All things to do with my first big adventure!

YCI Celebrates International Volunteer Day!

Dec. 5th is International Volunteer Day!

To celebrate, YCI invited their volunteers to respond to the question: What inspires you to volunteer?

I did my best to keep my answer short, but it was difficult to sum up such an amazing opportunity in just a few sentences. Scroll down and you’ll find my picture and blurb!

My experience volunteering in Guyana in 2012 is something I’ll never forget. It opened many doors for me, and unlocked in me a passion for travel and learning about the world. I came to see how possible it is to make real connections with people who seemed, at first, to be completely different from me. The people I met and friendships I made while living in my village were one of the best parts of my volunteer experience. This adventure is where I first got “itchy feet,” and I’m so thankful I did!

If you’re thinking about volunteering somewhere, whether it be locally or abroad, GO FOR IT!!! I’m fairly certain that a unique experience like this will never end up on your list of regrets. (Hopefully you don’t have one of those, anyway!)

Happy Volunteer Day!

Youth Challenge International

Today is International Volunteer Day! This is a chance to recognize and celebrate volunteerism, honoring those who give their time to make a difference.

In celebration of International Volunteer Day, YCI wants to honour our amazing volunteers! Read on to learn what inspires them to volunteer abroad.

Aleatha Bedard-Poole Ghana 2014 “I volunteer to invest in others and empower individuals to do the same!”Aleatha Bedard-Poole Ghana 2014
“I volunteer to invest in others and empower individuals to do the same!”

Ali-Chuma Tabaro Koforidua Ghana, 2011 “What inspired me to volunteer beyond my desire to make a difference for others less fortunate is the opportunity to do so with the guidance and support I receive volunteering with YCI.”Ali-Chuma Tabaro Koforidua Ghana, 2011
“What inspired me to volunteer beyond my desire to make a difference for others less fortunate is the opportunity to do so with the guidance and support I receive volunteering with YCI.”

 Allison Burney Guyana, 2012 “I see volunteering as an opportunity to learn about the world by experiencing aspects of another country, including the culture, food, language, and lifestyle. I want to meet the people there, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.”Allison Burney Guyana, 2012
“I see volunteering as an opportunity to learn about the world by experiencing aspects of another country, including the culture, food, language, and lifestyle. I want to meet the people there, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.”

Stephen Cornish, Executive Director, Doctors without Borders Canada CRIV and CRV 1993/94 “Volunteering allowed me to gain experience, grow as a person and to begin what has become a life-long vocation in overseas assistance. I continue to serve as a board member for YCI thus giving back in a very small way; for what I received as a young YCI group leader many years ago.”Stephen Cornish, Executive Director, Doctors without Borders…

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A Big Thank You!

Can you find me??

Youth Challenge International

It has taken a few thousand kilometres of travel, many volunteers and staff from our project locations and a lot of editing, but it is finally ready for viewing. In response to the generosity of all those who donated their Aeroplan Miles this past year (and who we hope will continue to do so), we wish to say ‘Thank You’ with this film. 

If you would like to donate your Aeroplan Miles, you can now do so online. Check out our Beyond Miles Charitable Pooling page:  

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“Sipping” on memories

Somehow, it’s already been almost 5 months since I arrived back in the country! I can’t believe how fast the time goes. To think that I wasn’t sure if I’d find three months in Guyana too long now seems quite funny to me! Perhaps not surprisingly, just before I left, I was wishing I had more time there – I didn’t want to come home yet! Of course I missed my family and friends back home, but by the time the three-month mark rolled around, St. Cuthbert’s Mission was just beginning to feel like a second home. I was finally getting used to village life, and could see myself staying for awhile. I still don’t know that I could do a two-year placement in the village, like some of the American Peace Corps volunteers I met there were doing, but I definitely would have liked to spend another couple of months there!

As I relax in the beautiful hammock I brought back with me from Guyana, I think of my Guyanese life, and all the little things I’ve come to miss since returning to Canada. Although the sheer amount of children at my doorstep wanting to play and shouting “Miss! Miss!” at me for any number of reasons often overwhelmed me, it’s one of things about Guyana that I will never forget. And surprisingly, it’s also one of the things I sometimes find myself missing most. I’ve never considered myself very good with kids. Maybe it’s partly because I’ve never had much exposure to them or experience looking after them. Being the youngest in my family, I was never given the baby-sitting responsibility, and there weren’t many kids in my neighbourhood who were younger than me when I was growing up. That’s definitely one thing that changed for me, living in a village filled with kids of all ages! Though I still don’t feel completely confident with children by any means, I’m happy to say that I now at least feel comfortable around them, and even enjoy the dynamic that their presence often brings! I also miss the friendly “Good Mornings,” “Good Afternoons,” and “Good Nights” I’d always receive with a smile when I passed someone walking in the village. Most of all, though, I miss the wonderful friends I made there and all the laughs we shared throughout my stay.

Ed on my last night in the village!

There are also some things I don’t particularly miss, such as the blasting music at all hours of the day and night (sometimes starting as early as 5 a.m.!) and the mangy dog that followed us everywhere, refusing to be anywhere but in the lead! His insistence on being first in line anywhere we walked often led to him tripping us, as he stopped abruptly to follow a scent trail, and got on our nerves more than once! Our dog went by many names, but I called him “Ed,” as his sickly state reminded me of my favourite hyena on The Lion King. Though Ed drove me crazy most of the time, I must have developed a soft spot for him somehow, because looking back, he and the blaring beats are both fond memories of my experience.

I’ve started to realize that I unknowingly picked up on some little behavioural things during my time in Guyana as well. One of my favourites is that I sometimes suck my teeth to express dissatisfaction, like when I forget something I need to do, or when I disapprove of somebody’s behaviour (though I do this in private, not in front of the person!) Teeth-sucking (or “sipping,” as it’s more often called in Guyana) is commonly used by men to get the attention of a woman, but since I never quite adopted the need for that application of it, I found other uses for it! And many uses, there are! For a fairly detailed explanation of all-things-sipping and its many meanings, check out this very entertaining blog post! I find myself laughing every time I catch myself doing it. Though North Americans probably wouldn’t consider it the most polite gesture, it is still dear to my heart, and will probably always remain one of my favourite memories of Guyanese life.

As time goes on, I find more and more ways that my adventure in Guyana has affected me. I can’t wait to see what will pop into my head next!

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Let the festivities begin!

Mar. 9, 2012: Part 2

Phagwah celebrations!

Yesterday was a national holiday called Phagwah, or the ‘Festival of Colours,’ which is the Hindu celebration of Spring. People celebrate it by throwing water and coloured powders or dyes on each other! And that’s exactly what they did here in St. Cuthbert’s! The celebrations started a day early, though! After lunch on Wednesday, I was greeted by a huge pack of primary school students waiting outside our door with water bottles and handfuls of coloured powder! As soon as we came outside, they attacked! I got soaked with buckets of water and spray bottles, and completely covered in many different bright colours! The kids had a blast covering their teachers in dyes and powders and dumping baby powder on our heads!!! I pretty much let them go nuts and do whatever they wanted, and they loved it! I had kids painting my face, neck, ears, arms, and legs in as many colours as they could possibly find places for!! By the time they were finished, I looked pretty scary! The schools were all closed yesterday for the actual holiday, and the festivities began early!! As soon as I stepped outside yesterday morning, two different people poured huge buckets of water on my head! It was a lot of fun! Later in the afternoon, we had a cook-out by one of our friend’s houses and just spent the day relaxing and hanging out with the locals.

Result of all the attacks!

We also got to participate in another national holiday a couple of weeks ago on Feb. 23, called Mashramani (Republic Day), which is the day Guyana received independence from Britain. There are celebrations all throughout the country, but Georgetown’s is the largest, and many people from surrounding villages make their way to town to take part (us included!) It was quite the experience, and I’m so glad I got the chance to be there! Mash is basically just one HUGE party, where the whole country comes together to sing, dance, and drink! Thousands of people line the streets to watch the main parade of people dancing along wearing very colourful costumes, some of which represent the different Amerindian tribes of Guyana, as well as the different regions. There are also floats that are decorated up, and a competition to judge the winner is held in the main grandstand at the National Park. Many of the floats held towering stacks of loud speakers, and music was blasting out of them constantly, all playing different songs and different types of music! There were vendors set up all over the National Park selling snacks and drinks as well. The amount of people alone was incredible, especially at night! We had to push our way through the crowds and make a chain to avoid getting separated when trying to walk through! We also had to avoid getting run over by cars that were trying to make their way through the masses, too (and weren’t having much luck!) It was quite the adventure! We drove through the downtown area the next day, and the amount of garbage and beer bottles scattered EVERYWHERE was disgusting! The pollution is certainly one of the downsides of a national celebration like this, but it was definitely a great cultural experience!

I can finally say that I got to see some wildlife actually in the wild as well!!! Kendra and I took a tour one day that left from Georgetown, and was about a 12-hour day in all. We got to explore an old Dutch fort from the 1700s, wander around a mining town called Bartica, take a boat ride down Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo (South America’s third-largest!) and do a rainforest hike to a waterfall called Marshall Falls. Probably the best part of the day was actually getting in the water and sitting underneath the waterfall though!! It was amazing! It was only about 30 feet high, but the current was still extremely strong! I was holding on tight to the rocks to avoid being swept away as the water pounded my head and back and almost pulled my shorts off! One of the tour company’s staff got some pretty funny pictures of me struggling! On the boat ride back to the minibus, we saw about 10 Red Howler monkeys and some Toucans in the trees lining the edge of the riverbank! Unfortunately, my camera died earlier during the day, but I think Kendra managed to get some good pictures of them, so I will have to steal some from her when we get home! That was the perfect ending to the day!! We had been hoping to see some monkeys since we arrived in Guyana, and now I can finally say I have!!


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Making the most of little moments

Mar. 9, 2012:

This Tuesday marked one month until my flight back home, which means we are now over 2/3 through our time here! How it flew by! I still can’t believe it. Just as St. Cuthbert’s is finally starting to feel like home, I will be packing up to leave before I know it!

Workshop time at the secondary school!

Our group has been busy the last week or so preparing some workshops to host during our final month here. The secondary school students start their end-of-term exams next week, so we decided to run a workshop on study skills and test-taking in order to help them prepare. On Tuesday we held two workshops; one in the morning for the Grade 7s, and one in the afternoon for the Grade 9s. It was a lot of fun! We split the classes up into groups and had them work together to brainstorm some studying tips and to think about how to study effectively for their upcoming exams. Then we had a very interesting (and eye-opening!) discussion with them about why it’s important to study and to work hard in school. I got the impression that some of these students haven’t really thought that far ahead and maybe haven’t yet realized that there’s often a connection between doing well in school and having more options available to them upon graduating high school. Rather than being the rule, I think studying here (at least in our village) is still the exception, so it may have been a fairly foreign concept to some of them. However, I think both workshops went well overall, and that at least a few of the students may have taken something helpful away from it, so I was happy with that! We are also planning to hold dental hygiene workshops next week for some of the primary school classes, so I am looking forward to that!

Dental Hygiene fun with the Grade 3s

Our time with the Grade 3s is also quickly winding down! We’ve discovered that we probably only have about three more teaching days with them, because their exams start the second last week of March. Though they can definitely be a handful, I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for them, so I think I’ll probably be sad to go! They still draw us pictures and write us adorable notes almost everyday, so that keeps me smiling and significantly lessens the frustration I sometimes feel.

I will do my best to make the most of my last three weeks here and enjoy every minute of this adventure!

More to come soon!

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Donkeys, cows and jaguars (I wish!)

Feb. 14, 2012:

Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone!

Yesterday was the 5-week mark of my arrival in Guyana!! That means only 7 more weeks to go! I can’t believe how fast the time is going!

Our Grade 3 classroom!

I am really enjoying my time here and am learning a lot about what life is like in Guyana every day, as well as a lot about myself! I’ve been teaching the Grade 3 class at the primary school three days a week, and helping out for parts of Monday and Tuesday. The kids are starting to settle down a bit as they are getting used to our presence in the school, and I am finding my job as a teacher a bit easier with each day of practice. I’ve discovered that being a teacher is certainly NOT an easy job – regardless of where you come from or what country you are teaching in! That’s definitely something I learned very quickly in this environment! Coming from a family of teachers, I thought I understood fairly well the difficulties that teachers face and the amount of work and effort that goes into teaching, but coming here REALLY opened my eyes! Imagining what it must be like was one thing, but actually living it is a completely different story!! Not only have I found out how draining it is to try to keep 25-30 Grade 3 students occupied for a whole day of school, but I’ve also discovered how difficult managing a class is!! I thought back to all the teachers I’ve had in the past who struggled to keep some rowdy classmates under control and focused on a lesson, and I could really sympathize with them!

Not only am I trying to teach in a completely new environment, but also in a country where the education system and standards are foreign to me. Teachers here seem to rarely leave lesson plans for substitutes if they are going to be away, which has probably been the hardest part for me, because I have no background in teaching and have never written a lesson plan in my life! We usually have very little idea of what the students have been learning, what level they’re supposed to be at, and what level they might actually be at in any given subject, so it definitely makes teaching that class for the day a challenge to say the least! There are schemes written by the Ministry of Education that usually list about one topic per week for each subject, so we have been doing our best to follow that for the Grade 3s and to come up with some lessons that the majority of the students might be able to follow. Fortunately, the challenging parts are balanced out with the laughs and smiles that the kids bring me each day. I spent about half an hour the other day taping all of the pictures that the Grade 3s have drawn and coloured for me, and the notes they’ve written me over the last couple of weeks to my wall! Some of the kids also give me hugs before they go home for lunch and at the end of the day to say thank you and goodbye for the night! It’s adorable and takes any frustration I’m feeling away pretty quickly!

Getting rained on in the rainforest!

In other news, I can now say that I have slept overnight in a hammock in the jungle and survived a big rain/wind storm in the middle of the night!! One of our Guyanese friends took us camping at the creek where we go to bathe last weekend! It was a lot of fun! We went for a rainforest walk before dinner and it started to pour – how fitting! I got some pictures taken of me being rained on in the rainforest! In the morning, one of the locals gave us a fish he had just caught out on his fishing trip so we could fry it for breakfast, and it was delicious! Unfortunately (or maybe not that unfortunately!), we didn’t get to see any jaguars in the middle of the night, but we did manage to spot a fox who was interested in stealing some of our camp food!! It was sometimes hard to distinguish any real wildlife from the many stray dogs that are constantly roaming around all parts of the village, but we’re pretty sure one of the creatures was a fox! I probably would have preferred to see a jaguar, but then again, I may not have made it back alive to tell the story if I had!

On Saturday we took a road trip to another region of Guyana called Berbice. We left St. Cuthbert’s at 5 a.m. and didn’t get home until 7:30 p.m., so it was a very long day of traveling! We probably spent at least 8-9 hours driving, but it was definitely worth it! Berbice is made up of tons of small villages and a few towns, and most of the area is covered in farmland, as the main industry of this region is agriculture. We saw our fair share of donkeys, horses, goats, cows of all kinds, and sheep roaming freely across the roads, and often had to stop for them to cross in front of us! Given the speed of our driver, this wasn’t always easy, but luckily, we didn’t have any super close calls! There are also lots of sugarcane and rice fields here, and we got to stop off at a rice mill and a sugar processing plant to take some pictures. Some highlights of the day were crossing one of the world’s longest floating bridges over the Berbice River (Guyana’s second-largest river), and looking across the Corentyne River, which serves as the border to Suriname! I almost made it to another country, but not quite!

Stopping for a cow crossing!

That’s all for now!


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Surviving and Thriving!

Jan. 28, 2012:

I’m happy to report that I’ve survived my first two and a half weeks in Guyana and am doing very well!

I’ve mostly been working in the schools for the past week or so. There are three schools in the village – a nursery school, (sort of like Kindergarten), primary (grades 1-6), and secondary (grades 7-11). 

The primary school where I worked

I’ve been spending most of my days in the primary school, either observing classes and helping students with their work, or filling in for teachers who are away for a day or late for work. The school is basically just a long wooden building with concrete floors. The classrooms are separated only by a blackboard, so there are no sound barriers whatsoever! There are six different classes all going on at the same time, and as you can probably imagine, it gets pretty noisy in that building! There are some really great kids in that school and many are very eager to learn, but the environment they’re trying to learn in makes it pretty difficult to focus on anything! Sometimes I can’t even hear myself trying to teach, so it’s really no wonder that the kids have a hard time concentrating and lose interest quickly! Another obstacle is the lack of supplies in the school. Most of the classes do not have individual desks and chairs for students, and many of the tables and benches are in pretty bad condition. In the grade 3 class that I’ve been helping in, most of the students sit at one big table all together, which gives them the opportunity to distract each other and tune out of the lesson. A lot of kids also don’t have pencils or notebooks to write in, and they use razor blades as pencil sharpeners!! I’m glad I brought some pencil sharpeners and extra pencils with me!

I’ve been finding my first few days of teaching a bit challenging, but also very inspiring at times. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the faces of kids light up when they figure something out all by themselves, or with just a little encouragement. Unfortunately, we’re also quickly realizing that education here isn’t really considered a priority by many. Apparently St. Cuthbert’s is ranked one of the lowest schools in the country based on the recent test results of its students. Many of the students are a few grade levels below what they should be in subjects like English and Math. The Grade 4 teacher says many of her students are only reading at a Grade 1 level! So I’ve been trying to find ways to help those kids who are furthest behind and can really benefit from extra support. 

In other news, we’ve already had two different couples in the village invite us over for dinner this past week! Both meals were delicious – roti & chicken curry one night, and fried plantain and fish the next! Today we went for a hike and explored another part of the village with Kelly, an American Peace Corps volunteer who’s been in St. Cuthbert’s for almost a year. She took us to one of her friend’s houses to retrieve some coconuts! So I can now say I’ve had my first taste of coconut water and jelly, and it was pretty delicious! I’ve also gone swimming in my first black water creek! It’s a pretty strange feeling standing in the jungle shampooing my hair! But I love it. We usually go on the weekend, as it takes about 10-15 mins to walk each way. The vegetation is not as lush in St. Cuthbert’s as it is in many other parts of the country, so we are not actually in the Amazon here, but it definitely still feels and looks like the wild! There are some pretty tall/weird looking trees and a lot of long grass everywhere! It’s a nice change of scenery for sure! I am loving the weather here as well! We don’t have any way of knowing the temperature, but I’d guess that it’s been at least 30°C most days. It’s been pretty rainy the past week or so, and the rain storms here are pretty intense!!! They come up out of nowhere – it’s very interesting.

We don’t have running water in the house that we’re living in, so we bring in buckets of cold water to shower with from the water tanks at the back, and have to pour water into the toilet bowl to flush it. All our drinking water has to be filtered or boiled first, so it’s been interesting getting used to that! The electricity comes on just after 6 every night, and we have about 4 hours to charge our cameras or use the computer. We sleep in bunk beds with mosquito nets hanging over our beds, and so far I haven’t been eaten alive by bugs too badly!!! There are some interesting creatures living in our house though! We’ve already seen some tiny lizards on the walls, along with huge spiders, and a frog in the toilet! I usually sit in bed under the safety of my mosquito net to read with my headlamp after the lights go out! Another thing I’m finding is hard to adjust to is the lack of a garbage disposal system in the village. All garbage here is either burned or buried. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for garbage to be thrown into the bushes, or to see it laying around the village. It really takes away from the natural beauty of the landscape in a way!

Anyway, I better stop there for now. If you’ve made it through to the end, congratulations! Haha. And thanks for sticking with it!

Until next time!


My safe haven!

Our house guests playing tag!

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Destination: Reached!

Jan. 13, 2012:

St. Cuthbert’s Mission is beautiful!!!

On our way into the village!

The 2-hour ride into the village was definitely eventful! Our minibus  was packed TO THE MAX! We had to bring all of our food for the next 3 months, all of our luggage, and 7 bodies!!! (The four of us volunteers, and three YCI staff members). The first hour of the drive was on a highway, and boy were we flying!!!! Once we got off the main highway, though, it was a VERY bumpy ride! The next hour was spent bouncing through massive potholes and avoiding major ruts that the rain had made in the dirt road into the village! Each time this happened, something else from the back of the bus would lunge forward onto us! Good thing it was mostly toilet paper hitting us in the back of the head! Haha. It was a lot of fun though!

We arrived here around 4 p.m. yesterday and got settled in a bit. We put up our mosquito nets, and figured out how to go about using the toilet and shower (more challenging than you might think!) Today we went over to each of the schools to introduce ourselves and meet some of the teachers. There is a nursery school, a primary, and a secondary. I will most likely be working in the primary, but could be helping tutor some kids in need of extra help from the secondary school in the late afternoons. We still don’t really know what we are doing for sure yet, so we’ll have to work all of that out over the next few days.

The kids here are adorable and very friendly and just want to play constantly! They immediately came over to our house when we arrived and said hello. Since then, I’ve had kids hanging off me like monkeys and doing flips and wanting to be spun around upside down all day every day! It’s exhausting! Haha. Eventually I have to tell them no more, or I will get too worn out. It makes the time pass very quickly though! Today we met the village captain, and will hopefully be meeting with him every week or two to discuss things we might be able to get involved with. The people are very nice in general and friendly. They all say “Good afternoon” or “Good morning” when you pass.

The landscape here is GORGEOUS! The village is full of palm trees and some parts are covered in white sand, so it makes me feel like I’m on the beach in tropical paradise when the sun is out! We took a walk to the creek where some of the locals bathe and swim yesterday. Black water creeks are very cool and weird! The water almost looks red! It’s very interesting.

Anyway, I guess that’s it for now! Oh, and I had my first bucket shower this morning! It was very chilly! But refreshing. No more hot showers or even running water for the next 3 months!!! Haha!

Bye for now!

My new home

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Jan. 11, 2012:

Hello from Guyana!

Just wanted to let you know that we’ve arrived safely and have been staying in a guest house in Georgetown since Monday morning. The house is about two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, so we walk up there most days and spend some time exploring the beach! How nice. It’s a pretty neat feeling to be standing on the edge of South America!!!! We will be traveling to St. Cuthbert’s tomorrow morning, so that will be very exciting! The weather is gorgeous! I only have a couple of mosquito bites so far, and somehow managed to get slightly sunburned yesterday, though I was either inside all day or sitting in the shade! So I’m not exactly sure how that happened! Anyway, everything is going great and we’ve been doing some orientation activities for the last couple of days.

I will write again soon when we make it to the village and get everything set up! We are all doing fine and I love it here!!! Talk to you all soon!

Love Allison

Youth Centre we stayed at in Georgetown

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I’m off to Guyana!!

Jan. 8, 2012:

At the airport ready to go

Just sending you a quick note to say GOODBYE for now!!! I will be boarding the plane for Guyana less than 12 hours from now!!! My adventure is about to begin and I am very excited to get started!

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been frantically trying to accomplish my long list of pre-departure tasks! I’ve been running what seems like a million errands, buying last-minute supplies and gear, packing (and re-packing often!), saying goodbye to family and friends, reading up on Guyana and on all the information YCI provided me with, and generally just trying to prepare myself for this leap that I’m about to take! Since preparing to leave the country for three months is not a familiar feeling for me (yet, anyway!), it’s made the entire process all the more challenging. It’s definitely been an interesting time for me, complete with a full range of emotions running wild!

I’ve also found out some more details about the community I’ll be living and working in during my time there. The village is called St. Cuthbert’s Mission, and is about a two-hour drive south of Georgetown, the capital. The average temperature is around 30°C, so I am definitely looking forward to being warm (but hopefully not sunburned to a crisp!) Apparently the village is very remote – the nearest town is about an hour’s drive away! There are about 1,500 people living in the village. I had originally been told that the volunteers would be sleeping in hammocks, but we have been upgraded to single bunk beds with treated mosquito nets! Awesome! Mom sent me with so many school supplies that I needed a second suitcase!!! But I know they will be put to good use!

I would love to hear from any of you if you have the chance to update me over the next few months. The best way to reach me is likely by email. I’m not sure yet how often I’ll have access to the internet, but I will do my best to respond to any emails I receive and to send you some updates as well with what I’m doing down there!

Take care!

Love Allison

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