Why I am taking a leave of absence to volunteer in Vanuatu

By Brenna Mickey
March 1, 2016

When I tell people I’m heading to Vanuatu as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, the common question is, “Didn’t you already do the Peace Corps?”

Why, yes: For 27 months, I lived and worked in a small mountain town in northern Albania. But this is different.

The Peace Corps has a Response program for professionals with a certain skill set that can be put to use the moment they step foot in country. In my case, the Ministry of Sports and Youth in Vanuatu needs a website and newsletter to provide information for the Port Vila community and position their department as a global thought leader. Since I’m a web designer and already have the necessary skills, I can hit the ground running as soon as I land. 

So, once again, I’ve decided to take the jump. I broke my lease and packed all of my belongings into a storage unit. I’ll park my car in my dad’s garage and travel more than 8,000 miles to live in arguably one of the most remote nations in the world. Thankfully, I work somewhere that’s allowing me to take a leave of absence and return once my service is complete. But why do it again? 

The first time I volunteered in the Peace Corps, I left the States to work in Albania as a Community Development Volunteer. I worked in a small mountain town that had recently experienced an influx of foreign tourists and needed infrastructure. 

I was embraced and welcomed as family by my neighbors the entire time I lived in Albania. I was automatically taken in as one of their own, even though they knew nothing about me. I felt a type of love unlike anything else I had ever experienced. I learned how to live and work in a culture that sometimes seemed so different than my own it would make my head spin. 

We failed together and then learned together. We succeeded together and celebrated together. I grew into a more empathetic and understanding human. The work was hard and slow, but I felt the richest I ever have, despite living on less than $5.00 a day. 

Wealth has nothing to do with money

When I told my dad I was leaving the country to volunteer again, his first question was, “Why?” Why leave a good-paying, career-advancing job for half a year to volunteer on the other side of the world? I’ve learned that being rich has nothing to do with the number in your bank account. For instance, I wrote a grant to get enough basketballs to play inside during the colder months after seeing how access to sports equipment changed the attitudes of teenage boys in the dead of winter. The amount of satisfaction was immeasurable. 

Another time, I went through rounds and rounds of revisions for a logo I designed with the mayor and board of directors, finally deciding on one that they felt represented their town best. When I went back to Albania recently for a wedding, the logo was plastered on police vehicles and flags across the municipality. While the work I did in Albania typically went much slower than in America, I could feel and see the impact that my work had on my community.

Taking skill-sharing to another level

With my expertise in design and experience working with small nonprofits in the U.S., Albania and Cuba, I want to level-up what skill-sharing means. I will be sharing my skills, sure, but with sustainability being one of the most difficult aspects of development work, I will also be training. One of the largest misconceptions about web development is that once the product is launched, we can all wipe our hands clean and move. A good website is never completed. I expect taking the jump back into development work will be some type of culture shock. But training will be one of the most important aspects of my time in Vanuatu.

You ask why, I ask why not?

My first experience in the Peace Corps wasn’t always easy but it changed my life. It opened my eyes, changed my perception, proved my adaptability and strengthened me in ways unimaginable. While it may seem like I’m going to live on a tropical island for four months to escape reality, the exact opposite is true. I’m forcing myself into a different reality. 

This post first appeared on Medium. 

Brenna Mickey

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