“Challenge yourself to change your world” – It might sound cheesy but that’s exactly what it’s all about and it’s all worth it.
I’d done a lot of smaller charity projects before, but Balloon offered such a wide range of experience and the chance to take on total responsibility.
I wanted to take real action and see a worthwhile project through from beginning to end. At the beginning of this year I set myself the challenge of focusing on being an active citizen. I spent my summer working as a community facilitator for National Citizen Service, so ICS seemed like the logical next step in my plan.
It was challenging in ways I didn’t expect. I’m leaving with a real sense of achievement and a whole new perspective on the world and myself. Working for Balloon really pushes you to get creative; from that I have picked up so many new skills that I can use in achieving my goals. No matter what the future holds for me, I feel that I have new-found adaptability and strength to take on a whole lot more than I ever thought I could. From the skills, experience and outlook that I now have, I know that I can and will have a career that makes a positive and meaningful impact on society.
“Seek passion and patience in equal measures. Patience alone won’t build the temple, passion alone will destroy its walls” Maya Angelou
On my third day in Kenya, my balloon was almost burst. Always keen to get involved in a challenge, I took on the slackline that another volunteer had tied up between two trees, a mere 2 foot above the ground. Minutes after, I slipped with an almighty thud and looked down to see my foot was jaunted away from my leg at an ungodly 45 degrees. We hadn’t even got to our host homes yet. The first time I properly meet Agatha, the project coordinator for Nakuru, and I’m gripping her hand on a hospital bed as my face contorts in more strange angles than my dislocated ankle.
It wasn’t exactly how I pictured the beginning of the opportunity that I’d worked so hard to build myself up to and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel as though the odds were stacking against me before things had even begun. The team signed my cast with well wishes and, from the in-country volunteers, I learned one of my first Swahili phrases that I was to be hearing from new acquaintances and strangers alike for the rest of my time in a cast: “Utapona”… “You will be fine”.
And I was fine. I surely wasn’t expecting to have to get around the uneven side streets with a plastered foot breaking my stride when I got out here, but I challenged myself to become an expert on crutches and hobbled my way to every meeting. Team Victorious (my working group, named after our ICV member Victor) developed an unconscious routine of reaching out their hands to help me leap across every ditch and navigate each bump in the road to get us where we needed to be to get the work done. Unexpected kindness also came my way from my fabulous host sister, Leticia, who helped me go about my other daily chores.
Fast forward to the day before mid-placement review (MPR) and the crutches were gone but I would not have told you I was fine. Before I left the UK for my placement, I had anticipated challenges but naively expected my experience in leadership, independent business and community projects would mean I’d be in control during the ICSE program. I’d come here with a purpose to see the world from a whole new perspective and that motivation was still there but for the past few days it had felt like progress was going so much slower than it should be and I was worried I hadn’t done enough. I’d read case studies on the blog, listened eagerly during training and plotted out the timeline of the program in my notebook. I’d done everything to plan in some of the projects that I was working on with entrepreneurs and almost nothing was taking off in the way I had expected. I was never going to help emulate the stellar business achievements of previous Balloon entrepreneurs I’d read about.
My team leader, Rachel, had written “Best foot forward” on my cast, but I felt that I’d gotten off on the wrong foot. My balloon wasn’t completely burst, but I sure was feeling deflated. Rachel advised me to just take each day as it came and to celebrate achievements one by one and welcome the lessons as they presented themselves. I was frustrated. I’d expected her to offer leadership in the way of advice for the next steps but the Balloon way is to prompt volunteers to look inside themselves for the answers.
Volunteers reflecting on their life stories before sharing
MPR rolled around the next day and I’d been so focussed on work I hadn’t had much time to build expectations about what could be in store for the 3 days ahead. The wonderful MPR committee designed the weekend as a chance for us all to relax and reconnect with ourselves in a breath-taking setting at Lake Baringo.
I’d been asked to facilitate the first reflection activity, in which each of the volunteers had an opportunity to share the important parts of their life stories so far. Listening to and reflecting on the unexpected twists and turns in my diverse team mates’ journeys, the things that made them who they were and ultimately brought us together, was such a privilege. As the sun set, so was the tone of the weekend: respect and reflection amongst all the group …and a whole lot of fun. The sun shone all weekend and it was one of the best I’ve ever had. We took boats across hippo habitats to Giraffe Island, saw a monkey experience an existential breakdown when we showed it its reflection and danced around a campfire into the night.
With so much experience to share, timing didn’t go as the committee had planned but what I got out of the activities that did go ahead was so valuable. As I listened to what my team mates had to say about how they felt about the experience, encouraged by the facilitators to focus on the positives of what we’d learned, I found myself letting go of the frustrations. Equipped with renewed faith in myself and inspiration from the whole team, I told myself to let go of expectations.
I was able to see how all the hard work so far had paid off and how we could move forward with what we had, reshuffling plans and coming up with new ideas where we needed to. I reminded myself that here in Kenya, people often turn to entrepreneurship not because they are born visionaries, but because the economy offered them little choice to support the lives they want for themselves. They work with what life throws at them and make the most of it. As I kept moving forward with the entrepreneurs, I talked more to the entrepreneurs about their experiences so far and could see the benefits the program has had on them already. They’re better than any grand achievements that I could have dreamed of facilitating before I came out here, because they’re real.
Team hike at MPR
I’m a passionate person and I had been overcome at times with the pressure I put on myself to succeed, so much so that along the way I’d almost disconnected with the lessons that I’ve learned to get me where I am today: in a position to make a real difference. My advice to future passionate volunteers, eager to work hard to make a real difference with Balloon, is to be patient and understand that if you try your best today, tomorrow you are starting from further than you have ever been before. Disappointments can be hard to let go of, but it’s best not to get carried away in the hot air of expectations but keep your feet firmly on the ground and just keep going. The slogan on the back of the ICS t-shirts reads “Challenge yourself to change your world”. It might sound cheesy but that’s exactly what it’s all about and it’s all worth it. Utapona.
Zoe Isherwood, ICS Volunteer, Nakuru, Kenya 2015