After studying education and literature for seven years at Ben Gurion University and working extensively in social work with special needs children, thirty-three-year-old Natalie Howard needed a change. It was the middle of the war in Israel last summer and Natalie, an Israeli citizen, started exploring opportunities to volunteer abroad.
That is when she found Tevel b’Tzedek. It was the exact opportunity she wanted. Tevel b’Tzedek organizes one-month, four-month and one-year volunteer opportunities in Nepal and Africa. The organization focuses on attracting Jewish volunteers, which helped Natalie feel at home. She identified with the connections to Israel and felt her past experiences had prepared her for this line of work. In a twist of fate, there was a last-minute cancellation and, just eleven days after her interview, Natalie was in Nepal.
When recounting her experiences two months after her return to Israel, Natalie still finds it difficult to completely summarize her experience. “Everything surprised me,” she stated, “Nepal itself surprised me. It was so different than anything I knew before.” Initially, embracing the difference was a challenge for Natalie. “There is something about stepping outside of your comfort zone and being immersed in a new culture where you don’t know the rules,” she says. “It really causes you to change. I faced a lot of my fears this last year.”
While Natalie was in Nepal, she was part of a team that started a youth group for young women in the village. Focusing on high schoolers, the youth group aimed to foster a feeling of community, a sense of leadership and a commitment to remaining in the village. She relates how one workshop was dedicated to teaching the young women about the menstrual cycle. The team had noticed that, when the girls were menstruating, they skipped school, mainly because the facilities did not have bathrooms. When the workshop first started, the girls were so embarrassed that they wouldn’t speak. But, after an hour or two, the girls slowly started to open up and Natalie and her colleagues taught the girls how to sew reusable pads.
A few weeks later, Tevel b’Tzedek organized an earth day for the community. The same girls who, just weeks before, were unable to speak about the topic of menstruation, introduced themselves and explained with pride what they had learned. This was a moment that really put things in perspective for Natalie and prompted her to think of taking her involvement with Tevel b’Tzedek a step further.
What I’ve learned this year is that there’s a possibility to bring change that’s not driven by frustration and anger. You don’t have to be angry to be driven to change – you can do it with love too!
After her yearlong volunteer experience in Nepal, Natalie decided to further her involvement with the organization and recently joined Tevel b’Tzedek’s full-time professional staff. “It was very clear for me from an early stage that I wanted to take it to the next level and apply to be a staff member,” Natalie explains. “I knew no matter how difficult the past few months had been that it was clear this was my passion; there was no dilemma.”
Tevel b’Tzedek emphasizes empowerment and sustainability. The teams on the ground put a lot of effort and thought into how to sustain the progress they catalyze, with the end goal of bringing strength to the local community so it can thrive on its own. Natalie describes the process as one of the main reasons she felt her experience on Tevel b’Tzedek was so unique.
Learn more about Tevel b’Tzedek volunteer opportunities here.