For three and a half weeks in the summer of 1996, I worked at the Presidio of San Francisco on an international volunteer project. Along with the National Park Service and CIEE (Council on International Education and Exchange), I hosted 11 participants from Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
This was my second workcamp (a commonly used term for volunteer projects like this one), but it was my first one as a Group Leader. I wanted to spend my summer doing something meaningful, while giving back to the community. I wanted to meet new friends from around the globe. I wanted to show them my city! I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to understand the big wide world out there. Gather ’round the campfire and sing kumbaya, everybody!
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…
My group and I loved the idea that we could learn from each other through this cultural exchange and volunteer project.
We envisioned that at the end of it, we’d return to our respective homes, individually satisfied that our collective effort helped beautify parts of the historic Presidio. Our mission of serving as goodwill ambassadors accomplished!
As we all know, the vision sometimes does not match the reality.
The truth is: the workcamp was a vacation! You could say it was more camp than work! It provided over three weeks of freedom from the monotony of our student or professional lives at home.
While we did work hard, we mostly hated the meaningless work we were assigned to do (Replace tennis court nets? Inventory appliances in former housing units? Assemble metal shelves?)
We stayed in one of the former barracks and each of us had our own room. We took turns preparing meals and cleaning our shared living areas.
On the weekends, we enjoyed some fun activities. We rode Muni buses across town and strolled through Golden Gate Park. We camped out at the World War II-era Battery Chamberlin and took swigs from a shared bottle of Southern Comfort whiskey. We slept in our sleeping bags on cots in eerie D-Block prison cells on Alcatraz and watched Half Dome take on an orange hue as the sun went down in Yosemite!
Reflecting on my group leader experience
While I was confident in my flexibility and my high tolerance for challenging situations, I must admit that I was stepping out of my comfort zone when I accepted the Group Leader role.
During the workcamp, my people-skills got sharper. As a leader, I had to be more sensitive to what people were thinking and feeling. Cultural differences also inform body language, which I found challenging to decode at times. For example, standing close to someone’s face may be perceived as either aggression or friendliness depending on one’s cultural background.
Unlike the workcamp I had participated in the summer before — where there were two co-leaders who worked cooperatively — I felt there was no such support at this workcamp.
Since I didn’t have a co-leader, I had to motivate myself, emotionally pat myself on the back, and support my decisions. That part was tough.
This workcamp experience really pushed me to discover my limits, too. My patience was tested — to my surprise — by the park ranger assigned to oversee our project.
What an insufferable bully! He often withheld information from me. When I wasn’t around, he would share information with the group. Of course, that made me look and feel foolish. I felt undermined. Not one to get confrontational, I just ignored it.
Well, today (over 20 years later!) I reflect and decide that I should not have ignored it. I recognize it was a missed opportunity to work out different working styles and navigate personality clashes. Sometimes people just don’t click despite their best efforts and that’s OK, too. After all, we just needed to get along. We didn’t have to like each other.
You live, you learn
I remember a popular song at the time was “You Learn” by Alanis Morissette. How her lyrics ring true: you live, you learn!
Let’s just say I learned the hard way that a local person does not necessarily make the best tour guide.
Either that or my new friends just asked all the hard-hitting questions, like “Why is it called Dolores Park?” or “How much is one of those Victorian houses?” (Fun fact: one of the “Painted Ladies” on Steiner Street was on the market recently for 2.75 million dollars!)
I was, however, able to:
- share my firsthand account of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (Terrifying shaking for 10 seconds that felt endless)
- point out Galileo High School, which was O.J. Simpson’s alma mater (It’s in the Russian Hill neighborhood)
- coach my new friends (who wanted to sound more local) to say “San FrIncisco” but never San Fran, or worse, Frisco! (cringe!)
Still, there were many things about “The City” that I didn’t know.
It didn’t help when the park ranger told me one time:
“You don’t get out much, do you?”
Did I mention he made the disparaging remark in front of our group? Oh, that Jim – such a charmer!
But you know what? He was absolutely correct.
That’s right. I choose to look beyond the snark and distill the sweet advice instead: Do more exploring closer to home! Play tourist or traveler in your hometown! Look inside yourself!
Where are they now?
Over the years, seven of us from the Presidio workcamp have managed to keep in touch. We have traveled to each other’s hometowns and a few of them have returned to San Francisco for a visit. For the workcamp’s 20th anniversary in 2016, I set up a Skype call and we had a virtual reunion.
A sort of kumbaya for the digital age, wouldn’t you agree?
If you have participated in a similar work project or cultural exchange (paid or volunteer), what did you learn from your experience(s)? Please share in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in my post >> Volunteering in Hérisson, France
Note: It appears that CIEE does not offer the international volunteer project program at this time.
To learn more about other educational exchange programs that they offer, visit their website here. (This post is not sponsored.)
*Today is Palindrome Day: 02/02/2020!*
It’s also Super Bowl Sunday: Kansas City Chiefs vs San Francisco 49ers! 🏈