Alumni Spotlight: Dorit Heimer


Dorit Heimer, 58-year-old attorney, volunteered in Uganda with AJWS from April to July, 2011.

First tell us a little about yourself and your trip.

I first heard about AJWS when a member of my congregation spoke about their work in Darfur. I admire AJWS work, and I've always wanted to have an extensive, hands-on experience volunteering overseas, so this was a wonderful opportunity.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

I am a lawyer. I worked in Kampala, Uganda with a grassroots NGO led by sex workers advocating for human rights and access to health care. My primary assignment was to build a human resources system for this organization - including everything from writing an employee procedures manual and templates for every sort of employment- related document, to teaching one staff member how to be an HR manager and how to create personnel files, to training the staff on what all these documents meant. I also helped the NGO with a number of other projects, including revising their bylaws and creating guidelines and templates for grant applications and reports to donors.

Additionally, I was privileged to go on a variety of field trips with the NGO staff, including workshops with members of the NGO (sex workers around different parts of Uganda) along with members of the health care community as well as police and other government officials.

What made this volunteer experience unique and special?

Before I arrived in Uganda, I felt a certain amount of trepidation about whether I could relate to the women I would be working, with whose experience was so different from my own. Would I feel judgmental? Would they talk to me? Would I be able to contribute anything? My doubts were completely unfounded. The dynamic women with whom I worked were very open about their lives. They were very welcoming to me, and happy to share their life stories.

As a result, I gained an unexpectedly deep and rich appreciation for the complexity of people's lives so different from my own. It's really easy to feel sorry for sex workers. Most of them live a dangerous, tough life. I don't think anyone chooses sex work if they have other options. And yet - none of the women I met had any self-pity. They were very matter-of-fact about their work, and most were proud of what they've accomplished as a result of it. From their perspective, they are using the tools they have to support themselves and their families, no different from those of us who use our brains or our brawn. They are daughters, sisters, mothers. Many have built houses for their mothers and educated their siblings. All they want is to be recognized as human beings, with the same access as anyone else to legal and medical resources.

And so I came to feel a real admiration for these women who work so hard to accomplish what they have been able to do against huge odds -- and who could have been my sisters, my daughter, my mother, if we had been born into their circumstances. I also became friends with many of them, and some of my most interesting experiences were social ones -- including being invited to a fascinating engagement ceremony or "kwanjula" for the sister of one of my co-workers in the NGO. I was most honored when my co-workers asked me to make a toast at the wedding of the same young woman, which I did - in the local language!

All in all, it was a fun, fascinating, and eye-opening experience.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

I'd like to think that I came home with a little more humility than I arrived with. I also came back determined to try to find in my working life a greater sense of engagement than I had with my work prior to the AJWS experience. While I haven't yet found the job of my dreams, the enthusiasm I felt in Uganda is something I've retained, and that encourages me to keep looking.