Merle Kindred just returned from a volunteer posting in Guyana, the latest in a long series of service work around the world.
A child of the sixties, Kindred went into volunteer work straight out of college in 1967.
“I’ve served in volunteer positions in various countries for 50 years. When I got to Guyana, I realized this was the anniversary, this was the 50th year,” said Kindred.
It all started with volunteering for a group called VISTA in 1967, Volunteers In Service to America, who shipped her off to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a year, right out of college.
“It was developing preschools and community health centres and establishing remedial education centres and things like that. It was good work. I enjoyed doing it,” said Kindred.
Later, on her first posting with Cuso International, Kindred was sent to what she jokes was a “hardship” post in Jamaica’s Montego Bay, working with teachers, training them in how to teach primary school reading and remedial reading courses for older students.
“I was there for two years doing teacher training and travelled all over the country doing teacher evaluations,” said Kindred. “I had a wonderful time and worked with fabulous folks, produced some really good results.”
It wasn’t all sun and sand postings though. Eventually, she ended up in southern India, working with a non-profit focused on housing.
“I was now dealing with energy efficient housing, so I found an organization that I wanted to do a case study on, it was kind of mirroring the work my late (architect) husband and I had been doing on built environments,” said Kindred. “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the non-governmental organization (NGO) and kind of fell in love with India and the place and the work they were doing.
“I was in and out of India for about 10 years, offering pro bono consultation on communications strategies and business practices, things like that.”
Kindred said she had decided she had done as she thought she could for her Indian colleagues about three years ago and hasn’t been out volunteering since.
“Then I got an itchy foot about a year ago,” said Kindred. “I found this posting in Guyana, which is the only English-speaking country in South America.”
The posting was for an NGO, the Volunteer Youth Corps, that needed a new strategic plan to help them plan for future operations.
“I decided I could do that,” said Kindred. “They are basically working in slum areas of Georgetown, trying to provide afterschool activities. There is a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program they are trying to foster so that children have some positive things to do after school.”
The group also offers after-school educational programs and career guidance programs, Kindred said noting that underemployment and unemployment are a huge issue in Guyana.
“Guyana is on the UN watchlist for being a potentially dangerous place. It is a country that is struggling and there is a lot of nefarious trade going on. A lot of the drugs coming out of Columbia filter through Guyana to the rest of the world,” said Kindred. “There is a lot of tension in the society and there is an underlying feeling of violence and menace there.
“Out of all the postings I have done in half a century, this was the most difficult.”
Kindred admits she had an ulterior motive for choosing a posting in Guyana. A member of the South Okanagan Naturalists Club, she is also a bird watcher.
“Guyana is one of the birding hotspots in the world. It has over 900 species that live there permanently, or they migrate there,” said Kindred. That included some iconic birds: the toucan with its great long bill or the blue and yellow macaws, the scarlet macaws.
“Big, flashy noisy birds,” she said. “And a whole range of birds down to teeny, tiny hummingbirds.
“Any free time I had, I would try to get into the hinterlands. Guyana still has 80 per cent of its rainforest intact and that is where the wild animals and the birds are.”
Guyana has a range of environments: rainforests, savannah, mountainous areas and coastal area with mangrove clusters.
“It is a real treasure trove for those that are interested in the wild creatures of the world. I also spent as much time as I could out enjoying what Guyana had to offer in the way of its natural history.”
But it was while she was outside Georgetown that she had an idea for a proposal for a second posting, this time working on developing economic activity based on the diverse ecology.
“What I am doing is using birds as a bridge and looking at the wealth of Guyana’s ecological base, melding that with economic development in the hinterlands with the indigenous people,” said Kindred. “I realized that developing the assets there, helping the indigenous people with economic gain, but also helping to preserve their natural heritage and make it more accessible, this could be a great boost to the country.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that I would be willing to put myself back in Guyana in another six-month posting.”
It is perhaps not so surprising when Kindred says she has always had a strong inclination to make a better world and better the lives of other people, especially working through education.
“I like to empower people, I don’t like to have power over people. Educate people, help them to be literate, help them to be healthy so that they can craft a better life for themselves,” said Kindred. “I feel more alive when I am in less overdeveloped countries, when I am doing real work with real people who are grappling with real problems.”