Friday, August 17 2018


Make a difference- one adventure at a time

Update: January, 19/2012 - 09:51
Johanna Deheer *


Fulfilling experience: Johanna Deheer talks with her Vietnamese students at a school in Ha Noi's Dong Anh District. — Photo Courtesy of Jahanna Deheer
You own a company, mid-sized, or maybe you run a corporation. You're a charitable individual and you'd like to do something significant in the New Year: something altruistic that will make a really good impression on your valued employees while you're at it.

Imagine sending one of your company members on a life-changing adventure. They would go on short-term leave to a small, developing country you may have never even heard of – Malawi, for example – to transfer some special skills or knowledge they have. They return to your business with fresh insight and renewed purpose, inspiration and respect for you.

With my employer's support and its participation in a programme called Leave for Change – Uniterra, I was fortunate enough this past October to do what I've just described, spending three incredible, unforgettable weeks as a ‘volunteer' in Dong Anh, just outside Ha Noi.

I say ‘volunteer' because although my teacher-trainer mandate was unpaid, I came back so fulfilled and moved by the whole experience, I felt richer than if I'd been handed a blank cheque.

Armed with a few Do's and Don'ts (stay organised, learn what you can about your host country – it will enhance your project and expect to be surprised. Don't try to prepare too much in advance and, above all, don't stress), I set off from Canada in October with a vague notion about the culture I was about to cross into, and an even vaguer one about my work agenda.


* Johanna Deheer is an ESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) graduate, who lives in Pierrefonds — a suburb of Montreal, Canada. She has just completed her volunteer work in Ha Noi and plans to return here next year.

But, no stress – the Uniterra staff and my employer had taken care of all the particulars for me, including getting me to Ha Noi within 36 hours.

All I had to do once I arrived in Viet Nam was work together with the partner organisation (a vocational college, in my case) and look around, enjoy and absorb the beauty and wonder of the country.

Before my departure, I was worried I might not be able to live up to the mandate given me, but here was the biggest revelation of all: this adventure allowed me to exploit potentials within me that I would have never discovered staying home on my couch watching Lonely Planet.

I arrived around midnight on Sunday, October 16. I relished the stifling heat and humidity and reminded myself I was now in Southeast Asia, after almost two and a half days in transit.

The other side of the world. A young man from WUSC (Uniterra's office in Viet Nam) was standing in the exit area with a huge "Welcome Johanna" sign. He scooped up my things and we drove at a leisurely 40-50km per hour to my hotel, in silence. I would learn fewer than five of the most basic expressions during my stay – the language was far too complicated for my grasp.

On our way to the Church Hotel in Ha Noi's Old Quarter, we passed a sprawling night market, where hoards of people were busily shopping for goods and food of every imaginable sort. And this, incredibly, in pre-dawn hours. I was making mental snapshots of everything in my field of vision, since my digital camera was still packed somewhere deep inside one of the four bags I had dragged with me from Montreal.

Over the next three weeks, I would see water buffalo meander through rush hour traffic, babies and toddlers (helmetless!) tucked between their parents on two-seater motorbikes, swerving in and out of traffic which flowed like the Red River, a steady stream, never slowing.

Entrepreneurial locals transporting kitchen cabinets, concrete bricks, minimarkets selling flowers and souvenirs, pastries and water drums. I was dazzled by the array and volume of products that merchants stacked on the vehicle of choice: the scooter.

The people I worked with at the college all welcomed me warmly into their lives. I hardly knew them, but they made me feel like family by the time I had completed my task.

I was up at 6am almost every morning for breakfast at the Vice-Rector's home, after which we headed over to the college for a full 10-hour day.

Everything I needed to ensure the project's success was provided to me. Since I was there to give training to teachers, the benefits were exponential.

Almost 70 instructors would pass on their new knowledge to their students, who numbered between 15 and 35 per classroom. It's difficult to describe the feeling of satisfaction I experienced when the impact of three weeks of my preparing and delivering workshops finally dawned on me.

Viet Nam has been in my thoughts almost daily since my return. I inevitably compare snippets of Canadian life to what I encountered in Viet Nam.

Same world – but worlds apart. The differences are so vast that they have to be lived to be appreciated, is what I tell anyone who is curious to know more. Judging by the narratives of the other 16 of our company's employees who have availed themselves to date of this fabulous opportunity, the impressions seem to be consistent: it is engaging, challenging, enlightening, and sometimes life-changing. Curious readers can visit the participating companies' blog sites [] for more juicy details.

If you're still wondering what you can do to make a difference in the New Year, give Leave for Change some serious consideration. You may question the effectiveness of a short-term volunteer programme, but when many volunteers each give a few weeks here and there, it quickly adds up to a substantial contribution. And, finally, as far as personal growth is concerned, well, you'll just have to let your employees leave and see for yourself how much change you can bring about. — VNS

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