Meet Margaret Stevenson—a VSA volunteer who began her assignment in Timor-Leste as an Early Childhood Education Advisor. Margaret began her assignment as an e-volunteer and by mid-2023, a blended assignment was confirmed. Her role varied from providing training to Timorese educators to organising mini-workshops for teachers. Here’s a closer look at Margaret’s blended assignment and a peek into her everyday life as a volunteer…

Give us an insight into your Partner Organisation—who they are and what are their goals.

The Assignment Partner was UNICEF Timor-Leste. The NGO I was working directly with was the Alola Foundation. Alola is a significant NGO in Timor-Leste that focuses on supporting and improving the lives of women and families of Timor-Leste. UNICEF is responsible for the Community Preschools in the districts of Ermera and Viqueque. The teachers (facilitators) are volunteers and often untrained, with various levels of schooling themselves. They make this extraordinary commitment to better the lives of these little children in their communities.

How did you assist your partner organisation as an in-country and an e-volunteer?

E-volunteering began post covid era (I was in-country 2019). It provided an opportunity to continue to engage with the nine Field Officers. They are the link to the teachers working in their villages out in the districts. Each Field Officer is responsible for the overview of 10-14 preschools. As an e-volunteer, I found WhatsApp a good resource. Most Timorese have a phone, and the Field Officers would send photos of their preschool visits and I was able to share reflections and suggestions. The e-volunteer programme expanded to a team of four in 2022 for 3 months. I valued my colleagueship during this period. We worked closely with the UNICEF and Alola early childhood teams to develop a 3-day training workshop for all their teachers. Suggested topics were discussed, and we utilised our specific skills and focus interests to develop PowerPoint presentations. The UNICEF and Alola teams then presented these to the 120 teachers. It was an experiment and an experience! By mid-2023, a blended assignment was confirmed. The daily practical work included seizing opportunities to gain a greater understanding of how Timor culture and values manifest in day-to-day living and the workplace, as well as working alongside a colleague, respecting different philosophies but ensuring consistency and cohesion. Our focus was 2 x five-day training in the districts of Ermera and Viqueque for the teachers. These training days were so worthwhile. Our focus was the developmental needs of young children during their first seven years and how teachers reflect this in their classroom practices. The Field Officers supported our workshops – their growth as educators is an important step in their journey to becoming mentoring teachers in the future. Working with them to develop their skills is part of our commitment to building capacity.

Wins you’ve had while being on assignment.

After the training weeks were over, we were able to undertake the most vital and rewarding element of the assignment objectives which was to be able to visit the teachers in their classrooms, to meet the children and their families, and communities. This wasn’t a simple process to organise. We required approval to travel to districts, what villages are accessible, arrange for drivers and accommodation, and the preparation of mini-workshops for small clusters of teachers. All this effort was entirely worthwhile as this enabled close observation to offer feedback so teachers have a sense of what is going well and what support they might need; an opportunity to ask questions and for myself as a mentor to hear (and see) their challenges and needs. But most inspiring of all, I see their commitment and their desire to become the best educators they can be. I know small successes, little steps, are valuable – they have a ripple effect that might not be seen immediately! Other highlights include—A full early childhood to high school changing their programme to welcome us, to sing for us, and to provide and share food. A Community Elder took the time to tell me about the traditional house they are building for the community to ensure the young people retain their connection to their culture. And of course, the privilege of seeing more of beautiful Timor-Leste.

What advice would you give to those considering a volunteering assignment in the Pacific?

Some preparatory steps I would suggest is that if there is time before departing to the country (or even if engaging in e-volunteering), endeavour to find out a little about the country’s culture and history and how it impacts the community. Read books (even novels that are set in the country). Look for myths, legends, and folk stories (books or online). They can provide a real insight into their cultural life. Go online and follow a language course, even if just the greetings, so you can actively participate in community life. Learn to be observant as this enables you to pick up nuances more quickly, especially in the workplace. It changes the way you might approach something. It fosters empathy and understanding and builds bridges. Don’t assume, because a Timorese speaks English, you are understanding each other. Being respectful, patient, and tolerant ensures you settle more quickly. Use respectful language even when needing to have difficult conversations. Commit to building relationships, including social relationships with local people. Ask genuine questions and active listening – you discover what is important to the other person, and it invites them to find out more about you. Know your ‘must haves’ to live comfortably, and chat with someone who has lived there – some things are just not available, but you can be surprised by what is available. Be bold – just do it!

What have you enjoyed about your time in-country?

I am enriched by the opportunities I have had to immerse myself, even a little, into Timorese life. To be able to experience everyday people getting on with their everyday lives with purpose and generosity of heart. An awakening experience that challenges and awakens you to a bigger picture. These young children are not just Timor-Leste’s future, but humanity’s future!