Alumni Spotlight: Paula Bocanegra Nieto

Paula Bocanegra is from Toronto, Canada and currently lives in Ottawa and is a student at the University of Ottawa. She went volunteering in Kenya for 5 weeks in May and June of 2013. She is always open to learning new things from different cultures, enjoys travelling and learning new languages.

What inspired you to volunteer abroad with IVHQ in Kenya?

One of the sweetest kids at the orphanage!

Paula: I was inspired to volunteer in an African country when I was about 12 years of age and went to my first Me to We concert with my grade 7 elementary school. Since then, I have wanted to travel abroad to an African country to volunteer. And, well, my opportunity came along after graduating high school, when I decided to take the year off.

Once it was decided that I would take the year off, I began looking for organizations with which I could go volunteering. Many of these organizations were pretty expensive. But after an extensive search including various organizations, I finally came upon IVHQ, which had really affordable prices. And it also offered volunteer opportunities in many different countries.

After finding the organization, I had to decide between three countries to volunteer in Africa. After reading through all of the previous volunteers' experiences in all the countries, I chose to volunteer in an orphanage in Kenya, probably the best decision of my life.

What was your favorite moment of the trip?

Last day before the kids went back to school from their break

Paula: My whole trip was so amazing that it's definitely hard to point to just one of my best memories! My first favorite memory was when I slept over with kids at the orphanage. Two of the other volunteers and I decided to throw a little party for the kids since it was one of the volunteers' last weekend with them. We decided to buy food and a couple of movies, and we paid a lady to provide the kids with electricity for the night.

That night all of the kids danced and sang with us to the upbeat African songs that play everywhere in the streets. The kids were full of energy, dancing and watching movies until almost 4 in the morning. Meanwhile I didn't even last past one in the morning.

This is one of my favorite memories because I was able to spend time with the kids who went to school from 7am til 8pm, which meant I didn't really get to see them much. To say that these kids are the most beautiful human beings that I've ever met is an understatement; they made my whole trip that much more worthwhile.

My second favorite moment of the whole trip was when a group of volunteers and I went to a music festival in Kibera. This is a place where there are over 2.5 million people living in the slum and yet they are able at the end of the day to forget their situation and just go grab a Tusker (East African beer, definitely recommended to try if you go to Kenya) and enjoy the live music. That day we all danced with the locals and shared great memories with some great people!

Tell me about one person you met.

Paula: Mamma Grace. She was my host mom for the time spent in Kenya who cooked for the volunteers and was always attentive to their needs. She is a mother of two who also takes care of her 2 nephews, with the help of her sister.

She is a hardworking woman who is always looking out for the volunteers and her family. Mamma Grace and I were able to bond through telling stories of our childhood, and even stories of the crazy things that I experienced in Kenya. She has a big heart and up to this day I keep in contact with her.

If you could go back and do something different, what would it be?

Paula: If I could go back and change something from my trip, it would be the amount of time spent. I would have loved to have stayed in Kenya for 2-3 months longer. Six weeks just seemed too short of a time for me. Everything seemed to go at a good pace while living in Kenya, but once the time had actually passed and the sixth week came, I looked back and was amazed at how fast everything went. Other than that little change, everything was perfect and I wouldn't have changed one thing of it.

Has your worldview changed as a result of your trip?

The kids trying to teach Paula dance step to the upbeat Kenyan music.

Paula: My worldview changed completely after my trip to Kenya! When I left Kenya it was obvious that half of my heart was left behind. I left Kenya with the yearning to learn more about the country, the culture and the people, I fell in love with all of it. It even made me want to explore more of Africa and the whole world!

This trip made me see how privileged I am, and how little I and the society I live in take the time to appreciate the little things that we are fortunate to have access to. Having the opportunity to meet people living in the most humble state and yet being probably some of the happiest people, made me see how much more I need to smile and acknowledge what and who I have, instead of concentrating on what I don't have.