Volunteering at Marist Asia Foundation (MAF) has been a life changing experience.
I think most people say that about mission work, but I’m really not sure whether the experience has been more beneficial for me or for the students!
Coming from a developed, clean, well-off, temperate country like New Zealand, to a hot, dusty, poor, developing section of the world was the most dramatic change of environment I have ever experienced.
Learning to live in these conditions made me appreciate where I was born and now live; furthermore, the struggle of adapting to the environment, society, and culture also made me empathise with those who have lived this way their entire lives — especially those who do not have the option to leave.
The environment and situation in Ranong certainly contributed to the inspiration I experienced while teaching at MAF. What makes it so inspiring for me is how normal the school is.
When you are in the classroom, it is like any other. The students make you laugh, smile, and at times want to pull your hair out but they mainly make you proud.
What is extraordinary is the challenges and obstacles that every single student and their family have overcome to gain what is for them a luxury: education.
Not only was I having to adjust to a new country and climate, but I came to the school with no teaching qualifications or experience; this meant a real steep learning curve in the classroom!
One of my favourite things to hear was Fr. Frank’s catch phrase: “No judgement, only encouragement.” I quickly developed a new respect for my teachers and was even a little guilty at the thought of the student I once was for them!
The kids at MAF were great though and they always made me smile. They were always trying to do their best for the teacher and they really cared about the way they are affecting you.
I truly loved every one of them. I remember the students telling me near the end of the school year, “Teacher, you are so cute because even when you tell us off for talking, you always smile straight after.” Clearly not a very effective disciplining tool but they really did always make me smile!
Perhaps because of my lack of teaching skills, the experience I found most enjoyable while volunteering was visiting the HIV patients out in the community with the Health Team. This was really an experience of going out to the people in the most need, visiting them where they were and helping to give them their life back.
Through conversations and observing the work of the Health Team, I really understood the unconditional love and care of Christ working through our team for these patients – even though I only visited a couple of times.
Seeing also the gratitude, love, and generosity shining through the gaunt, tired, and pained faces of patients was a strength and gift which I had never seen and will never forget.
I have learnt how to work hard and to be uncomfortable, also of the strength and unbelievable positivity of those whose situations are dire, and have learnt about real poverty and come to realise how blessed we are in New Zealand.
I hope to take the heart of the Marist Fathers, and those in the MAF community, back with me to New Zealand so that I can continue to do all I can to help those who are in most need of our help, and to bring joy to those who seem to have no reason to be joyful.