February is Build a Movement Month at Repair the World – join us all month for posts that are nothing short of world changing.
What does it mean to build real, authentic, and lasting change in a community – all while engaging short-term volunteers in the process? Since 2007, the folks at Tevel b’Tzedek, an NGO that sends Israeli and Jewish volunteers from all over the world to serve in Nepal, have been answering this exact question.
Tevel offers three different volunteer opportunities set in their network of Nepali villages: 1 month cultural exchanges and service trips, 4 month in-depth study and volunteer experiences, and 1-year fellowships focused on agriculture, education, health and media. In their unique approach, they work with an extensive Nepali-based staff and local leaders within the communities to make sure the volunteers tap into part of a larger, slowly-building movement, and can make meaningful change during their time in Nepal.
Repair the World spoke with recent volunteer, Matthew Kessler (MK), and Tevel Nepali staff member, Aatamram Neupane (AN), to find out how Tevel’s unique approach to service work plays out in the real world. Like what you read and ready for an adventure? Apply to volunteer with Tevel b’Tzedek today!
What drew you to Tevel b’Tzedek’s work?
MK: I heard about it through word of mouth and immediately identified with their holistic approach. I liked the key things like working with a Nepali staff, and I identified with the long-term plans the organization had for the areas they worked in. I liked that things seemed well thought out, and that there was a 3-5 year plan that included a phase out which means you work on creating real teachers and trainers in the communities you work in.
AN: Before joining Tevel I was working at a Nepali NGO that worked with at-risk youth and children. I came to know the organization through a friend and liked their integrative approach. I’ve been working with them for three years now and have worked with many cohorts of volunteers.
What did you work on during your time in Nepal?
MK: I was involved in agricultural work including creating sustainable water sources, working on food security, training farmers, and building communities through those trainings.We built nurseries and compost facilities, and worked on larger projects like installing drip irrigation and building greenhouses to grow off season vegetables.
Can you tell me more about how Tevel b’Tzedek works to grow movements?
AN: Before moving into a new area of Nepal, we sit together and plan for 3-5 years. We have three years of goals and strategies mapped out for the area, which we then break down by year and by cohort. We think a lot about how the groups will pass their work from one to the next, and how the Nepali staff will fill in the gaps and continue the work we are doing between volunteer cohorts. We try to incorporate the understanding of the field and the need of the Nepali society with the volunteers we bring into a specific area.
When we leave an area, we don’t just leave it as if we were abandoning the community and the work we are doing. We phase out gradually. At the end of the 3rd year, the volunteers stop going, but the Nepali staff remains to hand over everything – all the processes and frameworks – to the community. We create local leaders.
What are the challenges involved with this type of long term work?
AN: Even though it is well planned out and executed, the transition between cohorts can be challenging. The communities we work in are not familiar with having foreign volunteers come into their lives. They get close with them, so when they leave, it takes time to adjust. And then it takes more time for them to build relationships and become family with the new group of volunteers who comes in.
MK: Speaking from my own experience, we just left our area this past week and it was very emotional for us as well as the villagers and families we had become close with. They are not accustomed to people coming and going, there is a lot more staying in one place than in our culture. In my case, our group was the first to work in the area, so we were the first contact and the first goodbye. I’ve decided that I’m going to come back and will continue working there in the community.
How do you help ease those transitions?
AN: At the beginning of each program, we have a big ceremony to help the groups and communities acclimate to one another and get to know each other.
MK: We have a regular seminar throughout the program. During the second to last seminar, they spoke about how to mentally and personally prepare ourselves for the transition. And also how to inform the people in the village of our leaving. But while they do build a strong connection with villagers in a short time, it is really the Nepali staff, which does not change over, that helps keep the fluidity and continuity.
What have been your favorite aspects of working with Tevel b’Tzedek?
AN: Working with Tevel has been a great learning experience for me. We not only integrate many different aspects of development into one program, we incorporate the knowledge of the local people with the knowledge of people coming from abroad. It gives us a broader perspective. This is what I appreciate most – this is really rare for organizations to do, and very special.
MK: I strongly identify with the ethics of the organization. It includes the voices of farmers, women, and children, and does not exclude anyone. I like the approach to community building within the communities we work with. I like how the program integrates American, Israeli, and international volunteers with the Neplai staff. We build strong relationships and gain a strong understanding of the social issues in the country.
Volunteering with Tevel b’Tzedek has been a really wonderful experience. It wasn’t what I expected, and it surprised me in a bunch of wonderful ways. Coming in here a lot of us have the notion that we’ll make a change in a short period of time. And its kind of an ego thing that you want to make this change, but its very humbling to learn of all the hardships here and to react and approach them in a more sustainable way. We learned not to do something just to satisfy ourselves, but to plant a seed that will grow and develop over time.
Apply for the next volunteer cohort with Tevel b’Tzedek at their website.