Monday, 24 February 2014

YMCA Conversation Series: Overseas Community Service – Boon or Bane?

Students from NUS, NTU and SMU, and subject matter experts from various stakeholders explored the topic “Overseas Community Service – Boon or Bane” at the 3rd edition of the YMCA Conversation Series held at the YMCA of Singapore on Saturday, 22 February 2014

The student participants began the event with a discussion on the merits and flaws of overseas community service. Amongst the points raised in support of overseas community projects were: overseas community service helps disadvantaged communities, develops volunteers’ characters and sparks passion for sustained community service.

Ms Ang Ke Qin, who has served in three overseas community projects in South-east Asia, two with YMCA of Singapore, says that besides finding fulfilment in being able to help the less-privileged, she has also benefitted personally from the trips

“I have learnt soft skills, such as team work, leadership skills as well as enhanced my character development,” says Ms Ang, a final year undergraduate at NTU.

Mr Andrew Leo, Assistant General Manager for Programmes at YMCA says that overseas community service not only benefits the hosts, but also the volunteers as well.

“Through helping others in less-developed areas, volunteers are brought out of their comfort zone and learn from the community even as they serve,” says Mr Leo, a panellist at the event. “It is a form of service learning. These overseas community service programmes are values-in-action (VIA) platforms that enable volunteers to demonstrate the positive values they have learnt.”

YMCA organises overseas community service programmes on a regular basis to countries including Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Through the YMCA International Service Programmes, YMCA mobilises teams of volunteers to conduct various activities to enrich and improve the lives of the beneficiaries, including teaching basic English and computer skills, conducting health education and helping with refurbishment works to upgrade the local educational facilities.

Mr Leo further adds that through overseas community service, YMCA hopes to inculcate the values of “compassion, servant leadership, honesty, accountability, respect and excellence” and develop youths into responsible community champions who bring cheer to the less privileged.

However, the enthusiasm for overseas community service was not shared by all. Dr Sin Harng Luh, an assistant professor from the Department of Geography at NUS, warned that if not planned carefully, these development projects may not benefit the hosts.

“Overseas community service can bring disruptions rather than solutions when hosts' opinions and needs are not consulted, and when we go into communities with our own assumptions about what helps or not - and these may not be at all relevant to the hosts we meet in overseas community service,” explains Dr Sin, who has been researching on voluntourism for the past 10 years.

She further elaborated that organisers of overseas community service projects have to be wary of other pitfalls as well. “Some volunteers may be culturally insensitive to the hosts and this can cause a huge problem on the ground.

Mr Leo acknowledges Dr Sin’s concerns and shared that YMCA utilises a rigorous approach to developing long-term sustainable overseas community service projects.

“We work closely with the local YMCAs of other countries to identify the specific needs of the hosts and develop structured programmes to meet these needs,” elaborates Mr Leo. “For example, in Cambodia, we developed a sustained and structured programme to teach English to Cambodian children in villages near the outskirts of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. We send 8 to 10 teams of volunteers to serve the same group of beneficiaries every year to implement this programme.”

“Also, besides being briefed prior to the trip especially on the right perspectives on serving abroad, our volunteers will also have to do their own preparations on the programmes that they will be executing,” says Mr Leo. “Overseas community service can be an impactful platform to develop passion and interest in volunteering amongst youth.”

Ke Qin agrees that overseas community service may inspire volunteers to further contribute. She says, “I signed up for my first overseas community service trip because I was inspired by my college seniors who have been to such trips and came back to share their meaningful experiences. Following my own experience of touching the lives of the less-privileged overseas, I developed the passion to volunteer more frequently and have continued serving locally with YMCA and participated in activities such as Y Outings and Y Camp Challenge where I had the opportunity to take on leadership roles such as Camp Commander. To me, these experiences have been fulfilling and meaningful.”

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