Heather Lonergan

Nationality: American
Age: 36

What was your volunteer program and how long did you stay in Ghana? I volunteered in the Medical branch. VAF worked to get me a special program placement within the dental field as I was the first dental professional to volunteer with them. We also coordinated an oral health education outreach program to a very remote village on my first trip. I stayed for 4 weeks.

I now try and return every 6 months, for 4 weeks at a time, to continue these oral health education outreach programs that we developed. As I have gained relationships and trust with the local dental director and staff I now am able to perform walk in dental screenings and cleanings for the community.

Why did you want to volunteer? I have always wanted to dedicate a portion of my life to service and helping others. This is the main reason I went into the medical/dental field as a profession. Once into the field I found it did not satisfy my need to help others as I had hoped. This is why I looked into volunteering.

I have also travelled to a few under developed countries and first hand saw how there was so much need in the communities, and how one simple act of kindness could really change a person's day from bad to good. Seeing a smile form on the face of someone who has had a life of difficulties is the most fulfilling experience one can feel.

What was your experience like with VAF? I had the best experience with VAF. This was my first official volunteer experience service and I have not wanted to try another non profit as I have been completely satisfied with VAF. As I mentioned earlier Eric found me a placement within my field of expertise, even though it was not a program they had currently had before. He suggested that I bring some dental products to try an outreach program as well.

I will say that in the medical field of volunteering it is often a disappointment. Most volunteers go in with the feeling they will be doing everything that they do in their home countries, and I was no different. I thought I would go in and start doing exams and dental cleanings, which I quickly found out was not going to be the situation.

I will not lie and say I was not disappointed on my first trip. I did not do any clinical work. I sat and observed the local professionals do their jobs, helped fill out insurance papers and charts, and give post-operative instructions after treatment. Trying to keep an open mind till the end was not easy, what really made me happy that first trip was the outreach program. I found that it was this that I truly loved doing and experiencing. This one trip to the village is what changed my path in life completely. I loved interacting with the local communities, loved being able to hand out donations and see the children laughing and giggling as we did mouthwashes.

After this I looked at my days in the clinic differently. I looked at them as a learning experience instead of concentrating on "what I wasn't allowed to do" I started observing what the needs of the communities were and thinking on how and what I could do to help these needs. And of course as I passed all these new thoughts along to Eric and a plan and program started to get drafted, I knew this was what my future would revolve around.

What was the biggest lesson you learnt whilst in Ghana? PATIENCE!!! Ghana works at its own speed. It takes many trips to a particular office before approval is given. "I will be there in 5 minutes" really means in 1 hour. For me this was very hard to get used to as my life at home is completely dictated by a time table and specific schedule. I can be very frustrating to have to wait, but it is so good for me to learn that things often times come to those who are patient and wait without getting mad.

What are you doing now? I'm still working in the private sector of dental care in the US, but spend all my spare time fundraising and planning for my next volunteer trip each 6 months. Each trip I bring around 1200 toothbrushes, toothpastes and flosses for the outreach programs along with mouthwash, instruments, sterilizers and protective equipment.

I am currently in the process of starting my own non-profit in the US which links in with VAF in Ghana. I have gotten so much satisfaction, and gained so much personal grown in the last 3 years that I want to spend the rest of my life in the grassroots sector of volunteerism and service. My plans are to open an orphanage, work with microfinance within the community and continue giving free dental care to the communities I work in. I'm finding out that this process is not an easy field to break into and the PATIENCE I have been learning from "Ghana time" is paying off.

Tell us about your plans? Well as it is still in the works I do not have exact details. I really want to open a children's home, I have learned in the few years I have been working in Ghana that the orphanages in the area do not work well and are full of misuse of funding and can be abusive living conditions for the children. With talking with the founder and staff of VAF I would like to open a house for children in need and give them the love, support and encouragement to live a successful and fulfilled life. Many of the "orphans" are not true orphans and still have a parent or guardian, but due to poverty cannot care for the child. It would be great if we could incorporate a program that will give this parent a microfinance loan to support and teach them how to run a business and therefore be able to financially care for the child in need. We would support the child in the children's home until the parent is financially stable to care for the child, and then keep an eye of the situation over the years to make sure the child is getting all its needs met.

I would also like to have a free dental clinic at the children's home to so screenings and cleanings for the locals in the community we are based in.

Do you think your time in Ghana with VAF helped shape your life path? Absolutely! If I hadn't finally decided to fulfil my dream of doing international service I would never had known how much I really enjoyed it, and how it completes me as a person. I always felt a void in my life and could never figure out what it was until I did this program. Now I could never imagine my life without it.

"Give a little, learn a lot" - this saying is so true. I really feel I get more out of the work I do then what I have to give.

What would you say to anyone wishing to volunteer abroad? DO IT!! If you are thinking on it, just do it. You may not find it is what you wanted, you may not enjoy it, but how do you know it you do not go for it. You could be like me and find what you were searching for but could never figure out.

My other suggestion is to make friends with the locals. I have been around a few volunteers that have absolutely loved it and others not so much. The one thing I have noticed is the ones that really enjoy their experience are the ones that make friends with the locals, go out and see "Ghana" from the eyes of the locals and really experience the culture. Keep an open mind and stop comparing it to your own culture. There are good and bad in every society and if you can take it all in and learn from both the good and the bad you will go away with an experience that will shape you as a person for the rest of your life.