46. Olivia Watson

3 Mar

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It is easy to picture the typical ‘volunteer’ photo: a beaming westerner surrounded by a flock of locals eagerly competing for the camera’s attention. Though Olivia Watson has achieved an incredible amount volunteering overseas, not one of her photos mimic this image. Olivia’s volunteering experiences have been grounded as equally in an eagerness to contribute to community development as they have been in mindful awareness to do this appropriately and effectively, and not simply follow in the footsteps of other volunteers.

Olivia’s entrée into community development began with a mission trip to the Phillipines in 2012 with a group from the St. Francis Xavier parish. Her mother and 10 other mothers and children ventured off to help communities in Manila and Cebu, which Olivia describes as the catalyst for setting her off on a “path of helping other people”.

They brought with them soap, books and pencils, as well as donations which had been fundraised in Melbourne to be brought over to the local schools. Olivia warmly reminisces over her experiences interacting with the children at the local school and orphanages and becoming culturally immersed.

Each time I ask Olivia to elaborate on the most significant moments of her time in the Phillipines, her responses continually pivot around human connection. She recalls for me one of her fondest memories of the whole village coming together at a school oval. Everyone sung each others’ anthems and “forgot where they were from”. Olivia tells me, “The thing that was most enjoyable was connecting with kids our own age, but in a different environment… I admire their strength and compassion towards others”.

It wasn’t all peaches and sunshine, however. Encountering the realities of poverty became extremely “hard hitting”, particularly being witness to the conditions of the slums and being told personal stories of poverty. Integrating back into western life after being exposed to this was not easy, “It was hard to get back into the routine of knowing there was poverty over in the Phillipines… I went through a stage where I thought I wanted to close myself off from the world a little bit”. The wheels of Olivia’s volunteering had certainly been set in motion though, and these challenges did not deter her from future volunteering opportunities. In fact, that same year she was organising and transporting clothes, books and board games to Fiji where she visited with two family friends and their son for more volunteer work.

After volunteering in the Phillipines, Olivia rapidly developed an awareness of the need for ongoing support for communities after participating in poverty reduction efforts. She recalls, “It was very hard to come back to Australia and forget about everything. I knew I had to do something”. After returning, Olivia collaborated with a teacher at her school, Catholic Ladies’ College, on a fundraising project selling free range eggs to raise funds for Gentle Hands, the orphanage she had previously visited in Manila. Remarkably, herself and her teacher Joanne Notting from Catholic Ladies’ college raised $1,500 for Gentle Hands.

Determined to learn more about poverty reduction, she then set her sights on Kenya, Africa, where she participated in a cultural immersion and community development program with other students from Catholic Ladies’ College. Olivia paints a vibrant picture of the culture for me: lots of energetic singing and dancing, Kenyan rice-based dishes and traditional wooden houses with African mums referred to as ‘Mummas’. She tells me, “I had to pinch myself every day”, but still actively practiced being culturally respectful – something so many well-intentioned young volunteers overseas inadvertently disregard. In Kenya, Olivia and her classmates visited an HIV/AIDS centre for children who either had HIV or whose parents were infected, and visited the local schools.

The classrooms had blackboards, wooden desks and about 50 students to each class. Olivia affectionately casts her mind back to the local students speaking to her in Swahili, before erupting into laughter as Olivia and the other girls could only react with blank, confused faces. Olivia also tells me about the Tree of Life activity they did with the students, where everyone spoke about their families and shared their goals and dreams. I listen in shock as she informs me that herself and the other girls involved in the immersion raised over $14,000 before leaving for Kenya, which was then donated to the school for ovens to cook meals for the children and for other vital facilities. The current of maturity still running through her recollections, she tells me knowing exactly where the donations were going was a huge relief and very important to her, “Actually seeing where the money is going gives me satisfaction knowing I’m trying my best to help the people who really need it”.

In a well-deserved recognition of her achievements, Olivia received the 2012 Catholic Ladies’ College Community Service Award, presented by local councillor Steve Herbert, and also received it again in 2013.

It’s not only Olivia’s achievements that should be applauded though. It’s also her perception of what really matters in volunteering overseas which diverges from the norm as much as her photos do. Firstly, her trips overseas were not undertaken with the common assumption that she actually could contribute just because she was a volunteer. Olivia was more concerned about community members’ views on volunteering, worrying that they might have thought “Here we go again…more volunteers…we don’t need them”. She also believes commitment is vital after undertaking any volunteering, “It’s all good if you’re going over there…and taking photos with kids… but once you decide to head to a place like that you need to commit”. She offers advice for other volunteers to “Think about what you can really achieve” and commit to that, and to “Have one goal and stick to that goal… that one goal can spread out and continue to grow”.

Overall, Olivia’s approach to volunteering is grounded in one very wise motto, “You may not be able to change the world, but you can change someone’s world”. If her amazing track record so far is anything to go by, I’d say Olivia is brilliantly equipped to do just that.

Words: Stephanie Livingstone

Picture: Sean Porter

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