Malissa Spero

What position do you hold at ELI Abroad? What inspired you to join them?

ELI Abroad's animal sanctuary in Brazil

Malissa: I joined ELI in 2007 as a Program Specialist for ELI’s Nepal Programs. I had spent some time in Nepal and it really spoke to my heart – I jumped at the opportunity to work on volunteer programs in Kathmandu! I still coordinate those programs, and have added the volunteer and internship programs in these countries to my list over the years: Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, South Africa, Ireland and Brazil. I chat with volunteers, help with details like visas and university paperwork, and ensure that our coordinators on the ground are doing well and programs are running smoothly.

Have you done any humanitarian work abroad? Tell us about it.

Malissa: My travel bug began with numerous study abroad trips while in school, and then teaching in Korea for a year. Since then I volunteer, organize donations from this end, and of course conduct site visits in the countries I coordinate. At the moment I am most excited about my trip to Thailand next month – I will get away from my desk and I am going to spend two weeks with my mother volunteering at ELI’s elephant camp in Chiang Mai. We don’t get to see each other very often, so we thought this would be a great way to catch up. Can’t wait!

What do you find most challenging about your job? Most rewarding?

An orphanage in Nepal

Malissa: Every day keeps me on my toes. A volunteer who was absolutely happy yesterday might be experiencing terrible culture shock today. Projects (especially in developing countries) can be really hard. An orphanage that was once thriving can fall into disrepair so quickly. We have to be flexible and proactive and culturally sensitive at the same time. Managing expectations on both ends (volunteer expectations and the project they are working at) can be tough.

We are working mostly in the developing world; the needs of some of these communities are overwhelming. The most rewarding? Every once in a while I receive a letter from a past volunteer…those are the best. Sometimes it is 2 or 3 years after their trip, and they talk about how the trip impacted their lives, inspired them to change careers, to start a fundraising campaign or a non-profit. They’ll enclose a photo of their homestay family or their last visit and tell me how they still keep in touch with their ELI project. I get to work with some incredible people…The big picture makes it worth it.

What is your favorite story of a participant's experience with ELI Abroad?

Malissa with volunteers at a children’s hospital in Cape Town.

Malissa: This is hard! I had a volunteer meet her future husband in South Africa. I have had returning volunteers do ELI programs all over the world. I’ve had volunteers create new families, fund orphanages, and inspire women who now own their own businesses. Specifically the work in Iganga, Uganda has been incredible to witness. It’s a small, dusty town about four hours outside of Kampala. Since we started working there in 2008, past ELIers have founded an orphanage, a nutrition program, our incredible coordinator Michael has been able to start a volunteer house, and we regularly send medical students to volunteer in the clinic. Since it’s a small community, it’s easy to see the impact. I am so proud to be part of it, and I love to watch volunteers fall in love with the people and projects in Uganda. I hope those programs only continue to grow with ELI’s Youth Initiative.

If you could embark on any of ELI Abroad's programs tomorrow, which one would you choose?

Malissa: I leave for the elephant camp in Thailand at the end of the month, and I am going to set aside time for a human rights project in Nepal in 2014.