A Community of Kindness: Volunteering in Barcelona

After two years of a global pandemic, countless applications, and plans being reschedules, I am so pleased that I have had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2022 in Barcelona, Spain as my Beyond the Classroom Experience for the Franke Global Leadership Initiative. I currently have three weeks left of my experience, but I have learned more, experienced more, and met more people that I ever thought possible in just two months.

While in Barcelona, I have been working/volunteering for a non-profit called Fundació Enllaç, a foundation that works to help, advocate for, and create a community for the older population of adults who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This foundation holds events for those members who are looking for community, they have created a volunteer program to check in on and provide companionship for the older members, and they participate in events to raise awareness about LGBTQIA+ issues. As a member of this team, I have had the opportunity to participate in community events all around the region of Catalonia, spend time with volunteers and members of the foundation, and learn the day to day operations of a non-profit, with a specific emphasis on community outreach and social media. I have also learned the cultural norms and practices of Spanish business, as well as how to work with amazingly diverse groups of people, both with and without a language barrier. 

Through this position, I have been relating my experience back to my global theme of Technology and Society alongside my global theme which focused on how social media and upcoming technology can be used to reach populations that often go unnoticed, or who are less accessible by traditional means of social media outreach. As a foundation with a specific interest in the population of older adults, outreach can be hard, especially when many members of the LGBTQIA+ community are susceptible to higher levels of isolation and mental illness that may make it hard for them to engage in or seek out community. I spent the last year working on my GLI capstone project, “Mitigating the Damaging Effects of Covid-19 Isolation in the Elderly,” that was very similar to this theme, and helped a lot in my understanding of what goes on in the community of older adults. This experience gave me a first hand look into the importance of community and outreach within this population, as well as how hard it is to reach them, especially when Instagram, Twitter, and Tik-Tok are not known platforms that this population prefers to engage with. That being said, I am currently working on a team trying to update and invigorate the presence of this foundation to reach all members of the Barcelona community, and therefore use word of mouth to spread our mission and activities to those less reachable by technology, as well as optimize Facebook and WhatsApp as platforms that the older population is more comfortable with. 

This experience has exposed me not only to the cultural of Spain, but countless others as I find myself in a global city full of amazing people. I have had the opportunity to engage with city culture (something I am not familiar with coming from a small town in Kansas and moving to Montana), the culture of specific groups of the LGBTQIA+ community, refugees, immigrants, and people from countries across the world as well as places across the US. One of my first days here, I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting of members of Fundació Enllaç as well as a foundation that worked with LGBTQ+ youth and another that worked with refugees with the goal of creating an event to give all of these populations a chance to connect. I sat in this little conference room, looking around and it hit me just how crazy it was that I was there. I was sitting in a room with people who could not have been more different than me, listening to them talk about issues and ideas that I had never even considered in my life. This isn’t a great description, but I can still feel myself sitting there and looking at all these peoples who were from different countries than me, spoke different languages, had different genders or sexualities, people who were torn from their homes or forced to leave everything they once knew. People who had experienced things that I will never know. And they all had the vision of creating something better for those around them. They wanted to help. That was awe-inspiring to me. I have never felt more optimistic or proud to be a part of something, not only as a part of that organization but as a part of the future of our world, a part of the next generation. 

I could write for pages and pages about my experience here, but the most important thing to note is that this experienced has changed me in ways that I will be forever grateful for. I have been a part of an incredible community of kindness and hope. Being here is hard. Away from family, friends, and everything familiar. But it has been amazing, and I wouldn’t trade my experience and the people I have met for anything else. 

This is me and my coworker at a community event in a little neighborhood of Barcelona
Here’s a another picture of some of my amazingly kind, passionate coworkers/fellow volunteers
This is the view of Barcelona from Park Güell

My Time with a Local Advocacy Group

When I originally joined the Franke Global Leadership Initiative, one of my main intentions was to study abroad.  That was until I opted out last minute and settled for a local internship instead.  This internship was with MontPIRG, an advocacy group that promotes civic leadership and specializes in several social activities like engaging young voters, lobbying in the state legislature, protecting consumer rights, etc.  MontPIRG’s goals situated well with my global theme of culture and politics, and more specifically revolving around elections.  Even though uncontrollable events heavily altered the internship mid-semester, I still was able to draw plenty of skills and experiences relating to my global theme.

To explain what I have learned during my internship, here is a brief synopsis of my tumultuous time with MontPIRG.  Aside from standing outside and registering voters on campus and in downtown, I was originally tasked with event planning.  More specifically, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Festival and the Ballot Initiative Event.  Up until that turbulent week prior to spring break, I assumed the role of leader in both of those project; having to organize location, promotion, volunteers/staff, entertainment, food, and beverages.  The week after spring break saw my role change.  Because of COVID-19 concerns, both events were cancelled, and I was then put in charge of letters-to-the-editor editing and submissions.  Both responsibilities required me to step up as a leader, for which I learned that communication is key.  I needed to cooperate with members of MontPIRG to setup the events and had to respond with feedback to interns and volunteers on their letters on a consistent basis.

In terms of my global theme and challenge, I was able to grasp a better understanding on our electoral system and how to properly campaign for certain issues.  I got to work with influential state senators and representatives to make effective change in the community of Montana.  Along with that, I gained more knowledge on differing political opinions from both inside and outside the organization, which have also influenced my own personal political ideology. 

All in all, while this internship did not turn out the way I expected, I still learned plenty from this opportunity.  These skills and experiences will not only assist me for my Capstone project, but in my future endeavors in law and politics.

Out of the Classroom, Still in Missoula (and loving it)

In High School, I studied abroad in Peru for a month of the summer of 2012. The experience was breathtaking. I learned more Spanish in a single month than I ever could have in the classroom, my understanding of other cultures and the U.S. expanded and I found greater confidence in myself. I joined GLI three years ago because I wanted to study abroad again. The essence of a study abroad experience is in its challenge to understand another culture and foreign environment and so I couldn’t imagine discovering that kind of experience here in the United States, let alone Missoula. And yet, I chose to fulfill my Out of Classroom experience right here in Missoula and feel that I have learned more about the world and myself than expected. I am working with Congolese refugees relocated here last September, helping them direct their own short films under the New Neighbors Project. This month two of those refugee directed films and the feature-length documentary of the project as a whole premieres (check the New Neighbors Project Facebook page or website, newneighborsmedia.org, for details) at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival!

The experience has pushed me to grow emotionally and professionally. Working within the nuances of a different cultural mindset requires an open heart, forgiveness and patience. Working with trauma requires empathy, but clear boundaries. My technical skills have improved and I’ve gained confidence in my abilities after working with a team of established filmmakers. I feel equipped to address my global theme, Social Inequality and Human Rights, beyond the scope of the New Neighbors Project. My challenge against Social Inequality and Human Rights is to think globally and act locally. I can see the positive impact this project is having on the refugee crisis and I see positive changes for the Missoula community. I met once a week with one of the directors to talk film and help with the camera, but I also helped him develop his English, practice driving (he passed the driver’s ed test on the first try!) and explore the city and community of Missoula. In this exchange I’ve acquired the tangible skills of some Swahili and French conversation and the recipes for ugali and sweet breads. Most importantly I’ve learned how to navigate the tricky ground of mistranslated conversations, informed consent and transparency in how to admit failure and celebrate success.

I want to encourage other students to complete their Out of the Classroom experience here in Missoula. The refugees need a lot of help and resources, but the call to action has seen an increase in programs and projects (like New Neighbors) that is strengthening our community and pushing us all to grow as a support network. This project has a huge production team and works closely with multiple organizations in Missoula to provide a well-rounded support network to the refugees. I am confident that there is just as much effort put towards other global issues like Climate Change and poverty at the local level here. After all, there are more than 1,200 registered local non-profits in Missoula. The director I work most closely with told me the other day that “Missoula is my home now”. I cannot express how strongly his words affect me. I am proud of Missoula and feel strength in this community to tackle global issues, one day at a time.

Jumping into the Unknown

3 months, 90 days, 2160 hours, I got the wonderful opportunity to spend in the land of the Kiwis. The beautiful country southeast of Australia should not be overshadowed. New Zealand, the land of rugby, Lord of the Rings, beautiful beaches, bungy jumping, left-side-of-the-road driving, strong coffee, Maori Culture, etc., was my home for the summer.

The Kiwis (local people) welcome new travelers with open arms and open hearts. I interned for a non-profit organization, Recreate New Zealand, working with people with intellectual disabilities. Everyone I worked with, both participants and staff members, were the nicest people I have ever met. I become close friends with other staff members and interns. I even got to play on a soccer team for two games with a staff member (something I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do).  One staff member’s family was kind enough to host a traditional “kiwi feast”.

My Global Theme and Challenge for my time abroad focused on engaging children in physical activity to give them a healthy start to life. While the population I worked with in New Zealand would not be considered children, but rather young adults, they are just as important of a population to be teaching healthy habits. Health and nutrition were not the main focuses of most of the programs (a few programs were focused on health habits), but all the programs did incorporate it one way or another. On weekend getaways, we would plan healthy meals. We would always try to get out for some physical activity during the day as well. Everyone enjoyed walking along the beach or in the bush (forest). I have learned that health encompasses more than just physical activity, but social interaction as well. Recreate NZ focuses on creating the environment where participants can receive and participate in a fun, social environment. Many of the participants have met their best friends through Recreate NZ.

New Zealand is a well-developed country like The United States and thus extremely similar. I easily made friends with my co-workers at Recreate NZ and always went to them with questions if something about the culture confused me. Interacting with the participants really strengthened my role as a leader. Everything I did was being watched and possibly copied by the participants. I was a role model they looked up to.

As a going away present and a thank you, Recreate NZ took me and another American Intern to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. They pushed us off the bridge!! Just kidding, we jumped and were connected to harnesses. Bungee Jumping is a great representation of my experience going abroad. I was nervous all up until the final step off the edge. But, looking over over the edge, feeling all the safety equipment, and knowing everything was going to be okay, I made the jump. I’d never been abroad, let alone on the other side of the hemisphere. The whole experience was a leap of faith and brought me out of my comfort zone, but I knew everything was going to be okay. And it was more than okay. It was amazing. Just like the bungee, I would love to do it again.

I had a wonderful experience abroad and I would give anything to go back to New Zealand to work with Recreate NZ again or to just see all the wonderful friends I made. I loved learning first-hand about New Zealand and being immersed within the culture. I am forever grateful for the Franke Global Leadership Initiative for giving me the opportunity to have the most amazing experience of my life.