Alumni Spotlight: Heather Buffo

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with UBELONG in the Galapagos?

Heather: My decision to go to the Galapagos with UBELONG was pretty last-minute. I was originally planning to volunteer in South Africa with another volunteer company when I got a Facebook message from UBELONG's co-founder telling me he saw I liked another page for international volunteering, a little about his new company and recommending I check it out. Initially, I just wrote him back and said "no thanks," but I looked at their prices anyway and saw that program costs for similar projects and similar lengths of time were almost 4 times cheaper than what I was about to pay for South Africa. I mapped out a potential trip in South America with UBELONG that mirrored what I would do in South Africa with another company and all-in, I ended up saving a few thousand dollars.

Aside from the cost, I admittedly was skeptical because UBELONG was just starting out whereas the other company had more than 20 years of experience. But after some careful research and countless emails exchanged with both UBELONG founders (they were very quick to respond, thorough, and patient with all my questions) I decided to volunteer in the Galapagos for 4 weeks and in Cusco for 3 weeks through UBELONG.

Volunteer outdoors in the Galapagos Islands with UBELONG

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Heather: I was doing environmental conservation work. Breakfast was at 7, we'd start working around 8 or 8:30, have a break around 10 or 10:30, lunch at noon, work again 2-4, dinner at 6, and the rest of the night off. We spent a lot of time chopping down mora (berry bush with long, thin, thorny stems that grow and spread like wildfire and are seriously damaging to the islands.) After clearing as much land as possible, we would plant native plant species like Galapagos coffee in place of the mora. We raised those plants in the nursery until they were big enough to be transplanted. On Thursdays we would go to the national park's nursery and help out there with seeding, weeding, and general maintenance, usually followed by a trip to the tortoise sanctuary and/or the beach. We got weekends off so we would work or go for a hike from the station Friday morning, eat lunch at the station then take taxis into town. We had the weekend to relax, visit the different beaches, go for hikes, go to the internet cafe, and really anything else we wanted. We'd head back to the station Sunday before dinner.

Visit the beautiful Galapagos and volunteer with UBELONG

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Heather: Volunteering abroad was one of the greatest decisions of my life. I did things that I never could have imagined I'd be capable of. I showered in sometimes ice-cold water, I had at least 15 mosquito bites at any given time, I used a machete on a daily basis, and I connected with children whose language I didn't speak. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and was a lot more successful than I expected. I am more willing in my everyday life to take similar chances and try something new, without being afraid of failure. I met some of the most outgoing, open-minded, good-willed, spontaneous, thoughtful, and downright interesting people from every corner of the world. I feel confident in my ability to travel alone and I am prepared to see as much of the world as I can. I feel like I've gathered an overall awareness and understanding of being a global citizen which seems to be an impending requirement for my generation. I think I have a more well-rounded and wholesome outlook on life and I couldn't and wouldn't trade these experiences for anything.