From Volunteer to International Expat: Elsa’s Story

My story starts simply enough. I was born in Sturgis, Michigan, one of those small towns in Michigan that you have to tell people where it is by either pointing on your hand or referring to the distance it takes to get there from the nearest bigger city (aka, 45 minutes south of Kalamazoo). I came to Grand Valley after falling in love with the campus and the city of Grand Rapids during my campus visit.

After my first year at GVSU, I was, surprise, surprise, not looking forward to spending the summer in my hometown once again. Not to mention I couldn’t find a good job, which meant I would be stuck filing paperwork at the good ol’ family business which I had been doing since the age of 14. It was a great job back in high school, but after a year living away from home, I was ready for more.

While I was packing up my dorm room and preparing myself to settle back in to life pre-university at home, an idea popped in to my head, and it is that idea that has defined the last six years of my life, literally.

My Idea

I wanted to volunteer in the Philippines for 3 months before beginning my fall semester at GVSU. Why the Philippines?

1. I had a friend from high school that was Filipino and going there for the summer to spend time with her family – a great tool for convincing my parents I had a back-up plan if things weren’t what we expected.

2. It is a tropical paradise – let’s face it, my motivations were multifaceted.

3. I found an organization that had placements at an orphanage – did I forget to mention that I love working with kids?

4. The cost of living seemed unbeatable – again, a great tool for convincing my parents to help (financially) support my trip.

So after a couple dozen support letters, a lot of reading, and around a million email conversations with the volunteer coordinators of Volunteer for the Visayans, based in Tacloban City, Philippines, I was on my way to the Philippines. My first trip was challenging to say the least. On my first day, I couldn’t count the number of cockroaches I saw in my homestay or the number of times I held back tears. But, by the end of the second week, the breezy rides on the jeepney to the orphanage in the morning, the afternoon naps in front my electric fan drenched in sweat, and the delicious Filipino dinners my host mother cooked every night were everything I had dreamed of.

Teaching Dance in 2011

And, by the end of that summer, I couldn’t imagine leaving; so once again, I can’t tell you how many times I held back tears but this time it was on my last day in the Philippines. As I left Tacloban, a city that had become a new home to me, I vowed I would come back, although I had no idea at the time how much my relationship with the Philippines would truly impact my future.

Fast forward to junior year.

I was getting antsy to get out of Allendale (every junior at GVSU knows the feeling), and I wanted get back to the Philippines. I was majoring in Sociology and Psychology, and when I realized my mandatory sociology practicum could be completed abroad I jumped at the opportunity. Next thing I knew I was booking my flight to spend the fall semester of my senior year in the Philippines. My sociology practicum was fulfilled through my placement at the same orphanage I worked at during my first trip, and I added a 3 credit independent study project to make myself a full time student in the Philippines! It was a dream come true (thanks to GVSU).

Orphange Work in 2011 for my Sociology Practicum

The second time around.

I settled back in to life in Tacloban effortlessly and happily, of course. And by October, I was introduced to a village that has changed my life, quite possibly even more so than the Philippines as a whole. My family and friends back home raised funding to build three homes in the village, called Cangumbang, and it was there that I fell even deeper in love with the Philippines. The children were beyond energetic, the families curious and friendly, and the fact that the village needed more than just a few homes left me unable to forget them.

When I left the Philippines in December 2011, I knew my work in Cangumbang wasn’t finished. This time, an idea was planted in my head that never went away. The village experienced intense flooding throughout the year, frequently submerging the village in water, literally, leaving the families to fend for themselves on the roofs of their homes or forcing them to swim to higher ground. Someone gave me the idea of building a community center that could double as an evacuation center for the community, and it seemed perfect. I knew they needed it, and I knew I could be the person to provide the support they needed to have it. I just had to finish my degree first.

Upon graduation, I began conceptualizing the idea further, and sharing it with my family and friends more openly. Eight months later, I was booking a flight back to the Philippines, thanks to the church from my hometown, as well as numerous other supporters, who raised the funds needed to build the community center.

Becoming an NGO Intern in the Philippines…

I landed in the Philippines in February 2013 to intern with Volunteer for the Visayans. My main responsibilities? To see the project to completion, from purchasing materials, to keeping the kids away from the construction site, to visiting the local government offices, to shoveling cement. I was introduced to the founder of Volunteer for the Visayans, and it was a turning point in my relationship with the Philippines. He heard my story, he saw what I saw doing, and he offered me a job with his company in Tacloban, It was, as they say, an offer I couldn’t refuse; a way to stay in the Philippines for an extended period.

Distributing Relief Goods in the community center after Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013

…And then an Expat

By July 2013, I was settling in to my very own apartment in Tacloban, and we were putting the finishing touches on the community center in Cangumbang. My life had went from small town girl, to volunteer in the Philippines, to expat living abroad in a flash. It was a life I never imagined for myself, but it was everything I have ever wanted at the same time.

Then November came, and along with it Typhoon Haiyan, one of the worst storms in the country’s history. It ravaged through the Philippines causing unexplainable devastation, and just so happened to make its way directly through my second home. In a few short hours, my life was literally flipped upside down. I was stretched to my limits as I literally scavenged the city for food, water, and loved ones for days, until communication and relief supplies arrived in the city. Even months later, life was not back to normal, yet I remained in Tacloban.

The important thing is I survived. And miraculously, so did every single person in the village of Cangumbang by taking shelter in my community center that was finished just two months before the typhoon made landfall. It has taken over a year and half, but thankfully the city is coming back to life, and it is clear that communities are rebuilding better than ever before. It was meant to be. I guess if the strongest storm recorded on the planet couldn’t draw me away from the Philippines, then it must be a relationship that is meant to be, right? It is a relationship that has been rewarding, challenging, surprising, and at the end of the day filled with happiness. If it wasn’t for that crazy idea that popped into my head the summer after freshman year at GVSU, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

So where am I today?

I now spend Tuesday through Friday working out of the GoAbroad Office in the Philippines, managing our website’s content team and promoting international education programs (including GVSU’s International Programs). I spend Saturdays and Sundays conducting activities and feeding at my community center in Cangumbang. Oh and on Monday, and every other waking moment, I am writing blogs, visiting my host family (who have become my Filipino family), traveling to islands that go beyond the word paradise, sending emails to donors as well as family and friends back home, spending time with my co-workers and friends, and delving into delicious Filipino foods.

If it were not for volunteering abroad, studying abroad, interning abroad, and working abroad, I may just be that small town girl filing papers at my family business. Instead I am an Editor and Content Manager for, Director of our company’s charitable foundation – the GoAbroad Foundation, Vice President of the Board of Trustees at Volunteer for the Visayans, and Philippines Site Director for CISAustralia, an international education company that helps Australians expand their education abroad.

I not only stand behind the mission of volunteering abroad, and traveling abroad in any way through any type of program, I am a living example of the impact it can have on your life. Don’t wait to see where life leads you after graduation. Lead your own life, experience the world now.

Photography credits: Ardie Lopez, Ian Delgado & Elsa Thomasma Photo Shoot

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