Celebrating the Spirit of Volunteerism through the International Visitor Leadership Program

Posted by Carey Rudell
April 5, 2016
A Participant in the 2016 Volunteerism IVLP Program Engages with Young Students at a Local School in the United States. [State Department Photo]

This March, emerging civic leaders from Algeria, Bahrain, Botswana, Bulgaria, Jordan, Nepal, Nigeria, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Vietnam traveled to the United States to participate in a three-week International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) entitled “Volunteerism in the United States: Civic Leadership in Action,” designed and implemented by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational Affairs and program partner World Learning. Throughout their exchange, participants explored strategies to spread the spirit of social responsibility, recruit and manage volunteers, and examine the impact of volunteerism in U.S. communities. After spending a few days in Washington, D.C. they traveled up the East Coast to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and on to Rochester, New York. The group then split to visit Pensacola, Florida and Little Rock, Arkansas, before reuniting in Denver, Colorado to reflect on their experience and conclude their exchange.

In Philadelphia, the focus was philanthropy. Saxby’s Coffee CEO Nick Bayer shared his views on corporate responsibility and how companies can support employee contributions to the community. The group then met with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia. They left the “City of Brotherly Love” with new contacts and potential collaborations with local residents -– a commitment to assist with business management training for young leaders in Nigeria, ideas for incorporating service into education in the Palestinian Territories, and even an online dinosaur curriculum for youth centers in Bahrain.

Participants from 2016 Volunteerism IVLP program pose next to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, PA [State Department Photo].

Rochester’s multigenerational volunteerism fascinated the participants, who are passionate about finding new and creative ways to empower people of all ages to be more civically engaged. They visited a high school that incorporates community service into its curriculum and heard students’ experiences tutoring, visiting retirement homes, and volunteering with the Special Olympics. At Lifespan of Greater Rochester, they learned about its Retired Senior Volunteer Program. For many, enlisting seniors was a novel idea. Participants vowed to introduce the concept at home by reinvigorating retirees  to put their valuable life experience and skills to work for the community. “I am now thinking of how to get our grandparents involved in volunteerism,” one visitor commented.

Little Rock received rave reviews from the visitors, who were delighted by the warm welcome and hospitality they received and the “Arkansas Traveler” certificates, signed by Governor Asa Hutchinson and Secretary of State Mark Martin, presented to them. They served food to the homeless, where they enjoyed talking to the clients and learning more about their lives. Organizers of Little Rock’s annual Riverfest shared event planning ideas and their experience that festivals are a great opportunity to recruit volunteers, fundraise, and engage diverse society groups. The participants learned about the city’s history of segregation, and were impressed to meet advocates for equal opportunity and engage in an open discussion on the city’s challenges. While visiting Little Rock Central High School National Historic Visitor Center they met a 10-year-old volunteer, Jacob, who started volunteering there a year earlier to learn more about his personal history.

In Pensacola, the group kicked off their visit at the mayor’s office and city council, where the participants were named honorary citizens of Pensacola. A highlight of their schedule was an interfaith roundtable which brought Baptist, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, and Methodist religious leaders together to discuss the integration of volunteering and service in faith-based communities. Along with their professional meetings, the group drew inspiration from their interactions with ordinary Americans and the community’s natural beauty. The Pensacola News Journal published an article on the Algerian participant’s memory of his Pensacola stay as, “the best experience I have ever had.” 

The group ended their exchange experience in Denver, where they looked at innovation in social responsibility, shared ideas on volunteerism management, and attended local program partner WorldDenver’s annual volunteer appreciation party, a best practice for volunteer recognition. At Blue Star Recyclers they discovered a replicable social enterprise which is recycling electronics, employing skilled people with autism, and facilitating refurbishment of computers for the nearby low income community. Many visitors were already familiar with the empowerment model at Girls Inc., but the appointment left them with new ideas for increasing young girls’ participation and recruiting volunteers from local companies. At the Colorado AmeriCorps office, the group brainstormed ideas on effective volunteer administration. 

What most impressed our participants about their U.S. experience was the warm welcome and tolerance they found at every turn. One visitor was amazed at the level of diversity, acceptance, and respect for others in the United States. Another participant was pleasantly surprised to see women wearing the hijab, confidently traveling and working. Others were impressed to see people of different faiths collaborating to improve their communities. They praised their home hospitality dinners, an IVLP tradition, where they shared food, travel experiences, and cultural gifts with their hosts.

This group of civic leaders returned to their home countries exhausted, inspired, and with a better understanding of American volunteerism, culture, and diversity. I concluded the project invigorated and grateful to have met these powerful changemakers who will use these volunteerism best practices in their work in education, journalism, NGO capacity-building, transportation safety, and youth leadership and conflict mediation. 

About the Author: Carey Rudell is a Foreign Service Officer serving in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) as a Program Officer in the Office of International Visitors.

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