Alumni Spotlight: Michelle Balan


Michelle Balan is from Ontario, Canada and works as an Executive Assistant. In her mid-fifties, she volunteered as a teacher with IVN at the Secondary School in Engari, Uganda in December 2012. She likes to travel to places not found in travel brochures, mingle with the local people and embrace new cultures and adventures.

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with IVN?

I decided to volunteer abroad when the company I was working for closed and I found myself temporarily out of work. It was the perfect opportunity to fulfill a dream of traveling to Africa and work with the local people.

Two of my aunts were nuns and lived and worked in various countries in Africa and my dream of visiting and volunteering goes back to my childhood when I listened to their stories.

I researched various volunteer organizations and, in the end, chose IVN via IVHQ because of the positive reviews and easy access to staff who answered all my questions quickly and professionally. I was a 55-year-old woman about to travel to a continent alone to volunteer in a community with which I was unfamiliar.

I wasn’t prepared to leave Canada unless I felt comfortable with the organization that would be handling my needs. Once I felt assured I would be safe and taken care of (not pampered of course but kept in a safe healthy environment) I was able to commit to the project. I soon learned that in addition to volunteering I could enjoy some leisure activities before, during and after my time in Uganda.

I went on a safari, visited the source of the Nile and went Gorilla trekking. These were amazing opportunities that were affordable and easy to coordinate with the help of my project leader in Uganda.

What was the best moment of trip?

When I left Canada at the end of November my son told me he prefers I didn’t buy him any Christmas gifts but instead, purchase a goat and give it to a family in the Ugandan village that needed one.

Once I arrived in Engari it was plain to see every family could easily use a goat and I wondered how I would ever decide on who would be the recipient of my son’s gift.

One morning I had climbed what we affectionately called Internet Hill where I could receive a signal to send an email home. Before long a local farmer came up to me and asked if I could help save his goat that had been attacked by wild dogs during the night.

I think he may have mistaken me for one of the volunteers with medical experience. It was obvious the goat couldn’t be saved and was about to die. This is a huge investment for the farmer and he was distraught that his goat would die.

It didn’t take long to realize this would be the perfect opportunity to give him a new goat and fulfill my son’s wish. I told him he could slaughter the injured goat, feed his family and friends and I would replace it with a new goat. He couldn’t believe what I was saying.

When I returned to the village I learned of a teacher who raised a goat and was eager to sell it so he could afford to return to his village for Christmas. This young man supports his mother and sisters with his wages. I told him I was interested in buying the goat from him and giving it to the farmer on the mountain. He was thrilled. We put the goat on a tether and walked up the hill to deliver it to the farmer. It was a win-win situation and it left me feeling rewarded and content.

Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

If I go back to Uganda I would like to spend more time there to really dig into a project and see it completed. The local people are eager to learn and happy to help. I would also spend more time getting to know the people of the community and understand their feelings, dreams, frustrations and concerns. The people I worked with always put on a happy face and appeared positive but I think there is a layer to peel away to really understand the people and their history.

Tell us about one person you met.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet many wonderful people during this adventure. I met volunteers from all over the world, local business people, young children, and local teenagers. Each person left an impression with me but one person in particular inspired me and continues to do so a year later. His name is Owen and he is a teacher at the secondary school in the small village of Engari.

Owen is the most caring person I’ve ever met. He is a wonderful role model for his students. Owen and I communicate regularly and he keeps me up to date regarding the needs of his community. Together we have coordinated assistance to sponsor students so they can attend school. He is hardworking, trustworthy and motivated. I value his friendship.

Do you feel like you made an impact on the local community? Why or why not?

I definitely feel I made an impact on the community of Engari. Before I left Canada I appealed to my family and friends to donate funds to help the people in the community I was going to visit. Because of their generosity, I was able to raise $2,000.00.

After I arrived and settled in it was obvious one of the biggest needs the students at the school I was volunteering at needed a source of clean water. The kids were taking stagnant water from a dirty pond to use for drinking, cooking, bathing, and laundry. Most of the children had parasites from the water.

After some research, I learned that I could use the money I raised to have a water tank built beside the school. This project employed several local people during its construction and will provide clean drinking water for years to come.

The project wasn’t completed until I had returned home but another volunteer assisted with the project and sent me pictures during its development and completion. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing the children are drinking clean water because of the generosity of my family and friends.