Nine-time Global Volunteers alumni Linda Roberts says from an early age, the concept of the Peace Corps inspired her. As she neared retirement, she sought out similar programs with a shorter time commitments. Global Volunteer’s policy of inclusivity encouraged her to inquire how she might share her skills with similarly inclusive partner communities who need support. Eight years later, she reflects on her volunteer service journeys and our accommodations she’s appreciated for transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) people along the way.
By Linda Roberts
For my first Global Volunteers service program in 2015 to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, I had no misgivings about volunteering as a transgender woman. I had been to Montana previously on business, and found it a beautiful state to visit. Serving there would fulfill my desire to learn more about Native American history and the present-day community.
At that time, I had not yet fully transitioned socially, but wanted to be registered and treated as a female. Global Volunteers accommodated my request, although they had a little concern with my safety. But, it was not a concern of mine nor did any situation arise that made me or others uncomfortable. Both my teammates and the community received me with open arms. At one point, the other women on my team inquired about my journey, and I was pleased to share it. At the end of the week, one teammate bestowed me with the name “Woman of Great Courage” to signify our shared understanding.
Since that first journey in service, I have never encountered any threats or bias on any of my trips. I have felt very safe wherever I have volunteered. The most difficult aspect of volunteering as a trans women has been just adapting to the sleeping/dressing environments – but all has gone very smoothly on my Global Volunteers program. As far as changing my routine, I generally arise early to shower/dress to avoid any awkward situations with the other women. I have done that on all of my trips. I do choose single accommodations whenever they are offered.
When I first meet my teammates I don’t necessarily discuss my gender identity. But usually it comes up in conversation during the week and I don’t hesitate to share my journey. For those who serve with me or other transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) volunteers, my advice is that you merely accept us for who we are and feel free to communicate if there is any discomfort so that we can be sensitive to that.
Over the years, volunteering has added purpose to my life. For instance, for my first service program on the Blackfeet Reservation, I helped out at a summer program involving physical and educational activities and the Blackfeet Care Center (nursing home). There, I chatted and played games with the residents and organized the activity room. I knew very soon that I would enjoy more experiences, and that has inspired me to continue serving and seeing more of the world.
For my second Global Volunteers program in 2016, I served in Sancti Spiritu, Cuba because I was intrigued by Cuban history and relationship with the USA. During orientation, we were asked to speak to our initial experience there, and I presented that “I see the world through a lens that few others do.”
I continue to volunteer annually for a sense of purpose, to learn new experiences and cultures, and to promote visibility for my TGD community. While I prefer labor-type work such as gardening and landscaping, I’ve had a good experience practicing English with college students and other adults in Cuba. This year, I will be going back to Cuba – this time to the town of Ciego de Avila – and expect to participate in gardening work and English conversation with the local people. I will also be joining the new program in Puerto Rico – again doing light labor, providing psycho-social support and possibly helping with grant writing.
Other of many “best moments” on my trips include:
- In Costa Rica, I was asked to present a class on Transgender 101 to a group of 12th graders as well as my fellow volunteers. With only a few hours to put together an outline, the 90-minute class was both challenging and rewarding for me – and well-received by the students and teachers.
- In St. Lucia, we prepared a total of nearly 100 container gardens for the local community. It was hard work, but the gratitude of the local people made it all worthwhile.
- In the Cook Islands, I prepared the accounting books for two full years for the non-profit organization Women and Girls with Disabilities so that they could be audited and apply for continuing grant monies.
- In Cuba, I served with a Global Volunteers group of 20 college kids from the University of Central Missouri. It was really fun and rewarding to work and play with these young people.
I think Global Volunteers is a safe choice for TGD volunteers because the organization is sensitive to our community, and accommodates our needs as best they can. I encourage other TGD people to serve – it will not only expand our visibility, but it will increase your cultural awareness and sense of purpose in life. While I’ve met other members of the LGBTQ community on my programs, sadly I have not met any other TGD individuals. I don’t know to what to attribute this, other than we are small in numbers and perhaps others don’t have the financial ability or comfort level to solely represent our community. I’ve urged Global Volunteers not to limit the opportunities to serve based on the culture or social justice policies of any country, but to enable TGD persons to decide for themselves if they wish to volunteer – knowing the potential challenges that they might face. I’m pleased to have the opportunity through Global Volunteers to speak to potential volunteers personally about my experiences and encourage them to serve.
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