays, no troubles, no questions—as smooth as pre-COVID-19. Once I landed in Warsaw, going through Customs was so easy I thought I had missed it! Dorota was standing right there at the entry point with a smile and welcoming Global Volunteers sign. “Easy-peasy,” absolutely flawless experience.
“We have had a cohesive team, much laughter, an exceptional offering of experiences, more laughter, and assistance with logistics to and from our assignments as well as during our free time. Did I mention abundant laughter? Oh boy, it was 100% a trip of a lifetime.”– Penny Louise Flavin
Preparing for my Service Program
Travel information was 100% available. As far as my actual teaching English assignment, my Volunteer Coordinator assured me: “You can do it!” She had instilled in me confidence that this was an assignment I would accomplish easily. Written materials about how to teach English were mailed to me along with the Volunteer Manual. Information about Reymontówka Manor House and the country of Poland was readily available through PDFs sent to me prior to departure.
“Both Global Volunteers and Dorota kept me updated as to the requirements for entry into Poland and our connecting flight countries. Simply following the advice provided made the travel experience a breeze. Absolutely no delays, no troubles, no questions—as smooth as pre-COVID-19. “Easy-peasy,” absolutely flawless experience.”– Poland Volunteer Penny Louise Flavin
Being Welcomed by the Community in Poland
From the moment I was collected at the airport and met my four teammates, it was pure comfort. The van ride to our accommodations was comfortable. Once at the manor house, we were greeted with a traditional welcoming ceremony of bread and salt. I encourage you to look into the history of this tradition—it is interesting. Everyone — shopkeepers, teachers, students, the governor, the mayor, the kitchen staff at Reymontówka — absolutely everyone is warm, helpful, and welcoming to our team. I traveled to Warsaw as well and had a very positive experience.
Teaching Conversational English to Polish Children and Youth
I believe my primary service agreement is to be an ambassador of the United States of America and secondly as a Global Volunteer team member. My assignment was to teach English to students from first grade to adults. I signed up for a three-week commitment. One week is certainly not enough; two weeks is comfortable, but I feel I’ve accomplished my goal with three weeks. The time flies by.
It was encouraged that we wear masks in the schools, especially in the hallway. There are copious amounts of hand sanitizer stations around the hallways. One school even had thermometers attached to the hand sanitizer stations for forehead scanning. Now that is a great idea. Did I feel safe? Absolutely!
I had an extraordinarily wonderful time and many opportunities to interact with the people of Poland. I met their county governor, local mayor, and a lot of senior citizens through clubs that have come to Reymontówka for dinners and dancing. Yes, I even danced away many evenings when I should have been resting in bed. I could not pass up the opportunity—many opportunities to experience the Polish culture through authentic interactions in these events. Young and old joined us, and music flowed from DJs, classical string quartets, a university band group, and even the radio. Our respective teachers or designated staff picked us up each morning and dropped us off each night. Door-to-door service with so much grace and thankfulness/gratitude for us being on site to help students practice and perfect their English.
How would I describe the Polish children I’ve worked with? Well, children are children the world over. These students have been mostly respectful, eager, inquisitive, grateful, and polite. They stand up when their teacher or I enter the room. We are greeted with “Good morning” or “hello”. They are quiet (mostly) and listen intently to the lesson of the day which I have prepared. The politeness of the students amazes me. From day one, we made a connection with the entire class. Of course, there are a rare few who talk to each other or try to disrupt the class, but a snap of the teacher’s fingers or a “SHHH,” and order is obtained— the timeline for that, of course, varies.
It would not be fair to single out any one student that has touched me more than another. I have had the extraordinary opportunity to teach in five different schools….over 600 students! There are a few: Olivia, Natalia, Amelia, Maya, Hubert, Claudia — I will remember well, but it is really not fair to those whose names I cannot remember to mention certain children. Barton is one young man I tutored, and he seriously was exceptional…ahead of any student I encountered. I felt I did not teach him anything. He only had the opportunity to hear a native speaker. He is a bright, polite, well-mannered young man. He will be very successful, I predict.
Daily Volunteering Schedule in Poland
First of all, there are no regular days. Flexibility is a key word and attitude when participating in events and activities that are not your home routine. That being said—up early, shower, breakfast with our entire team by 7:30 (most days). Then sharing of a Message of the Day and a journal entry by the assigned team member. Then we are picked up and driven to our respective schools or tutoring assignments. Four 45-minute classes (usually) and then home for lunch. The afternoons vary. We have prep time for the lessons we will teach tomorrow or during the week. Plenty of time is available so please, no one stress over preparing lessons! Nap time, tutoring sessions, time to take a walk or sit in the beautiful scenery on the manor house grounds. Dinner at 6:30 where sharing of our day and laughter abound, then off to the resource room to complete lesson plans, FaceTime with family or friends, chill out in your room, and in bed early because it all begins again sooner than you think!
Why I Choose Volunteering Abroad Instead of Being a Tourist
These are the reasons I choose to volunteer instead of simply being a tourist:
- Better cultural immersion — Definitely!
- It stretches me personally, emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
- It allows me an opportunity to try out new occupations…me an English teacher?
- It increases endorphins— my mood is boosted, which boosts my immunity.
- I meet new friends, not just acquaintances.
- I am able to learn or perfect new skills/see skills in a new light.
- I give back to communities and people in need.
- Resources can be spent on other areas of need.
- If I were not retired, I can see how this could be an opportunity to advance my career. It looks great on a résumé!
- It provides a sense of purpose. It opens my mind.
- It’s a short-term commitment, not a life sentence…I can change to a new assignment in two or three weeks.
There are hundreds of benefits – more than I can state here.
How I Describe My Experience to Others
Each night I have been journaling and sending my entries to Dorota, Maggie, and some 40 friends and family. I tell them:
- I am safe.
- I am well fed.
- I am happy.
- I am fulfilled.
- This has been a thrilling experience.
- I am healthy.
- I will return to Poland.
- You should explore your own volunteering opportunity and if not, then support someone who does!
“The countries we can now volunteer in are so hungry for volunteers to return. It lifts a burden off their shoulders, also. Two people lifting up another is easier than one lifting one. I believe volunteering before or after the world lockdown is vastly important for all involved.”– Penny Louise Flavin
My Advice to Others Who Are Considering Such a Volunteering Opportunity
People should first examine their WHY. The reason they want to volunteer. What are their personal goals in volunteering? Domestically or abroad? What are you passionate about? Have you volunteered in your own community/school/church, etc.? Why do you think you want to go abroad? You need to discover your personal reason for volunteering, not to just check off a box or because family and friends are persuading them to join an opportunity. Those issues are key.
Once the individual has determined they want to be involved in volunteering, they need to ask themselves “where” — domestic or abroad? What requirements do I need to fulfill before I can volunteer? Passports? Vaccines? Travel costs? Logistics? Can I afford to? Can I afford not to?
My most honest response is that the world needs YOU and YOU need the world! Do not be in a state of regret for not trying out an adventure. Have the attitude that this is an adventure.
Know, too, it is OK to say “no”. It is OK to stay home safe and secure. Volunteering is NOT for everyone. But you can sponsor someone!
For most of us, I would say:
Just do it!
Try it… You’ll like it!
I love it. ❤️
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