To describe my volunteer experience, I would have to say it was like jumping off a cliff. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in my second year of college, taking Elementary Education, and I was sure that teaching was for me. My life had been pretty normal up to that point – no huge illnesses – and I was in a stable relationship with God. But I wanted more. Looking for adventure and that “best-year-of-my-life” experience that all volunteer recruiters promised, I put my education on hold and applied to be a volunteer. My first choice was Cambodia. However, things didn’t work out, and on August 5th, 2011, I found myself on a plane to Yap, Micronesia, as the newly appointed third grade teacher. I was excited, scared, and very sure that this year would be unforgettable. I very clearly remember asking God to stretch my faith.
The first few weeks there were some of the happiest I have ever experienced. My new life was a chaos of getting settled, adjusting to the new environment (especially the heat), and trying to figure out what to teach and how to teach it. I was loving every minute. Yes, there were problems, but I had expected minor problems. The main thing was that I was enjoying teaching, my relationship with God was growing, and I loved the people that I was working with as well as my students.
Then I got sick. I went to the hospital and was told it was just the flu. However, two weeks later, my stomach was in so much pain that it was decided I should go back to the hospital just to be safe. Hospitals in Yap are very different from hospitals in Canada. So I was a little nervous when the doctor discovered that I needed to have my appendix removed. It was too late to fly me anywhere else and it was decided that I would have surgery on the island. I remember being wheeled into the operating room, saying to myself, “This is not what I signed up for!” I was not sure my faith was strong enough to handle a surgery far away from home, without my parents. But I had no choice. Panic and nerves began to set in. Nothing this big had ever happened to me. This was not in my perfect plan for volunteer life.
My nervousness only increased when the doctors gave me a spinal tap. After four tries, I began to lose feeling from the neck down. However, the doctors were sure I should still have feeling in my arms. I didn’t; in fact, I couldn’t move any part of my body. Unfortunately, that made it impossible for me to jump off the table and run away. The only thing left to do was pray. I was awake for the entire surgery, which allowed for several minutes of frantic praying. To say my prayer life increased during this time would be an understatement.
Recovery seemed to be going okay after that. The hospital had no air-conditioning and their definition of sanitation was a little different from mine. All the same, I seemed to be healing. Then, a week after surgery, I began to run a fever. Andrea, a fellow volunteer, walked in on me covered in a blanket and complaining of the cold. It was probably over 35 degrees Celsius (over 95 degrees Fahrenheit) at the time. Back to the hospital we went. This time the doctors really had no idea what was wrong. They put me back in my room, hooked up an IV, and watched as my temperature slowly increased. That night was one of the worst I had ever experienced. I knew I needed to leave Yap, but I just did not see how it was possible. I did not have the money to fly to Guam and the hospital did not want to let me go. On top of that, if I did not make the flight that night, the next flight was three days away. What was I supposed to do? Praying was the only solution and it was a combined effort. From the staff, students, and church members on Yap, to my parents, friends, family, and church members at home. Not only did they pray, but members of the church and school combined resources to help get me off the island. In fact, one very special and beloved person was willing to pay my airfare and hers so that I was insured a flight, had a companion to take care of me, and was not forced to wait till Tuesday. It was an answer to my prayers and it could not have come at a better time.
After a long and taxing flight, I found myself at the Guam Memorial Hospital. Unfortunately, the hospital is small, and the wait can sometimes take up to two days. I remember laying there and thinking, “All right God. I can’t handle this any longer. I am in too much pain. You said you wouldn’t give me more than I could bear. Please get me a room.” Yet again, God answered my prayers through the extraordinary efforts of individuals. The doctors who worked at the Seventh-day Adventist clinic in Guam came through and got me my own room. In fact, one of the doctor’s wives brought extra blankets and other such things to make me feel at home. All three of my amazing doctors checked on me frequently and always prayed with me before they left.
After undergoing many tests, the doctors concluded that I had several infections and I began a round of antibiotics which took about a week and a half. By this stage, my spirits were pretty low. This was not the “best-year-of-my-life” experience that I had been expecting. In fact, it seemed to be turning into the worst year of my life. I clung to the promise that God would not send me more than I could bear. I pleaded with God to be reunited with my students. It was breaking my heart that I wasn’t able to teach them and that I was causing so much stress for the school. Everyone was working extra hours to cover my classes and the other duties I had. I felt extremely guilty because of that, and I just wanted to get back to my volunteer work.
This is where I really saw God stepping up through other people. First, there was Andrea, the amazing woman who accompanied me to Guam. She was a constant source of wisdom and spiritual guidance. We were able to laugh at the situation I was in and be thankful that I was not in child birth, because we were sure that had to be worse! Then there was the family who picked me up from the airport and helped us through the entire experience. We were new to Guam and they provided us with all the resources and company we needed. I was lucky enough to have several other visitors, but the biggest support of all came from a local family that was staying in the room next to mine. The man had gotten into a bad motorcycle accident and the whole family was staying with him. His sister had seen me walking the halls and felt impressed to greet me. Here I was, the volunteer representing Christ, and she was the one making contact with me! That was the start of a great friendship. We would spend hours watching movies and talking about everything, from God to Canada. She introduced me to the whole family, including aunts, uncles and friends, and they took it upon themselves to make my hospital experience a lot less lonely.
Two weeks and a lot of little miracles later, I was back in Yap. But as much as I pushed myself and pleaded with God, I was not fully recovered. In fact, I seemed to be slowly getting worse again. My only goal was to teach my students, but I could barely survive half a day. Finally, instead of praying for a specific answer, I prayed for God to give me the ability to accept His will. About a week later, it was decided that I should leave Yap. It was the hardest decision of my life. But it had to be done.
The flight was long and I cried most of the way. I was so angry at God for my departure from Yap. For some reason, I believed that as soon as I accepted His will, it would coincide with mine. Unfortunately, it had not, and I was furious. I don’t remember much of what I said to Him or what the plane ride was like, but I probably scared most of the poor passengers to death. It was during that time that I decided that I would return to Yap no matter what. I remember being wheeled into the airport and loudly proclaiming to my parents that I was going back. They probably thought I was crazy.
I spent several weeks recovering at home. Up until the day I left, I still believed that God would pull through, allowing me to recover and stay in Yap. Once home, it was an awakening to me. He had not answered my prayers. I was in rough shape, having lost at least thirty pounds, and I was tired all the time. The smell of food made me sick; my stomach caused me constant discomfort, and I had been on high levels of pain medication for almost a month. To make matters worse, people at home did not understand what I went through. It seemed that they were blaming me. It came across as if they believed that I would have been fine if my prayer life was stronger, or if I had more faith. Because of this, I vowed I was going back if I had to swim the whole way myself. I would prove to them that Yap was where God wanted me.
I was not the only one struggling either. The school in Yap seemed to have problem after problem. At first, we did not have enough teachers, and for weeks we continued to pray and hope for more. In fact, I taught both second and third grades while we were waiting for more teachers to arrive. By the time we were fully staffed, I was sick with appendicitis. After that, several other things happened, including frequent earthquakes. When Andrea and I arrived back from Guam, Andrea got sick with Dengue fever. She ended up going home around the same time as me, placing a major amount of stress on all the volunteers left on the island. It also caused me to doubt God even more. Why would He allow both of us to leave? Didn’t He care about Yap SDA School?
As the months went by, I learned a lot. I would never agree that it’s okay to be angry at God. But I understand why He says to be either hot or cold. He was able to work with my anger because it meant that I was still talking to Him. As our relationship began to heal, I felt like God was calling me back to Yap. At first, I have to admit, that it was my own stubbornness I heard. Everyone was telling me not to go back, but I was going to prove them wrong. Maybe I could finally get the volunteer experience I so desperately craved. But then I began to truly focus on what God wanted and I felt his leading. My anger faded; my relationship with Him grew, and as a result, I began to prepare to head back to Yap in January.
All the barriers standing in my way began to disappear with God’s help. The amazing people of Walla Walla fund-raised for me, even though I was not part of their school. My parents also supported my returning. There were some medical problems that did arise. The genetic heart murmur I had always had got worse as a result of the infections received during surgery. But the doctors said I was fine to return and I knew that was a sign.
On January 15th, I was back on a plane and headed for Yap.
I was ecstatic to be back. The last three months of my life had been geared towards recovering so that I could return. I was finally able to continue my adventure. I wish I could say that my story ends here. That my dive off the cliff had ended and that I had reached flat ground. Unfortunately for me, that was not the case at all.
Four days after I arrived, Andrea, who had arrived two days earlier (after being sent home due to dengue fever), broke her foot in two places and was rushed to the hospital. That shocked me. My rose-colored glasses were yanked off and life as a volunteer set in. Don’t get me wrong – I loved being there, but life in Yap is hard, and Andrea breaking her foot was one of the worst points of the entire year. It was as if God seemed to be forgetting our Island.
About five weeks later, I knew something was wrong. I remember running out of my class and throwing up. I sat on the ground beside the toilet and cried. I was so terrified of being sick. I believed that I could never go through that again and yet I knew there was something wrong. But instead of praying, I got up, and out of sheer stubbornness, walked back into my classroom to finish teaching. In the days that followed, I would run out to throw up at random, but I made Jesse (the second grade teacher) promise not to say anything. I was here and I was staying, if I had to tie myself to a tree.
My poor students went through a lot. I confronted them and let them know that I was feeling a little sick and that they had to be extra good. They were solemn, and then one student yelled out, “We have to be quiet, otherwise teacher will leave us for Canada again!” It broke my heart and I promised that I would not leave. I had forgotten the lesson I had learned last time. I should have prayed that God’s will would be done; instead I stopped praying all together, knowing that His will might not be the same as mine.
As I got worse, the school stepped up and supported me. Some days were fine, but I knew I couldn’t keep up and could only teach when I felt strong enough. I was losing weight again and the doctors could not tell what the problem was. My head ached constantly and when it got unbearable I would throw up. I had a low-grade fever most of time and I was very weak. But as sick as I was, I refused to leave. I thought my heart would physically break if I gave up and left.
Doctors on the island ran some tests to see if I had an amoeba, but the results were negative. However, due to the lack of good equipment, the tests are often wrong, so I was urged to take the medication anyway. By this time, I had stopped praying altogether. I did yell at God, though, and demand to stay. I offered certain promises if He would heal me, but I did not talk to Him. I was just not content to follow His will. Finally, the North American Division officers and the president of the Guam Micronesian Mission arrived to do a tour of the new schools that had been added to their territory. After hearing what was happening, they urged me to leave Yap, so it was decided that I would go to Guam again. If I didn’t get better there, I would fly home.
I don’t think I can express in words how hard it was. While the decision was being made, I remember bursting into tears several times and having to run out of the room. I felt so alone and no one was there to pray with me or even hold my hand. God did not seem to be listening and the people I looked up to the most were not giving me the comfort I expected. I remember sitting on the floor and weeping, when a Yapese woman approached me to ask what was wrong. I tried to explain that she should just leave, but I doubt she understood through all the weeping. She just sat down and hugged me. In that moment, I was reminded that help and love can come from unexpected places. I began to think that maybe I was not as alone as I thought.
With a little more courage, I went back to the house and talked to my roommates. I seriously had no idea how I was going to pack up, grade all my papers and make lesson plans for the next week. I only had four hours to finalize everything and come to terms with leaving Yap a second time. My roommates really came through for me and we managed to get everything done. That night, I flew to Guam.
By now, I was so depressed. I had been forced to leave Yap without even saying goodbye to my students. It broke my heart to know that I had lied to them. All of my other good byes had been rushed, and my adopted family didn’t even know that I was leaving until they arrived at the airport. I was mad at the world and convinced that God had made a huge mistake. Twice.
My second stay in Guam was short and hard. I was pretty sick and it all seems a blur now. But I do remember the Reel family. I had met them during my last hospital stay and they were great. I spent hours at their house hanging out. They reminded me that my health was my first priority and that I was not the only one who could teach my kids. They became my family and I am forever grateful to them. It may have seemed like God did not care, but the Reel’s showed me that God knew what He was doing. He placed the right people in my path, ensuring that I could make it through what had seemed like my worst nightmare.
When nothing got better, I knew I had to leave. On March first, I began the journey home. The only thing worse than my first flight home was the second one. I was in a lot of pain and I began to vomit soon after the flight took off. The restroom was quite far away from where I was sitting, and to make things worse, I had a middle seat. I have never felt so guilty. The other passengers had a hard time. I would be crying one minute and then trying to run to the bathroom the next. That made for an interesting flight that I am sure my fellow flyers will not soon forget.
Once home, I again began the stressful process of healing, complete with hospital visits and enough drawn blood to fill another human! Two weeks later, I developed a rash and began to have problems swallowing. At this point, I was allowed to stay at home and I refused point blank to go into the hospital. By then I hated hospitals with a passion. But soon, I really couldn’t swallow. My neck was swollen, my tongue was twice its normal size, and I was having problems breathing. I would go through the process of trying to swallow but it only caused me a lot of pain. It scared me so much that I ran into my parents’ room in tears, telling them that I really couldn’t breathe. We made it to the hospital in record time. It was on that terrifying ride that I began praying again, and as soon as my father prayed with me, I felt better. The problem didn’t go away, but a sense of calm surrounded me and prepared me for what was ahead.
Once there, I was taken straight into the emergency area without having to wait at all. I was placed in isolation at the back of the hospital and everyone had to gown up to see me. This was a little strange, and I felt like I was in a thriller movie, except that I was the horrible person who spreads the virus and then dies. Not exactly the role I would have chosen! I spent the next week in the hospital. To this day, the doctors are still not sure what caused all the issues I was suffering from. They did discover that I had the Measles. They also discovered that I had Dengue fever and a peritonsillar cyst growing in the back of my throat. Popping the cyst caused the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life. However, it began to grow back even though I had been taking antibiotics and steroids. So I underwent surgery to remove my tonsils and cauterise my throat. The surgery would have taken place sooner, but my platelets were low due to the Dengue fever and that delayed it. It was rough and recovery was slow. I had a few complications and ended up visiting the hospital again, but three weeks later I could talk normally and my appetite and ability to eat was much better.
At present, I feel almost normal again. My relationship with God is back on track, but to be completely honest, I still have my doubts. I see pictures of others and their great volunteer experiences and I get jealous. Most of my pictures show me in various stages of sickness, in various hospitals. Not really what I want to put in a scrap book. Being a volunteer was not what I expected. In fact, it seems like it was a complete disaster. I never imagined this in my wildest dreams. But God did bless me. He answered my prayer to be stretched and to grow in faith. Through amazing people, in both Yap and Guam, I learned that no matter what happens and how fast your world seems to be plunging, God is there. He shows Himself through friends who stay with you in the hospital, force you to eat, remind you to pray, and support you through it all. He shows Himself through families who take you in, give you advice, and make you laugh when all you feel like doing is crying. Finally, He shows Himself through experiences that seem like disasters, but have small answered prayers hidden in them. Do I still doubt? Yes. But I am moving on. My volunteer experience was not what I envisioned or what I wanted at the time, but it was what God had planned, and with time and prayer that is becoming good enough for me.
Pamela Simanton, originally from Canada, served as a Third Grade Teacher at the Yap SDA School from July of 2011 to October of 2011 and from January of 2012 to March of 2012. Her motivation to serve as a volunteer stemmed from her desire to grow in faith and allow God to work through her. Though serving as a volunteer was the hardest experience she has faced, Pamela believes that her faith was stretched and that God knows best. She hopes that this article will be inspiring to those who may be going through difficult times while serving.
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