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Community Connections: Belarus

December 6, 2010

IRIS’s volunteer coordinator and YES Program assistant, Ashley Heffern, recaps the Community Connections: Belarus program, which took place Oct. 27-Nov. 17.

Belarusian group in Chicago

This fall, IRIS was honored to host a group of professionals from the country of Belarus for three weeks. The group traveled to Iowa to learn about NGO development and linkages between NGOs and local authorities.

While we always enjoy our Community Connections programs, we were particularly excited to see this topic, as it is something that is especially important to us here at IRIS, an NGO ourselves.

The group spent part of their time in Ames and Des Moines visiting and learning about local nonprofits and attending the Iowa Nonprofit Summit. The remainder of their time was spent in Chicago doing cultural activities and completing a training with the Asset-Based Community Development Institute.

Program highlights

One of the biggest highlights for the group was spending their first Saturday in the U.S. volunteering at a new home build with Habitat for Humanity. While the group didn’t seem overly excited when we first introduced them to the idea, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience and got a lot of work done in the process! Participants cleaned up the yard, did landscaping, attached siding, cut and installed baseboards, and helped with general clean up on the site. It was an excellent opportunity to experience the volunteerism that U.S. NGOs rely so heavily on.

The group also enjoyed learning about our local and state government and, in particular, how those governments work with local NGOs. They were able to hear from both sides how these partnerships and connections work with presentations from both nonprofits and government entities. The group was also able to experience elections here in the U.S. They were able to see a local polling site on Election Day and even attended Governor-elect Branstad’s Victory Party in Des Moines.

Exchanging ideas and cultures

In working with the group throughout their stay, I was continuously amazed with the work that they do and by the goals they created throughout the program. Many of the participants have separate full-time jobs, and their nonprofit work is solely a volunteer effort, which is hugely commendable. With participants representing diverse subject-areas (from school principals to human rights workers to cultural heritage preservation), it was wonderful to see the group still take something from every organization we visited. They worked hard to take as much from the experience as they could and created excellent plans based on their learning.

One of the greatest aspects of these programs is the cultural learning opportunity they present for host families, community partners and even IRIS staff. It was a pleasure to get to know the participants and learn not only about their professional lives, but also about their culture. It was very interesting and eye-opening to learn about their government and how it has developed since gaining independence in the early 90s.

Belarus has a fascinating culture that was wonderful to learn about. We discussed and experienced food (delicious!), dancing (lively!) and clothing (beautiful!), but most importantly, we were able to experience the friendliness and openness of their culture. We were always greeted with a smile and the participants were always happy to share a story. It was a pleasure getting to know each and every one of them, and I can’t wait to see where their plans take them and their entire nation!

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