Why did you decide to participate in the Ecoteer Conservation and Community Internship program in Malaysia?
Sophie: I first took part in an Ecoteer Internship program in 2009 on the Perhentian Islands Turtle Conservation Project. I discovered this project while backpacking through South East Asia.
I first went there as a volunteer looking to learn about conservation, meet new people, and try something different.
I had such a unique experience as a volunteer and fell in love with the Islands that I decided to apply for the Intern position and ended up staying for 3 more months!
Later in 2013, I was taking another career break traveling around Asia.
Due to the experience I had the first time, I decided to apply again for an Ecoteer Internship, this time wanting to experience city life (rather than island life) at The Yellow House KL. This also led to interning at the Ipoh Rainforest Conservation Project and a return trip to the Perhentian Ecoteer House.
What was the best moment of the internship experience?
Sophie: I have many great memories from my times as an intern and I can certainly say that out of all the time I spent traveling over the years, its my volunteering memories that stay with me the most! It's hard to choose just one!
On the Perhentian Islands, the best moment for me was seeing how much of an impact the Ecoteer Club conservation classes for the local children had. The children really started to care about their islands and realized how important it is to preserve what they have.
At Yellow House KL, I loved teaching at the Hilla Community Center for refugee children from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Burma. The children there were so full of happiness and hope, despite their circumstances.
I particularly enjoyed leading an English class for the children's parents, even though my knowledge on English football teams wasn't as good as theirs! Another highlight for me was the warm welcome I received from the local community in Ampang Campuran where Yellow House was situated.
Our neighbors were a mix of nationalities and we were often invited around for food, drinks, and socializing. We were invited to join in the celebrations for Deepavali.
We also participated in temple ceremonies, ate festival food around a number of neighborhood homes, and joined a neighbour's engagement ceremony and street party (where I got dressed in a beautiful saree and even taught fellow party-go-ers how to dance with Poi!)
What was the most challenging aspect? Most rewarding
Sophie: I think the most challenging aspect for me was realizing that things aren't always fair - the hand we are dealt is often pure luck and I have been lucky enough to get a good one.
Meeting people who have often faced difficult circumstances in life or who have less than what I have, be it money, education, or opportunities, makes you question a lot of things about fairness.
At Yellow House KL, we volunteered daily at the refugee community center. These children and their families had lost a lot and left so much behind. When I compared that to my childhood, I sometimes found that hard to face.
But the most rewarding thing was learning that there are a lot of selfless and good people out there trying to help, and to be part of that. To work with the people in that community has really had a big impact on me.
I'm extremely glad to have met these people and the volunteers. So I guess the most rewarding aspect was being part of such a great community and joining in the fun and games with the children.
Tell me about one person you met you will never forget.
Sophie: From my first time on the Perhentian Island Project, I will never forget a 6 year old girl named Anna, daughter of one of the local boat drivers.
She was very scared of me and would not speak to me when I first arrived. After a few weeks I caught her spying on me while I was doing things around the project, watching me giving conservation talks, leading snorkel tours.
Then one day she started helping me during the beach cleanup, picking up bits of litter I had missed. A little later she began following me down to the water's edge watching the snorkeling activities.
Anna couldn't swim so we started giving her swimming lessons. By the end of my internship we had formed a strong relationship, even though she didn't speak English or me Malay.
We built our relationship through watching and learning what each other did and through enjoying the beautiful surroundings together. She made me realize the effect you can have on others around you and for this I wont forget her!
Has your worldview changed as a result of your trip?
Sophie: Yes, my view has changed - I've seen that there are so many good people out there, wanting to help others. And I've realized that no matter how much you've lost, how ever little you have, there is always hope.
One little girl at Hilla said that when she first left her home as a refugee she saw the world as a bad place, with bad people doing bad things. Then when she started coming to Hilla Community Center, this safe refuge where volunteers gave up their time to contribute whatever they could to helping others, it restored her faith in humanity and gave her hope for a better future.
I've realized that everyone can have an impact. No matter how big or small your contribution, you can do something that makes a difference to someone.