Archive for the ‘volunteer’ Category

Link to my article in the Projects Abroad Newsletter

projects abroad news letter


On August 17th I embarked on the journey of a lifetime to Cape Town, South Africa for two weeks.  I thought the trip would have been all about building a community center.  To be honest, the actual community center was secondary.  It was a ray of hope and provided a sense of community for the locals.  It was about being a positive influence on the young children, who have experienced more hardship in their short lives than most do in their lifetimes.  It was about helping out the stray dogs, and “adopting” them on the site as if they were our own.  Although my time there was short, I know I had a positive influence on the children, dogs, volunteers, and the building site in general.

My time in South Africa was nothing short of life changing.  The bonds I made with the other volunteers, my house family, Deen, and the children are everlasting.  I will never forget the times I had and will ensure I let the moments I shared have a positive influence on my life and others around me.

I could have not asked for a more amazing end to my journey to 30 Deeds over the past year.  However, in reality, it is not the end of the journey….It is  just the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to giving.


Deen and I

I woke up today with mixed emotions.  I was excited to work hard yet sad because it was my last day.  I did not know how I was going to say goodbye to the volunteers and children I formed a close bond with over the last few weeks.  None the less, I ate my breakfast and headed out the door for the final day.

When I arrived on site, the volunteers and I quickly got to work.  We mixed cement and started “prettying” up certain areas as we had done in previous days.  Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes, it started to rain..and then rain..and then rain some more.  If you have read my previous posts, you may realize that this is a very common occurrence during the month of August in Cape Town.  Undeterred, I ran inside to spend time with the children.  They were watching a movie and I joined them to try and get a few more smiles out of them before leaving.


Deen telling his infamous stories

Before leaving the site, Deen gathered all the volunteers to speak about myself and Jomo, who was also leaving that day.  Deen started off with stories and fatherly advice for both of us, before allowing each volunteer to say something to each of us.  It is a tradition for Deen that all volunteers have the pleasure of experiencing before leaving.  I also got to say a few words and thanked everyone for accepting me as if I were family.  I headed back home for my final dinner with my amazing house family before starting my long journey home tomorrow morning.


As I have mentioned before dogs in Cape Town are treated a lot different than what I am used to in the US.  Deen has shared multiple stories about kids in the area that brought puppies/stray dogs into the bush for their fighting pitbulls to kill.  When we arrived on site, this poor little guy (pictured above) was shivering in the rain by himself.

Most of the volunteers are dog lovers like myself so we decided we had to do something.  Jomo(the Englishman) gave him his lunch and Steffi and Svena(the Germans) gave the dog extra food and attention.  They have become part time vets of sorts, taking care of a few dogs that hang around the site..including the dog pictured below.  We went to Deen and asked if we could do something.  He was a bit crossed as he has brought close to 40 dogs to the SPCA over the last 3 years, most of which had to be put down.  Either  way, they brought the dog to the SPCA and hopefully they can rehab him and find a good home!


Other than that, we spent time mixing cement and then fixing the steps that lead to the playground.  The project is at the point where it is time to start making things “pretty”.  Luckily for the building, I am leaving tomorrow as that is not my strength.  I much rather prefer to “pick things up and put them down” such as filling wheelbarrows with sand and mixing cement.  One more day of work and time with the kids before it is time to go home 😦


The Building Team!

The Building Volunteers!

As I have mentioned before, weather in Cape Town is quite unpredictable.  Rainy one minute, sunny the next.  However, today called for downpours all day so Deen scheduled a “team building” outing together.  We met at the train station and headed down to the Cape Town waterfront, which is about a half hour train ride away.  We spent some time walking around a mall laughing, and listening to Deen’s infamous stories.  He brought us to a food court type place that looked like it was in a back alley.  It had all kinds of ethnic food which looked delicious, albeit a bit scary.  After eating and enjoying each others company, we headed back home full and happy.


Happy Children enjoying lunch

A few days ago while working, I had the idea that I wanted to do something more for the kids at the building site.  I approached Deen with a few ideas: get  kids a ball, crayons and paper..something to help them socialize and stimulate their mind.  Deen looked at me and said “If you really want to help them and make them happy, you must get them food”.  I trusted Deen’s word and decided to buy food for all the children


Food Supplies


Lots of Sandwiches!

Fast forward to today, I woke up early and headed to the grocery store with Deen.  I bought makings for about 50 sandwiches, a pack of 50 crackers, and  pack of 50  cookies.  We drove back to the job site and worked all morning: mixing cement and laying more of the foundation.   Mid morning, a few volunteers and I started made all the sandwiches. We brought them over to the kids along with a pack of crackers and pack of cookies for each.  After giving them the food, I have never seen them so quiet and content.   As always, Deen was right and the kids were happy!  The leftovers were given to the men and women who work at the daycare center to eat and distribute to others in the area.  Operation “Feed the Children” was a success!


Today, as usual, I spent an equal amount of time building as I did with the kids.  I mixed cement and continued plastering the wall from last week.  It was a beautiful day and the children were happy and crazy as the usually are (so was I).  Over the last week, I noticed they all love swinging in the swings but are not very good at sharing.  Each day is filled with constant arguments over who gets the swings.  I came up with a system that each child gets pushed 10 times before switching and they all have to count out loud.  It seemed to work and it was a good learning experience for some of them too!


Happy Swinging! If you look close, you can see the girl in the background counting!

Unfortunately this beautiful day was marred by a darker side of township life.  A group of kids, the oldest probably about 10 and the youngest about 4 brought a cat into the bush behind the job site.  While there, they either let the pit bull that was with them maul the cat or they killed it themselves.  As an animal lover it makes me angry, but dog fighting and gangs are just a way of life in the townships(albeit a sick one).  It does help me realize how important Deen and the volunteers are in the children’s lives to help make sure they don’t grow up on the wrong side of the law.

In more positive news, when I got home, I brought the soccer ball out for the kids in the neighborhood and played for a few hours. I left it with the kids when I went to get dinner at night and they played past dark before returning the ball.  All the kids seemed happy so day 1 with the soccer ball was a success!



View from the Island


Tour Guide who was a former prisoner at Robben Island


View of Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell. The red bucket was his “toilet”.

While visiting South Africa, I felt it was important to learn more about the history of the country to truly appreciate where it is today.  I decided to take a trip to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life locked away under harsh conditions.  For much of his stay, he slept on  a small mat, used a bucket as  toilet, and was forced to do hard labor.  It is amazing that a man who spent a large portion of his life behind bars, was able to get out and become an instrumental piece in the resurrection of South Africa.  I am very happy I decided to take a trip there and certainly have a greater appreciation for where the country is today.

Before heading home, I stopped in a local sports shop to pick up a soccer ball for the kids that live in the neighborhood where I am staying.  Yesterday, I noticed that they were kicking rocks and tennis balls back and forth to stay entertained so I wanted to do something about it.  Soccer and rugby are the biggest sports here, so a soccer ball was a natural choice.  I also played soccer growing up so I am looking forward to playing with them tomorrow!

When I arrived home I spent the rest of the day with my host family and other volunteers.  My host mother brought out a cake and everyone sang Happy Birthday to the old man :).  Between being humbled by the trip to Robben Island and the celebration with some of the most amazing people I have met, it was quite possibly my best birthday to date.

I start my second week of volunteering tomorrow, more humbled than ever, but just as excited as when I first arrived.


View of Cape Town from the ferry on the way back.


During my stay, I am volunteering Monday-Friday and have the weekends free to explore the city.  Today, myself and most of the other building volunteers spent the day exploring Cape Town on a tour bus.  To be honest, I have never been to a more beautiful city.  The views on the coast are just breathtaking and the pictures do not even do it justice.  However later in the day, I was reminded of how sometimes the most beautiful places in the world can be the most dangerous.


Tony, the crazy Frenchman

The volunteers and I enjoyed the day taking in the views, wine tasting, eating, among other activities.  We enjoyed it so much so that we lost track of time.  This means that we had to take a train and minibus back after dark…bad idea.  As soon as dark hits, the streets, train stations and everywhere else that were bustling minutes before, empty out.  The only people left on the streets are…lets just say they are the type of people that you would not want to meet in a back alley.

We arrived at the train station, quickly found our train and hopped aboard.  We sat down and were the only ones in the car.  Soon after we sat down, a man with eyes bugging out of his head (likely on some sort of drugs) came up to us, leaned over the seat and repeatedly asked “what are you guys doing” and “why do you look so nervous”.   We ignored him for a few minutes until he eventually realized we weren’t going to be bothered and walked away.  It was an ominous sign to start the trip back home.

When the train pulled into our stop, most of the volunteers separated to head back to their respective house families.  Myself and Jomo (the Englishman) got onto a minibus and started our trek home.  The minibus was packed with people and dropped off one local after another..after another, until Jomo and I were the only passengers left in the van.  This was not a normal occurrence so I found it a bit unsettling.

As we continued driving, we stopped at a stop sign and looked to our right.  A man was crouched down with a knife about 8 inches long, just scraping it in the street looking through the window and what felt like straight through my soul.  Jomo and I immediately thought the man was going to get on the minibus.  After 3 hours of stopping at the stop sign, luckily, the mini bus continued on (OK, so maybe it was about 10 seconds but it certainly felt a lot longer!).

After driving for a few more minutes we came across a group of gangsters walking down the middle of the street.  They were carrying something large between two of them in a makeshift bag made out of a blanket and sticks.  The mini bus stopped and the driver and the gangsters exchanged words in the local language (Afrikaans).  I started to think the worst case scenario..Were the gangsters going to get on the minibus Were they negotiating to kidnap/rob us?  Was this the reason why the driver dropped everyone else off first?  It turned out to be none of the above and we kept on driving.  We finally made it close to my home and the driver asked us to get out a few blocks away from the normal stop.  To be honest, I had no idea where we were as I was born without an internal compass and everything in that area looks identical.  Luckily for me, Jomo knew the way home and we walked/ran all the way to the front doorstep.

Was my life in danger? Probably not.  However,  there is a reason why the Projects Abroad team members warn volunteers about going out at night without a door to door taxi.  I made it home safe but will most certainly not take public transportation after dark again!

Note: What made this night a bit scarier is that I found out earlier in the week that in 3 separate incidents, volunteers had been robbed. Two of them at knife-point and 1 at gun-point, which are stories all on their own.


View from the Winery

Why half day Friday?  It is not because the volunteers want to leave early or because Deen wants to give us a break.  It is because the residents in the township tend to start partying a little early on Friday and it starts to become unsafe.  Even though the day was cut short, it was still a good productive day.




An everyday activity with most of the children. Love her smile in this picture!

The volunteers and I spent time plastering the wall we worked on yesterday.  In what is becoming a recurring theme, I also spent a lot of time with the children.  We played in the playground and I ran around like a big kid, playing games and making them laugh.

While we were at the site, a woman in her early 30’s  had a heart attack/stroke in her home next to the building site. (I later found out that she was the mother of one of the children at the site)  Deen, being the amazing man he is, jumped into action and rushed her to the hospital.  By the time he got her to the hospital she was unconscious and remains in critical condition. Unfortunately crazy things like this are more common than uncommon here.

After the day of work, all the building volunteers went to Deen’s house for dinner. His wife made an amazing meal and we laughed and had a great time.  His talented sons (Vash and Nash) provided the entertainment by singing, playing piano and the drums.  Also providing entertainment were 9 puppies.  Deen rescued a female dog from the building site and brought it home.  The dog met his Siberian Husky and one thing led to another…yadad yada yada… 9 puppies!

After being stuffed with food, we all sat around listening to Deen tell stories about former volunteers.  The love and joy in his face when talking about other volunteers can light up even the darkest streets.  He has been a mentor to the younger volunteers throughout the last 3 years, and even though it has been a week, he has taught me a lot and I feel like I have known him my whole life.




With my favorite puppy!

Today, I spent the day building a wall..maybe not “the great wall of South Africa”, but a wall none the less.  The process really is quite simple.  Step 1: fill the bags with sand.  Step 2: lay down cement.  Step 3:  Place sand bags on cement  Step 4 place cement on bags Step 5: repeat steps 1-4 step 6: plaster the sides and tada!  A wall!

The Great Wall of South Africa

The Great Wall of South Africa

I also spent a large part of today playing with the children again.  Since it was nice weather, we were able to play on the playground at the site. One thing I noticed today about the children is that they are all sick.  Every single one of them had a runny nose and was coughing.  They are all staying in a small room so when one gets sick, they all get sick I suppose.  Either way, we still had a great time and I am looking forward to finishing the wall tomorrow.



As the title indicates, the day was filled with rain.  Weather in cape town is a bit sporadic.  It is bright and sunny one minute and pouring rain the next.  The few times the sun came out, we mixed cement and did our best to add onto the foundation.  Our efforts may have been futile as I don’t think it will dry very well by tomorrow.

View of the Building Site

View of the Building Site

The good thing about the rain is that it let me spend more time with the kids.  What kids you ask?  There is a day care center right in the same complex as the building project.  I spent time doing what I do best: acting like a kid..making funny faces and noises, lifting them up in the air to the ceiling, tying shoes, and anything else I could do to make them happy.  These children crave attention and immediately latch onto you when they see you.  I was told it is because they do not get it from home so they look for it from volunteers like myself.  It is quite sad but I will make sure to give plenty of love the rest of the time I am here!

Day Care Center

Day Care Center


The kids and Jomo from England.

Day 3: Culture Shock

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Deed 30, South Africa, travel, volunteer

Today, I got picked up early in the morning and met the other volunteers.  There are 2 guys from France, 3 girls from Germany, a girl from china and a guy from England.  Just like every other volunteer I have met so far, they were nice and interested in learning my background.

The building site is about a 10 minute drive from where I am staying.  We pulled into town and there really is no way to describe what I saw.  Homes/shacks were made completely out of scrap metal, tarps, plastic, wood, tires, or anything else they could find.  There is no running water and most have no bathroom to speak of.  Most shacks house around 10 people or more.  Around town there are stray, very unhealthy looking dogs running everywhere.  There are children running through the dirt roads.  To be honest, it was all a bit overwhelming.  It was one thing to see it from afar, but another to see it up close and personal.


I did not take this photo but the village I volunteered in looked very similar.

When we arrived on the building site we were met by the building site manager, Deen.  As he does with all new volunteers, he took me around the grounds and told me his back story as well as the back story of the township we were in.  There really aren’t enough kind words to describe how incredible this man is.  Deen is from Indian descent but was born and raised in South Africa.    He is in his early 50’s with 2 sons in their late teens.  He was working a construction job making good money and and was relatively happy.  He heard about the destruction going on in a place called Lavender Hill and wanted to help.  He left his job making 10 times the money to help out.  Deen did extensive leg work to get the project off the ground including securing all the permits, getting the government’s buy in, OKing it with the locals, among probably thousands of other things.  Deen’s situation before the start of the project is something I can relate to and after the talk, I felt safe and right at home.

The way they are building the community center is much different than  I am used to in the western world.  Everything is made from cement and sandbags.  The structures are very solid and insulate very well.  After being shown the ropes, I first filled a wheel barrel with sand (plenty in the area) and brought it close to the building.  We added dry cement mix until we had a good color, added water, and then mixed it with spades.  I spent the next few hours plastering a wall to fill in some gaps and quickly learned two important lessons: don’t layer it on to thick and don’t hit the wall too hard with the trowel.  The first resulted in my wall collapsing and the latter gave me a face/mouthful of cement.  In all it was a great first day at the building site.

Unrelated to volunteering: That night we hiked up Lions Head mountain to watch the sunset.  The views of the ocean and city below were simply breathtaking.  It was nice to get some exercise and clear my head to get ready for the next day.



Me at the top of Lion’s Head peak

Day 2: Scared Straight

Posted: September 11, 2013 in South Africa, travel, volunteer

On day two, a volunteer coordinator stopped by my house to take me to orientation.  It is important to learn the public transportation system, so that is
wpid-20130819_103252.jpgwhat we used to travel around.  We left the house and walked to the corner to catch a minibus.  A minibus, which runs regular routes in the area is sort of like a mini van that they cram upwards of 20 people into…well that’s exactly what it is.  After about a 10 minute ride, we arrived at the train station. The trains weren’t the cleanest in the world but after working in NYC and traveling the filthy subways, I am pretty used to it.



We picked up another volunteer, made our way to the main Projects Abroad office and that is where “scared straight”  began.  We were informed that Cape Town has settlements with some of the highest unemployment rates I have ever heard of- upwards of 80%.  Obviously higher unemployment and poverty typically leads to more crime.  Over the next few hours, we spoke with various people who give you great information, but also essentially try to scare you: “Don’t ever go out after dark unless you take a private cab door to door”.  “Don’t sleep with anyone as the country has one of the worst HIV rates in the world”. “Don’t carry a lot of money or flash your smart phone around.”  Basically, don’t be an idiot.

After we were “scared straight”, we went out to lunch and to a local mall.  The mall was similar to those in America with a lot of the same brands.  I bought some work boots to use for the building project that I plan on leaving with someone in need in Cape Town after my 2 weeks.  I headed back home around 3:00 and enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal made by my house mother.

I start my first day at the building site tomorrow and I am very excited to get to work.

On August 17th I embarked on a journey of a lifetime to Cape Town, South Africa for two weeks.  I had never traveled outside the country, and to be honest, was a bit nervous.  I was to stay with a local family who would provide me with meals.  When I was not home, I would spend my days during the week volunteering by helping build a community center in an underprivileged area outside Cape Town.  Other than that, I did not know much about my trip.  Was the area I was staying safe?  Were there other volunteers at the house?  What will they feed me?(as a fat kid at heart, this question was important)  What will the community center be used for?  How long have they been building it?  What will the other volunteers be like?  How else can I help?  Among many others.  Throughout the journey all my questions would be answered and my concerns would be addressed.

I went into this trip assuming it would just be about building a community center.  I soon discovered that it was much much more.

***Special Announcement***

Posted: August 15, 2013 in about, volunteer

For my 30th deed, I will be traveling to South Africa to help build a community center.  I will be there during my 30th birthday and cannot be more excited!  I will do my best to keep everyone updated on my progress and will be sure to have a full write up when I return!

KEEN is a national, nonprofit volunteer-led organization that provides recreational opportunities for children and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities.  They get children involved in a variety of different activities and basketball2sports, including basketball.

I arrived at Attucks Park in Brooklyn on a gorgeous Saturday morning.  There were plenty of volunteers and lots of children running around having a good time.  After 20 minutes of free time, the athletes were gathered together and separated into three groups.  Each group completed a different drill: shooting, dribbling, and passing.  I spent most of my time with a boy named Julio.  He was a happy kid with tons of energy.  We spent time on the court participating in drills, chasing each other around the court, and having a ball of laughs.  After basketball, we went to the playground next to the court and did more of the same.

For me, this deed was a full circle of sorts.  The first time I volunteered was for a program called “Buddy Ball” in my home town when I was in high school.  Buddy Ball is a sports program for children with disabilities.  It was at that time that I picked up the volunteer bug and knew I wanted to make a difference in the world.  It just took me some time to get back into it.

With 29 deeds completed it is onto number 30 and beyond!


Resume Prep with the Life Center is a program that was developed to empower unemployed or underemployed adults to secure jobs and transition into permanent housing.  I signed up for the program through New York Cares. Each volunteer is paired with a resident of the facility and asked to assist with preparation of a resume.

I was paired with a woman from outside this country.  She had limited job experience and did not have a resume completed.  When I asked her what kind of job she was looking for, she stated “I will work anywhere.  Anything I can do to help support my son.”   I helped her put together a resume and gave her interview tips.  I may not be an expert in this area, but I feel as though I was able to help a great deal!

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For those of you that know me or have been following my progress, you know I currently live in Hoboken, NJ.  While it is important to volunteer or give back anywhere I believe it is especially important to help in your local community.  I came across an organization called “Party with a Purpose” which was quite intriguing.  Party with a purpose is a Hoboken based “not-for-profit organization founded on the concept of producing great events to raise money for charities and bring the community together in the process”.  Since being founded in 2002, they have raised $425,000 to help those in need.


Me, Hollis, and Lily

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Post Race Fun

Each year for the past nine years they have held a 5k to benefit local youth charities, including the Jubilee Center and the Hoboken Boys and Girls Club.   It has grown over the years with over 1400 runners this year raising over $60,000.  I ran(walked) in the race with my friend Hollis and her younger sister.  Her sister is no stranger to walking for a cause after raising money and participating in AIDs walk earlier this year(quite admirable especially for a 14 year old!).  We finished the race in a cool 50 minutes or so while the winner finished in just over 15 minutes.  The time didn’t matter as it was a lot of fun that raised a lot of money for a great cause.

“Un Birthday Party” is a program in an inpatient pediatric unit at New York Methodist hospital.  The unit hosts up to 25 children suffering from ailments such as broken bones, respiratory issues, and recent surgeries.  During the program that runs every other week, children are encouraged to come out of their rooms to play games, eat ice cream, cookies and cupcakes.  The room is decorated and complete with TV’s, a Wii, and other video game systems.

When I arrived, a few children were already in the “party” room enjoying their desserts.  Soon after, I helped deliver gamerkidcookies and cupcakes to a cute 13 month old girl who was taking a nap in her room.  When I walked in the room, she immediately perked up, and followed me to the “party room” with her mother.  I continued to interact with her and other children, playing games and doing my best to make them smile.  While playing a game of UNO with a few children I noticed one little boy, Mario was standing around by himself.  Several people, including myself asked him to play UNO or other games and he refused.  He looked a little down so I decided to do my best to make sure he had a good time.  After attempting to interact with Mario for a while, I finally got him to agree to play with the Wii.  We played Wii sports together with another little girl for a half hour or so.  The kids and volunteers started to clear out but Mario and I still wanted to hang out.  We fired up Nintendo Game Cube and played for another hour until the head volunteer had to go home.

This was yet another project that I really enjoyed and can’t wait to revisit again!


Pool at Asphalt Green

Swimming with Stanley Isaacs is a program with New York Cares that takes place at the Asphalt Green Center in NYC.  The program is designed to teach and encourage children to swim.  I have loved to swim my entire life (and consider myself a good swimmer) so this program was a great fit for me.

On the day I volunteered there were about 15 children and 7 volunteers.  Soon after I arrived, I jumped in the pool and got to work.  I was paired with 4 boys in the shallow pool with various swim levels.  We first started with some kicking drills with a kick board, which then quickly evolved into fun relay races.  After a while, I took the 2 stronger swimmers into the deep end.  I encouraged both of them  to swim laps and supported them along the way.  They both were quite impressive, especially considering it was one boys first time in the deep end!  After a few more games, we got out, dried off, and headed to a pizza place around the corner (I also consider myself a good pizza eater 🙂 ).

I had a great time volunteering and am looking forward to taking part in this program again.  I have mentioned it before, but I will say it again…Volunteering does not have to feel like a chore and can be a lot of fun!

boystirringCulinary Explorers is an after school program for middle school children where they are taught basics of food preparation, focusing on fostering healthy eating habits.  The program runs from January-June, every Tuesday.  Throughout the year the students learn to cook and eat a wide variety of foods.  During the class I attended, the children prepped and cooked sesame chicken and roasted broccoli.  The students took turns mixing the sauce, cutting the broccoli, and glazing the chicken before placing the food in the oven.  Once the food was cooked, I was able to eat a piece of chicken and some broccoli.   It was quite tasty!

Most people that know me might be surprised that I helped with a cooking class.  I had little to no cooking knowledge until college.  After entering college, my cooking skills consisted of making “Easy Mac” and “Chef boyardee” in the microwave.  Since that time, my skills have evolved to cooking bland meats and vegetables.  Needless to say, I was very impressed with the children and the program in general.  Not only did they learn to cook, but they learned that  if prepared correctly, vegetables can be delicious(something I also didn’t learn until a few years ago 🙂 )!  It is a great program, one that I wish I participated in during middle school!