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My Semester Off: Volunteering in Guatemala and Cambodia (PHOTOS)

Posted: 08/26/10 03:51 PM ET

YouthGive contributing writer Nate Parish shares his story from travels in Guatemala and Cambodia

After attending my first semester of college last fall at St. Louis University in Madrid, Spain, I realized that I was not fulfilling the reasons why I wanted to go to college. In fact, I recognized that I wasn't quite sure what those reasons were any more.

College is supposed to be a place where there is a balance between working hard at one's studies and enjoying a fun social life. Unfortunately I could not find the right balance at my school. Everyone around me was always out at a bar and not even worried about school. I got wrapped up in this situation. When I received my transcript and saw that even though I was not working as hard as I could and still getting A's, I decided it was time for a change. I was not going to be paying all this money to just party in Spain for four years, even though that would have been fun.

My parents were worried that I would waste my time off, but there are many ways to make a break from schooling more productive than a semester in college. I decided to combine my love of travel with volunteering.

I started my journey by taking a week-long trip with my mother and a group of two surgeons and three doctors traveling down to Guatemala. I learned that these trips are vital as the largest health care providers in Guatemala are Christian groups from America who come down and offer free or extremely inexpensive medical care. Our group was focused on doing simple surgeries like fixing hernias and cleft lips. It was all fascinating. Not only did this experience give me a passion for medicine, and specifically surgery, but I got to see just how hard these people's lives are, and that my small contribution of time made a huge difference in their lives.

During one surgery, the doctor let me scrub in to assist him with tying the tubes of a forty-five year old woman who already had ten children and didn't want any more. As we finished, the doctor told me to switch places with him and handed me the clamp and needle. As he instructed me, I began sewing up the gaping hole in this woman's stomach. I had never done anything like it in my life, and at that moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor (see photos below).

Even though sewing up the incision was the coolest thing I have ever done, it was nothing compared to the gratitude this woman showed me when she woke up. She didn't speak English or Spanish, but while I sat and fed her soup, she gave me the biggest smile I have ever seen and a huge hug. My mom was watching and her eyes started to tear-up. Luckily I was able to hold myself together.

I returned home to San Francisco for some time to relax, but I missed that sense of accomplishment like I had in Guatemala. When my friend Matt invited me to Cambodia to volunteer with the Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), I bought my tickets the next day and two weeks later met him in Asia.

CCF is an organization started by Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood executive who dropped his career and moved to Cambodia after witnessing the lives of the children living on the trash dumps in Phnom Penh. To learn more about Scott and the CCF, check out Matt's article or their website.

Our volunteering was focused on teaching English and working in the daycare center with the younger kids. Each day was harder than the one before it, but also more rewarding. We would start teaching by 7:30 a.m. and not get back to our hotel till 8:00 p.m., feeling tired and accomplished. I would teach four hour-long English classes to kids between the ages of 9-16. I played games and taught them the sounds of the alphabet. They absolutely loved any learning activity that involved laughing and high energy.

One day during lunch I was talking with Scott Neeson when one of the girls ran up and jumped into my lap. Scott leaned over to me and quietly said, "This girl was raped by her father." I was stunned and my heart broke for this poor little girl who wasn't more than twelve or thirteen. The pain in this child's life is unimaginable, and I felt so bad for her. I had been teaching her and seen her happily playing with the other girls. If Scott hadn't said anything, I would've thought that this girl had come from a loving family. It was then that I understood the importance of CCF. It takes kids out of their traumatic childhood situations and gives them the support system that every child deserves.

While we got more tired as our volunteer days progressed, the kids got more and more comfortable with us. Each time we arrived at a facility, more kids than the day before would be there to greet us with huge smiles, hugs, and even letters saying, "I want to set you as my brother." These heartfelt signs of affection were the source of energy that Matt and I used to finish the two weeks of volunteering.

We could see that by just showing up everyday we were changing these kids' lives. For the older kids we were two strange but extremely fun and playful teachers, and for the little kids we were two play structures that they could jump all over. But most of all, just showing them a little affection makes all the difference. I have never worked harder than in those two weeks, but I have never felt more fulfilled either.

Volunteering overseas enables you to see the true culture and people of the countries you are visiting. On most vacations, families might travel to developing countries, but they are not able to see how the majority of the country is actually living, and unfortunately might get an unrealistic idea of what the country is really like.

Global volunteering is so important because you really get to experience people in their daily life. You make human connections that can last a lifetime. I am still emailing with students each week so that when I return to Cambodia these wonderful young people will still know me as the fun-loving teacher they had back in 2010.

My service time in Guatemala and Cambodia gave me a learning experience that I never could have imagined getting at college. I can now take the lessons I have learned from these two experiences and implement them into my life as I start my first semester at Colorado College this fall.

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