“Don’t be afraid of your fears, They’re there to let you know something is worth it” C. Joybell C
I have to say that I have been blessed to have an intense passion for helping animals. This passion has led to wonderful opportunities working and volunteering for some of the most incredible life changing organisations. My volunteer roles abroad include Gibbon rehabilitation in Thailand, bear welfare in Cambodia, washing elephants in Thailand, sailing in Scotland to monitor cetacean movements, Turtle conservation in Greece and caring for Sloths and monkeys in Costa Rica. People often ask me what my favourite experience has been, this is a hard one to answer, they were all so different, each of the charities contributes greatly in their own way and I have learnt and grown so much with every placement. What I will share with you today is a very personal experience though, my very first volunteer trip, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre in Thailand.
This was huge, I was 23 years old, first time traveling alone, first time ever volunteering and it happened at a very vulnerable time in my life. I had been through something very dramatic in my personal life and it crushed me to the core (and almost completely siphoned all my self-esteem). I was deflated, depressed, had lost almost all my hope – I needed to see value in life. So what did I do? I shaved my head ( I know what some of you are thinking and this was well before Britney Spears’ shaving melt down) and threw myself into shared living conditions with people I had never met, getting up at dawn for a 6am start working in the humid hills of rural Thailand. And how was it overall? In a word, exhilarating. Sure there were tired, trying sweaty times but honestly, seeing those amazing animals; where they had come from and where they were going – just amazing.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), is situated on the boarders of the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park about 40 minutes drive from bustling Patong. The centre takes in rescued gibbons, often used on the streets as tourist attractions – ( a side note, please never take your photo with a wild animal on holidays, the cruelty behind this is absolutely horrific. For example, with gibbons poachers will kill an entire family to take away a baby who is then subjected to an intensely unnatural life.) GRP then pairs gibbons together, once they find a suitable partner and a family unit is created they undergo the slow release process into the surrounding forest. During my two months there I had the opportunity to see the process from start to finish. I witnessed gibbons used for hustling on the busy streets of Patong, the relationships blossom between new pairs, a protective mother and father with their new young one, surveyed prereleased groups in the forest, transported a gibbon through kilometres of forest to get them from one release cage to the next and was even fortunate enough to be part of a release day! A film crew were also there to document the work of the sanctuary, the director interviewed me for the film which was later featured on the Pay TV channel Animal Planet!
Emotionally, this experience was tough at times, I was going through a lot personally plus I was completely out of my comfort zone – particularly with spiders believe it or not. I witnessed a giant spider chasing a frog down the muddy hill as the ‘big rain’ was pouring down… I used to shudder just thinking about it. But don’t let that turn you off volunteering in the jungle… Facing your fears can be one of the most incredible growth experiences! I am proud to say that I have now walked on a forest night tour in Costa Rica where tarantulas and wolf spiders were scurrying by our feet! Creepy crawlies aside it was all a massive development phase for me, I learnt my strengths – I enjoyed training new volunteers in the most efficient yet comprehensive ways to get a job done, applying my vet nursing skills when doing basic health checks and surveying in the jungle. Then there are the not so strong traits – keeping calm with drunken idiots who have been sent away on a mission to ‘come good’ by their parents ( I only encountered one person like this the entire time I was at the centre, I just don’t have patience for those who are not there to help and do right by the animals). The other struggle was accepting that dying animals would not be given the ‘green dream’ due to the Buddhist belief that you do not deliberately kill another sentient being. This perplexed me SO hard! I was vegetarian at the time and I couldn’t understand how people could kill animals for food when we can live healthily without them yet the very same people weren’t allowed to step in and help a suffering animal along to the afterlife?!!! I guess that is the vet nurse in me coming out again or the very fact that I believe we should all be given the option to leave this world sooner if we are in agony on our death bed.
Talking to people about these experiences they often say “you are so lucky”. I have to say bluntly and respectfully, luck has nothing to do with it. When you have a passion for a cause you will do anything to be part of it… we even made volunteering part of our honeymoon! I would have to say in this particular instance, the most valuable personal lessons I can take from this I call a “gift from the gibbons”. Although they can be cheeky, they are also complex, driven and strong willed. Take Tam the disabled gibbon for example, she experienced severe trauma at the hands of humans. Tam had lost one hand and the other had just two digits left making it very difficult to eat and groom. Yet she is so determined to thrive (she remains at the centre as she has special needs). Despite her ordeal she has learnt something very powerful… forgiveness. She allows humans back into her heart and trusts that they help her and protect her from harm. She loves human contact and craves her routine back scratches and daily interactions with volunteers.
Reflecting like this now years on I honestly realise just how much I learnt on this particular journey. Something massive I also take from this experience today I relate to what I said earlier about seeing where the Gibbons have come from and where they were going and it is a point that two of my biggest mentors, Adele McConnell and Robyn Law have been telling me all along through their Make Some Real Dough course - You may not be where you want to be or even who you want to be right now but recognise where you have come from and where you are going. Appreciate how much you have achieved in your life no matter how big or small those achievements may feel to you. Enjoy the journey through life, pause and recognise your own stengths. If you are not sure where you are going this is the perfect time to sit back and ponder hey where do I want to be going? And put in motion the intention to ensure you are heading in that direction, the direction of fulfilling what you are here on the Earth to do. In the wise words of another mentor, Marie Forleo, "Stay on your game because the world needs that special gift that only you have".
Do you have a personal growth story you would like to share?
I’d love to hear it please post in the comments below!