The thing I love most about Girlguiding is the opportunity for international adventure. This week, I want to share a few of my experiences of the Girl Guiding and Scouting movements overseas.
I fell into international Guiding almost by accident. It all came about because I attended an annual national selection camp for leaders aged 18-30. And I attended at the last minute through a cancellation place 3 days before the event. I knew nothing about worldwide Guiding, but a friend convinced me to go, and I thought it would be a nice chance to meet leaders in my peer group, get away for the weekend, and there was the added bonus that it would count towards my Queen's Guide award which I was working on at the time.
The atmosphere that weekend was infectious: good humoured, light hearted, meaningful, inspiring and also, at times, downright ridiculous. But I loved it, and by the end of the weekend, not only did I want to get involved with a bit (or perhaps a lot) of International Guiding, I had put my name forward for selection for GOLD.
GOLD is the UK's flagship international program within Girlguiding. Leaders up and down the country are selected and put in teams of 6 who travel abroad to volunteer for 3 weeks. The projects GOLD works on are unique as they are sustainable, lasting 3-5 years with a new team visiting each year to continue the project. And the projects themselves are requested by the host country's Guiding association which means that the work volunteers do is of real value as it's directed by what is needed, rather than what teams choose to do that year.
If all goes to plan, at the end of 5 years, the host country has achieved it's goals, and GOLD teams aim to facilitate local Guiding to continue their development themselves. In the past, GOLD has travelled to Madagascar, Guyana, Tanzania, The Gambia, Malawi, Latvia, Egypt... the list is quite extensive, and at the moment, around 8 GOLD teams a year head out across the world to share their knowledge and expertise and gain some insight into Guiding abroad. Projects have included everything from health and hygiene training, to recruitment of girls and leaders, to establishing a new section of Guiding for younger girls, like Rainbows in the UK.
A few weeks after the selection weekend, I received a letter in the post. I been selected for GOLD, and I was going to Armenia.
I thought two things: 1) AMAZING!!!!!! 2) Armenia? Where is that exactly?
Having located Armenia on a map (it's at the eastern end of Europe and shares borders with Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia) I was fired up and ready to go. That was start of a year of adventure, of challenge and of truly life-changing experiences.
Once our team was together, we learned learned our aims in Armenia would be help NUGGGS with recruitment of new leaders, and to offer further training of existing leaders. (NUGGGS is the National Union of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in Armenia) We would be doing this by running some sessions at the Armenian national camp, visiting 3 different communities to run intensive 2-day training programs, and by holding a retreat for existing leaders to develop their skills.
I quickly learned that you can be united with 5 other women from across the country and become instant friends. I was nervous, and apprehensive; I was also desperate not to show it, as I didn't want to be the weak link in the team. But those women were friendly, supportive and wonderful; as a team, we grew and we changed, we made the most of our strengths and supported each other when things didn't go to plan.
And things didn't go to plan a lot. Sometimes we ended up in a different part of the country than originally anticipated. We camped in a field where the Armenian Guides had managed to rig up a sound system but where there was no running water. We turned up to lead trainings that hadn't been advertised so there were no participants. We had to do an emergency hospital dash in the middle of the night. And we had to re-write a program of activities we had prepared as the group attending decided they wanted to learn something else instead.
I had also never laughed so much. Laughed as we failed on every single attempt to buy milk in the local shop, and ended up with curdled yoghurt separating suspiciously in our tea. We spent days in clothes in desperate need of a wash, and took to Febreezing each other down. We performed the YMCA at the top of the Cascade, a flight of almost 700 steps in the centre of Yerevan. And we discovered about 2 weeks into the trip that we had got the phrase for "My name is..." wrong and we'd been introducing ourselves incomprehensibly as the Armenians had politely nodded along.
But most importantly of all, we discovered we had the strength, commitment and flexibility to adapt to all situations, and we didn't face any of it alone. We met the challenge together and had the most incredible time doing it, and learned to laugh off minor problems and work around them.
We met some amazing women when we went to volunteer in Armenia. Women who believe passionately in the power of Guiding to change young women's lives for the better, and who are fighting to provide these opportunities for girls in their communities. They welcomed us warmly, shared their lives, homes and culture with us, and gave us a real sense of what a wonderful country Armenia is. They gave us an insight into the history of the country as we visited the Genocide museum, and we experienced the life of young people living in Yerevan today as our hosts took us out for an evening.
It's an uphill struggle, but I really hope the Armenian Guides feel proud of their accomplishments, because the progress they have made is huge. More units have started, more girls are getting involved and during the last year, NUGGGS have become official members of WAGGGS and become part of the worldwide movement of Guiding. This is a huge achievement, and while it's nice to think that GOLD may have helped, there is no doubt that their success is due to the inspiring, tireless and warm-hearted efforts of Armenian Guide leaders.
I gained a huge sense of pride from donning my International necker in red, white and blue, and setting off across the world to represent Girlguiding in my country. That feeling of aspiration, the sense of adventure and my desire to see more of the world have been with me ever since.
Armenia was just the beginning of my adventure in International Guiding, and I hope I have a long way to go yet. Later this week, I'll be sharing a little bit more about our GOLD Armenian adventure, and some other international projects.
P.S. If you're aged 18-30 and a member of Girlguiding, I cannot recommend GOLD enough, and you can find more information by following this link.
P.P.S. This post is part of a little series about Girlguiding, and you can find the others linked below. Meanwhile, join me tomorrow for a little more about our Armenian GOLD project.