April 16, 2015 – AFS has been a volunteer-driven organization for nearly 70 years. Volunteerism is at the core of our philosophy, and our incredible network of 40,000 volunteers worldwide are crucial to achieving the AFS mission of promoting global competency through intercultural learning.
Over 4,000 of those volunteers reside in the U.S., working to support students, host families and educators in their global education journeys. So, during National Volunteer Week, which is being celebrated in the U.S. between April 12-18, we’re taking time to thank our dedicated volunteers, and to highlight some of their outstanding achievements. The following volunteer success stories reflect just a fraction of the powerful contributions being made by AFS-USA volunteers around the country each day.
Success Story #1
Growing Cultural Awareness at Home
Featured Volunteer: Carolyn Hart, AFS Greater Puget Sound Area Team
Carolyn Hart is someone who leads by doing. Since 2009, she has helped encourage cultural exploration and acceptance in her local community by hosting AFS exchange students in her home from Norway and the Republic Georgia. These students each spent a full academic year in the U.S. living with Carolyn, attending a local high school and participating in all aspects of community life. Carolyn has also done short-term hosting stints for AFS students from Denmark and Bahrain, in addition to welcoming into her home dozens of other foreign citizens participating in various exchange programs.
Most recently, however, Carolyn signed on as a Volunteer Liaison for AFS exchange students hosted in her area. Liaisons play a vital role in helping AFS students from abroad embrace life in the U.S. As the first line of support for students and host families, they help ease the adjustment process and ensure that both parties make the most out of their time together.
The impact of Carolyn’s work can be seen through the positive experiences being had by the students in her charge – students like Aizhan Myrzabek kyzy from Kyrgyzstan, who is a recipient of the U.S. State Department-funded Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) scholarship. Aizhan was recently nominated as FLEX student of the month for her exemplary attitude and sense of adventure. In just 8 short months, she has forged an incredible, lasting bond with her host family (her host sister will be visiting her in Kyrgyzstan this summer) and immersed herself fully into her new surroundings. Described as “upbeat and cheerful,” she’s seized every opportunity to take part in U.S. life, from school sports to clubs to exploring new hobbies like photography.
With Carolyn’s help, Aizhan has also discovered her own passion for giving back. “Volunteering is a completely new term in Kyrgyzstan,” said Aizhan, after she helped sort trash at a local fair at Carolyn’s encouragement – her first experience with community service.
“The fact that people just patiently stand and sort their banana peels and coffee cups… [it] honestly impressed me,” says Aizhan. “I think that was the moment when I wanted to learn more about volunteering; not only as a way to help the society and people, but also [to] learn American culture.”
True to her word, Aizhan requested Carolyn’s help to continue giving back. “I was thrilled when she asked for all the volunteer opportunities she could find,” says Carolyn.
Through her multiple affiliations with AFS – as both a host parent and a liaison – Carolyn Hart embodies the kind of “can do” spirit that makes volunteers such an asset to society. A true volunteer does good where good is needed; And like many AFS Volunteers, Carolyn proudly wears multiple hats in support of the cause she believes in.
Success Story #2
Increasing Diversity in Study Abroad
Featured Volunteer: Sarah Straub, AFS Texas Gulf Coast Area Team
Sarah Straub is a 9th grade teacher at YES Prep High School in Houston who believes that international experience is an essential component of secondary education. She believes that all students should have access to study abroad opportunities, regardless of economic background, and she’s committed to making that happen.
In the summer of 2014, with the help of AFS-USA, she organized a two-week, immersive study abroad experience for 10 of YES Prep students. Determined to make the program feasible for her students, who come from diverse backgrounds, Sarah worked with AFS-USA Staff to select a destination and an itinerary that were affordable, but still fulfilled the students’ academic needs and interests.
“I had previously worked with another student travel group that did not offer prices that were accessible for the student demographic I currently teach…It was such a rewarding experience for those students that I wanted my low-income students to have the same,” says Sarah.
Together, Sarah and her students traveled to Colombia on an AFS Group Program, where they practiced their Spanish language skills, learned about Colombian dance and culture, and volunteered at a local elementary school. After just two weeks in the new cultural environment, Sarah’s students came back changed for the better, even experiencing “reverse culture shock.”
“International experiences allow students to completely leave their comfort zone,” says Sarah. “I am always so excited by the fresh perspectives that these students bring back to their peers.”
Like so many devoted AFS-USA Volunteers, Sarah remains committed to her goal of helping students from all backgrounds gain global competency. This summer, she’s taking a second group of students on an AFS Group Program to Panama. She also actively promotes AFS-USA’s Faces of America diversity scholarships among students to help increase study abroad participation among students from low-income communities.