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Volunteer discovers meaning through charitable work

Alisa Thorsen

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Emily Hilbers, a sophomore business management major, volunteers in the Dominican Republic during a summer trip. During those four weeks she spent time repairing homes and teaching local schoolchildren. Photo courtesy of Emily Hilbers.

Whether it’s exploring the mysteries of a sunken ship, horseback riding through caves or making a difference in impoverished cities, Emily Hilbers’ adventures never seemed to cease while volunteering abroad.

Last summer, the sophomore business management major signed up for a four-week international volunteering program that was life-altering, she said.

She ventured to the Dominican Republic to repair broken communities, educate underprivileged children and immerse herself in a new culture.

Hilbers went on her trip through the International Student Volunteer program, which caters to universities around the world, including Chico State. Her trip consisted of a two-week volunteering project followed by a two-week adventure segment.

She spent her time working in towns near Santo Domigo, the capital of the Dominican Republic.

“We would alternate days repairing homes and going to the local schools, teaching the kids about malaria and recycling,” Hilbers said.

Although she found joy in her work there, her days were far from ordinary. Staying in a hostel with 30 other volunteer students and working long days in the humid heat was exhausting, she said.

“We would wake up superearly and eat rice and beans for breakfast,” Hilbers said. “Then we would work until lunch and eat rice and beans again, while talking about our progress in the work. After that we would work five more hours until it was time to go home.”

Hilbers’ expectations did not exactly align with the reality of the volunteer work. She did not expect to build such meaningful relationships with the children, especially since there was a difficult language barrier, she said.

“You would expect construction to be the hardest part, but teaching little kids is exhausting,” Hilbers said. “I don’t speak any Spanish so that was hard. I didn’t really click with the kids at first because I couldn’t communicate with them, but they really grew on me.”

Although Hilbers has not had much experience interacting with kids previously, she found that working with the local children was extremely rewarding, she said.

“They have the biggest hearts,” Hilbers said. “We split the day into periods of P.E., art and English, and they were just so excited about learning.”

She was surprised by how close she became with the children and locals and truly admired them for loving life so much even though they had so little, she said.

“They would use anything for shelter,” Hilbers said. “Rebar and billboards (were used) for roofs. It’s crazy. These kids are just so happy every single day. It is very humbling.”

After she was through with a long and tiring day, Hilbers would return to the hostel where she would journal her experiences.

Hilbers found great meaning in her work with in the local community but was excited to begin the adventure portion of her trip.

“It was ridiculous,” Hilber said. “We went scuba diving through this beautiful 400-year-old sunken ship and also got to see the reefs. It seemed like a different world.”

But the adventures were not limited to just scuba diving. She embarked on many wild excursions while abroad, she said.

“We went parasailing, windsurfing and horseback rode through caves, and that’s just one day,” Hilbers said. “We got to go spelunking, which is repelling down through dark caves, and then got to go swimming through these underwater tunnels.”

Hilbers hopes to finish her degree in business management so she can continue her passion for philanthropy. She would love to work for the International Student Volunteer program in the future and continue making a difference in the lives of others and explore different cultures, she said.

“Now that I have experienced this, it’s what I want to dedicate my life to,” Hilber said. “It gave meaning to my life and I can’t wait to go back.”

Alisa Thorsen can be reached at [email protected] or @alisathorsen on Twitter.

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Volunteer discovers meaning through charitable work