Students embrace volunteering as a way of life

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Devin Byrne (left) and co-worker Douglas Lally (right) pose with a Mongolian family. Photo courtesy of Devin Byrne.

Volunteering is giving up your own time to help other people. That is how Alex Wilson, a fourth-year at the University of Maine, describes volunteering. For Wilson, seeing other people smile is one single reason to volunteer.

People choose to volunteer for many of reasons. Some feel obliged to give back to the community, while others want to develop new skills and gain knowledge. Regardless of the reasons, what unites volunteers from all over the world are efforts to positively impact people around them. There are hundreds of UMaine students who travel across the world and the U.S. to fulfill that goal.

Wilson has been part of Alternative Breaks (AB) since her sophomore year. AB is a non-profit, volunteer, student-led organization that promotes community involvement. UMaine students spend a week of their vacations in service to others. During her first year in AB, Wilson traveled to New York City to volunteer at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center. With her group, Wilson spent a week interacting with HIV and AIDS patients. In her second year at AB, Wilson travelled to Lignum, VA, to work with abused and neglected children. Wilson worked on a talent show with children, helped them with gardening, built a gazebo and more.

“Volunteering makes you realize how many social issues there are in the world,” Wilson said.

After graduating high school in 2013, Devin Byrne did not plan to go to college. It wasn’t until he travelled to Mongolia that he decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology.

Byrne, a second-year at UMaine, volunteered in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city and also the coldest capital in the world.

“Between the two years I had off, I’ve been working a lot of labor,” Byrne shared. “In Mongolia, I was inspired by zoologists, environmentalists and ecologists. I was interested and passionate about ecology, and a degree in that would open up more doors, while still allowing me to travel and leave a positive impact,” Byrne added.

In January 2015, Byrne embarked on a journey to Mongolia as a volunteer of the Mongolian Bankhar Project. The goal of this non-profit, non-governmental organization is to reinstitute the bankhar dog as a livestock protection dog for the nomadic people of Mongolia. Bankhar dogs can be found in Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakhstan, China, Siberia and other parts of Central Asia. These dogs have been companions and guardians of nomadic people’s livestock, protecting them from wolves and snow leopards for centuries.

“I was completely blown away,” Byrne said about his first impression of Mongolia. “It’s nothing like I’d seen before.”

Not only is Mongolia the most sparsely populated country in the world, Ulaanbaatar is also one of the world’s most polluted cities.

“Which is part of the reason why I was attracted to Mongolia. That’s more interesting to me than a tropical beach,” Byrne added.

During his time in Mongolia, Byrne searched for, trained and took care of bankhar dogs; he also interacted with Mongolian families and embraced the Mongolian culture. As nomadic people, Mongolians get their food directly from their livestock. Byrne got to try animal intestines, as well as help cook traditional dishes for Mongolian lunar new year called Tsagaan Sar.

“I am really glad I took time off. It [volunteering] really inspired me. People are friendly everywhere, even if they don’t speak the same language. They laugh at you, and put a smile on your face,” Byrne shared.

When things would go awry for Byrne, such as his truck breaking down in the middle of the countryside, that was the most exciting time for him.

“You meet the most interesting people and find hospitality and generosity when the environment you’re in is unfriendly toward you.”

Byrne returned to Mongolia this summer to see the progress of his work there.

This past spring semester, third-year student Stephanie McAvoy studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain. Along with taking classes, McAvoy volunteered as an English language instructor at a local primary school. Once a week, McAvoy taught English to second grade students through interactive games and videos.

“It was a very shocking experience, in a sense that their teaching style is completely different than it is in America,” McAvoy shared. “Kids are very well behaved, they all listen, and teachers are very stern. I was in awe of the whole situation.”

McAvoy decided to volunteer because she wanted to make the most of her time in Spain.

“That’s the kind of a person I am. I was intrigued to do it, because I wanted to learn more about the culture and get a better understanding of the locals. When is the next time I’m going to be in Sevilla, Spain teaching English to second graders?”

“I would absolutely recommend it [volunteering],” Byrne shared. “It will change your perspective, and open your view of what’s out there in the world. If you’re given the opportunity to volunteer, you have the opportunity that not everyone gets to experience, so take advantage of that.”

If you would like to volunteer, but can’t commit your time or finances to travel abroad, there are plenty of ways you can volunteer in your own community. The Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism is right here on campus. Every week, they plan community service projects where you can volunteer. For more information, please visit their website or call the Bodwell Center at 207-581-3091.

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