Alumni Spotlight: Melanie Tabakin

Melanie Tabakin is from Exton, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the "Adventures Abroad" children's book series and also works as a theater director for adults with disabilities. Melanie has volunteered in Uganda three times (twice with A Broader View), with her most recent trip being in January of 2012. She enjoys running, camping, and taking the road less traveled, even if it means she has to backtrack at times!

Melanie Tabakin

Why did you decide to volunteer with A Broader View in Uganda?

Melanie: When I was looking to return to Uganda a few years ago, I was looking for a reputable non-profit agency that would be willing to send me solo to Uganda since my husband wouldn't be going with me. I was impressed after talking with Sarah, one of the founders of ABV, and she was organized, thorough, and quick to respond to my questions. I loved the flexibility of the volunteer experience as it allowed me to jump in headfirst and help out wherever needed. ABV is an excellent organization for a self-starter who doesn't need much motivation or management. It can get lonely on the field if you are the only volunteer there at a given time, but Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I've met around the world! The staff at the compound were wonderful, helping answer any questions I had, give suggestions for places to go and things to do in free time, and in communication with the home office often. ABV was supportive every step of the way but did not micromanage my time or trip details. If you choose ABV, I encourage you to thoroughly read the material they send you, talk to previous volunteers, remind yourself to be flexible in all circumstances, be sensitive to cultural differences, and make sure you are going for the right reasons.

What made this experience unique and special?

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Melanie: Volunteering with ABV is so much more than having a chance to see the world; it is not self-seeking but rather it's an about being an agent of change and giving to others. It is life-changing as you work side by side with nationals who are making a difference in their own communities, learning from them and serving alongside them. I know my work there was appreciated and valued, and the lessons I learned from the field were just as appreciated and were life-altering.

How has this experience impacted your future?

Melanie: Uganda is going to forever be a part of my life. Once that beautiful red dirt gets in your bloodstream, it's with you for life... The children have a place in my heart and I continue to fundraise on their behalf here in the States. Since returning, people have generously donated money for a new latrine, roofing materials, school fees for some of the children, and money for projects. I think my love for Ugandans is evident to those I talk with and while others may not be able or willing to go themselves, they want to make a difference in other peoples' lives and are doing so by supporting people and projects from thousands of miles away. Derrick (volunteer coordinator) and James (headmaster) give progress reports on what the funds were used for and send pictures. There is accountability and it is great to continue to partner with them to help their ministries in Uganda. Just because I returned home doesn't mean that I can't keep helping any way possible to make a positive difference in the lives of others! My experience in Uganda has changed my world-view. Volunteering in Uganda isn't for everyone, but if you go, you will have an authentic and life-changing experience.

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Morning: Adjusting to daily life in Uganda was easy. I'd wake up cocooned in a mosquito net, on my bunk bed, to the roosters crowing behind the compound. Rooms were simply furnished with bunk beds, mattresses, mosquito nets, and a small desk with a chair. While there is running water at the KACCAD compound, it ran out on my last two trips to Bulenga, so the morning ritual consisted of a cold bucket shower that felt really refreshing, given the humidity.

KACCAD is in the process of completing a new volunteer center, but the current one had a few small dormitory-style rooms with a shared bathroom in the back room. The toilet is a hole in the ground, and your shower (if the water is running), is right above the hole. There are also pit latrines in the back of the compound to use when there is no running water. After dressing conservatively (long skirt/pants and a tank top or t-shirt) for the work day at Good Hope Orphanage, I would prepare my backpack for the day: purified water, some snacks, teaching materials, lesson/game plan ideas, sweets for the kids, etc. and then go sit out on the front step until breakfast was served. Both Sarah and Rebecca are amazing cooks and prepared the meals for the volunteers the past two times I was in Uganda.

Breakfast was usually coffee and/or tea and a healthy portion of fried eggs on two pieces of thick bread with the occasional small banana. Delicious! I would then gather my things and walk to Good Hope, leaving the compound by 8-8:30. Derrick and/or James shows you the way the first few times, and there are usually children that come to the compound door and walk with you to the orphanage - after a few walks, it's not hard to find. It's important to bring good walking sandals/sneakers as the walk is uneven, steep, and can be muddy during the rainy season. Good Hope is less than two miles each way from the compound. Once at the orphanage, I would either teach lesson plans for the morning in a classroom or games/activities to the children; it depended if school was in session or if there was a holiday.

It is helpful to have activities/lessons in mind ahead of time and to bring supplemental materials (like markers, paper, sports equipment, etc.) as there are limited materials at the school. Opportunities are endless! The kids love learning American games and dancing, about American music and culture. One of my favorite memories was dancing outside one of the classrooms with a group of the children as they tried teaching me traditional Ugandan dances, and then I tried teaching them an American dance in return. The children crave love and it isn't uncommon to have a handful of children latched onto your hands and arms throughout the day. Best advice for your daily interactions at Good Hope? Be flexible, laugh often, and give love freely.

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Afternoon: Most days I would be at Good Hope until mid-afternoon. I would bring multiple water bottles with me (I boiled my water or bought bottled water) each day. On many days, I wouldn't eat lunch until 3PM or later, whenever I got back to the compound. Lunch was the largest meal served and would be matoke (banana) with peanut sauce, cabbage/sauce/pasta, beans and rice, etc. It always tasted incredible and was very filling! After lunch, I may have gone back to Good Hope for home visits, go on home health visits with Derrick or Sam from KACCAD, or make bracelets for the children at Good Hope and plan for the next day's activities.

Evening: Evenings were beautiful and usually spent at the compound with my Ugandan friends who lived in the area and who worked at KACCAD. Nights were spent talking and playing music on the guitar, listening to music on the portable speaker system I brought, and just talking about life together as we sat in the concrete courtyard under the stars. There was a curfew of sunset when I was last there, and by the time I returned from Good Hope, I was usually pretty tired. Some days I would walk down the street to buy a soda or water and talk to some of the people of Bulenga, other days I would walk the main road of Bulenga to visit friends and buy papayas or mangos, or hand out sweets (American candy) to the kids I met on the road. I would head back to the compound by sunset and often watch the sun set from the front step outside my room. Dinner would be served soon after; this was a starchy meal of potatoes and sauce, pasta and sauce, etc. (I ate LOTS of starchy foods, so if you want to bring other snacks from home to supplement your meal staples, feel free.) I would head to bed by 9PM.

Highlights: The highlight of volunteering in Uganda was making a difference in the lives of the people there and helping with sustainability. My community back home from church and my neighborhood had blown me away with their generosity, donating over 500 pairs of shoes as well as school and medical supplies, and they also were incredibly generous with financial contributions for the improvement of conditions at KACCAD and Good Hope Orphanage. As this was my third time returning to Uganda, the overall highlight of my experience was reuniting with those whom I love in Uganda, from the children at Good Hope to the staff at KACCAD and the orphanage, to friends in the Bulenga area. Many had become like family to me, and it was amazing to continue to foster those relationships in person instead of an ocean away.