Local resident will spend six weeks helping orphans

Tue, 07/22/2008 - 3:53pm
By: Emily Baldwin

Local resident will spend six weeks helping orphans

Being actively involved in her community is nothing new for Jessi Prahl. The Peachtree City resident has been a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program for several years and has been a volunteer at the Good Samaritan clinic in Atlanta – a clinic for underprivileged Atlanta residents providing quality health care.

This Friday, however, Prahl, the daughter of Toni and Jack Prahl, will begin a volunteering experience unlike anything she has done before. On July 25 she will head to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and board a plane to begin her first international travels. Prahl is headed to Nepal to volunteer with Global Volunteer Network (GVN) where she will be living in the Kathmandu Valley for approximately six weeks helping to educate children in a local orphanage about health care. Part of Prahl’s motivation for the trip she says is “to experience something on the international level.”

After graduating from McIntosh High School in 2000, Prahl attended the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., where she graduated with a degree in exercise and sport science and athletic training in 2004. Two years later, Prahl graduated with a master’s degree in athletic training/sports medicine, sport management from Florida State University.

Prahl has worked for the past year as an Athletic Training Fellow at Emory Orthopedic and Spine Center, a prestigious accomplishment as it is one of only two such fellowships in the nation.

Working hard and chasing after new experiences is nothing new to Prahl, so it comes as no surprise to those who know her that she is excited to spend much of the next two months paying out of her own pocket to work in a Third World country.

“I love people, I love learning about people and new cultures and places. My dad was in Vietnam, and he went and hitchhiked through Mexico and then he was in the Virgin Islands and lived there for three years. He was always very encouraging for us to go and do stuff,” Prahl explains of her interest in volunteering abroad. “I was so school-minded. I was like, ‘Perfect timing. I have this one year fellowship at Emory, I’m done in June, and before I get a job I’m going to go and do it because if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to do it.’”

In August of 2007 Prahl sat down at her computer and began the search for her international opportunity. Literally. “I Googled ‘volunteer,’” she says. “There were a couple different [programs] I came across and I read over their websites. This one was on the CNN website.”

GVN is a non-governmental organization (NGO) established by Colin Salisbury in 2000 after he visited Ghana and saw the impact volunteers could have in disadvantaged communities. GVN placed its first volunteers in 2002 and this year almost 2,000 people will volunteer through GVN. GVN is based in Wellington, New Zealand and currently offers programs in Alaska, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Honduras, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, South Dakota, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam.

Given the variety of countries GVN partners with, many people ask Prahl about her selection of Nepal as her volunteer destination.

“I really can’t explain that, except that I knew I wanted to go someplace that was kind of different. I didn’t want to go to Europe, and I just remember looking through the different options,” she explains.

GVN’s website allows interested participants to pick a country and it will produce a list of volunteer opportunities. Alternately, participants can pick what they want to do during their experience and the site will generate a list of available countries where those opportunities exist.

“I love kids and I’m in the health and medical field, and so this was an opportunity that I could do both,” Prahl says. When she saw the Health Education program in Nepalese orphanages she thought, “This is it.”

After submitting an application and her resume, Prahl began the waiting game. She bought her plane ticket in February, not knowing whether or not she would be accepted into the Health Education program, but knowing she would at least be able to lend a helping hand at the orphanage in a less specific way. It was just a few weeks ago that she received her official acceptance into the education program.

According to the GVN website, Health Education volunteers work within the children's homes that they serve. The main focus is on preventative measures by way of regular basic health checks, administering necessary childhood immunizations and teaching the children about health, personal hygiene and sanitation as a disease prevention method.

“I’m actually going to be teaching the kids how to be sanitary, teaching them how to brush their teeth, how to bath. They don’t have parents,” she explains. “Disease and sickness in Nepal is very prevalent and they don’t have a lot of resources. The average life span there is 59.”

After arriving in the capitol city of Kathmandu, Prahl will spend several days in orientation with GVN. Then she will travel into the Kathmandu Valley and take up residence at a host family’s home. The family will provide her with an authentic cultural experience, cooking for her, teaching her their language and including her in their customs. Each day she will walk to the local orphanage where she will work with the children.

Volunteers with GVN are encouraged to spend one day each week back in the capital decompressing before going back to the village for another work week. Prahl plans to use her weekly visit to Kathmandu to keep up with a blog she has created in order to keep friends and family back at home up to date on her experience.

Prahl won’t know specifically which village she will be working in until she arrives in Kathmandu for orientation. Despite not knowing exactly where she’ll be for the six weeks she’ll be gone, Prahl has made an effort to be informed about the country she’ll be visiting.

“When I first made the decision to go, I bought the ‘Lonely Planet Nepal’ book. I didn’t really know about the geography of Nepal. There’s a lot of trekking going on in Nepal, so they have a lot of information on that.”

She also spent time online researching about the country. Through a connection with an old job, Prahl met a Nepalese man living in Atlanta who connected her with a local Nepalese group. “I’ve learned a lot through this Nepalese group in Atlanta,” she says. “I got in touch with a group of like 30 or 40 people. They invited me to a Nepalese wedding, and they took me under their wing. They put me in contact with their family in Kathmandu. There was a Sunday school where they would help teach me the language.”

She says she’s incredibly grateful for the help and encouragement that the group has provided her with, noting that, from her experience, “Anytime you express interest in someone’s culture, they’re going to give you that much back.”

Preparing for her trip has been an involved process. “I’m unemployed but I feel like I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” she says.

Paperwork, vaccinations, moving out of her current apartment, figuring out what to pack and what to leave behind fill her days. To add yet another layer of complexity to her trip, Prahl will leave Nepal at the end of six weeks and will travel to Tokyo, Japan for a week where she will visit a childhood friend, Kaori Irie, whom she met in elementary school in Peachtree City.

“We would talk like once a year – we were pen pals,” she says of her long-time friendship with Irie. “I always told her, ‘I’m going to come see you the first opportunity I get.’ So when I knew I was going to Nepal, I was like, ‘I’m already going to be halfway across the world, I might as well stop in Tokyo!’”

Prahl’s expectations for the trip focus primarily on internal growth.

“I think anytime you make a decision to do something like this, or that you decide to take a jump or whatever...I just want to keep learning about myself and about life,” she explains. “I think one of the biggest things that I’m looking forward to are the intangibles that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to explain to you.

“I want to grow from the inside out, and gain a little more wisdom. That’s what I’m looking forward to, is just gaining a little more wisdom, doing a good thing, helping people, and learning some life lessons,” she admits, adding, “As cheesy as that sounds.”

Prahl will likely grow a lot during her trip, but her bank account will be shrinking. Volunteering isn’t cheap. The program fee is $1,100, her airfare cost her $2,300 – even with a student discount, travelers insurance is $200, and that doesn’t even factor in the additional costs associated with getting ready for and spending over eight weeks abroad or the bills piling up at home while she’s away. Due to her busy schedule with her fellowship, Prahl was unable to host any fund-raising events the way many GVN volunteers do to help finance their trips. Her family has “been ridiculously generous,” but even so, Prahl will give much of herself to help the Nepalese people. In total, Prahl estimates that the trip will cost approximately $4,000 to $5,000. Prahl isn’t worried, however. She is confident that she is making the right decision. “It is going to be worth it,” she said. “Money is money, but I’m going to pay it off eventually.”

“It’s not like I’m going to Caribbean and taking a vacation. I’m going to hopefully help make a change,” she asserts. “If I change one person’s perspective, or change one person’s life or make one person feel better about themselves, mission accomplished.”

It’s a mission worth accepting.

To follow along on Prahl’s journey or to find out how you can donate to her trip, visit her blog at http://jessinepal.blogspot.com. Prahl can also be contact via email at jessiprahl@gmail.com.

To learn more about the Global Volunteer Network, visit www.volunteer.org.nz.

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