The ideals were always there, but it took an international volunteer trip to give 20-year-old Kieren Nelson a voice to advocate change.
Kieren recently returned to Prince Rupert after taking part in an unconventional volunteer exchange program facilitated by Canada World Youth, which he says changed his perspective of the world. Kieren is now devoted to advocating equal rights and opportunities for all people.
“Before going on the program equality was always something I was passionate about, but I didn’t have the language to talk about it. I didn’t feel that I knew enough to be an advocate for change. It was something I felt and thought about, but it wasn’t something I shared,” Kieren said.
Kieren was born and raised in Prince Rupert, with his concern for environmental issues and human rights issues being provoked by his mother Christina.
“My mother is a union representative and when I was young she always spoke about people’s rights and First Nations issues. It was always a part of my upbringing,” he said.
A year after graduating from Prince Rupert Secondary School in 2011, Kieren moved to Kelowna. Traveling around the world was a priority of Kieren’s and after hearing about powerful experiences some of his friends had on Canada World Youth exchanges, he decided to apply.
“I want to travel a lot in my life and this program was an opportunity to throw myself at the whim of world,” he said, noting on his application he didn’t specify where he wanted to be sent or what work he would be doing; he felt whatever he was picked for was what he was meant to do.
Kieren was selected for the Youth Leaders in Action program, a six-month exchange split into two phases: Three months in one of 13 international countries and three months in a Canadian community. Kieren and nine other volunteers between the ages of 17 and 25, including a project supervisor, were sent to Pac Ngoi, Vietnam for the first half of the exchange and then to Sooke, B.C.
Participants got to experience daily life in Pac Ngoi, which is located in Northern Vietnam and known for its breathtaking scenery.
“We were living in a national park. Our community was right off Ba Be Lake, the largest natural water lake in the country,” said Kieren.
“The surrounding area has one of the world’s largest biodiversities of butterflies. There were dozens of different species of butterflies flying around our community all the time. It was amazing.”
To learn as much as possible about another culture, the program partners volunteers from both countries as counterparts that they live with for the duration of the exchange in host family homes. Kieren’s counterpart was a 25-year-old named Trinh Ngoc Tu.
As volunteer work, the group worked together on community-driven development projects or in small groups. Some of the projects volunteers found on their own, like Kieren helping his host family build stairs on their steep entrance way, while others were selected with the help of a Vietnamese communist organization for youth. Projects were meant to enhance the community’s pre-existing way of life, by request of the community members. Some projects were the painting of the village’s culture house, building a volleyball court or providing English lessons.
“The program is about bridging cultural gaps and creating better understanding between different cultural normatives,” Kieren explained.
For the Canadian half of the exchange, the group relocated to Sooke on Vancouver Island.
While they still lived with the same counterparts in Canada, youth leaders were set up with a different working counterpart to promote more friendships within the group.
For Canadian volunteer efforts, pairs lent a hand to community service organizations. Kieren and his working partner Thuy had two placements, one in a family resource centre providing play-based learning activities to children and the second making and providing lunches to the seniors’ centre.
Another undertaking the group did throughout the program were weekly educational activity days when partners took turns doing presentations on various topics.
In Sooke, Kieren and Thuy chose Canadian colonialism for their day-long presentation, bringing in a guest speaker that guided volunteers through First Nations life pre-contact to post-residential school.
Kieren said colonization was relevant to both Canadians and Vietnamese volunteers, and provided the group with an understanding of the effects residential schools has in Canada.
“I think the impact and implications of something like residential schools isn’t understood in our generation,” he said, mentioning it’s not thoroughly and transparently discussed in school.
These sort of discussions on racial inequality, gender issues and consent, as well as environmental and political concerns, were common conversations within his group and helped ignite a passion to change more than what affects him in his day to day life.
“I’ve been in a position where I have been made out to be a lesser than. I want there to be emotional justice for those living without privilege, and for accountability to be taken for the social and economical elite” he said.
“The biggest thing for me, as well as many of the other volunteers, was that the program made me more aware of my own privilege in the world.”
Kieren highly recommends the Youth Leaders in Action program to young people of all races, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations and levels of wealth, explaining the program is meant to bring a diverse group together.
For Kieren, meeting so many different kinds of people is what he cherishes most about his trip.
“I have 20 life-long friends all over Canada and Vietnam,” he said.
Kieren returned to Prince Rupert after spending time in Vancouver and Kelowna. He plans to stay the summer before going travelling again.