Since the age of 3, my parents have instilled in me the importance of volunteering. Being so young, I did not quite understand the meaning behind what we were doing, but I saw how important it was to my parents, and I formed new memories that I will never forget. Over the years I have worked with March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, United Negro College Fund, Habitat for Humanity, and Emerging Young Leaders to name a few. In college, I started volunteering more with organizations in the field that I knew my career would be in. However, there is one volunteer experience that I really feel shaped who I am today.

At the age of 20, I spent the summer in Belize to provide medical assistance for those in the poorest parts of the country. I was away from my family and friends and in a country I have never been to before with people I had never met. It was a summer of growth for me as I went beyond my comfort zone in so many ways. I had to speak Spanish in order to get around, I saw living conditions that were unfathomable, and I was striped away of the "first world blessings" that we Americans truly take for granted. I remember taking some Advil out of my backpack, and a few of the locals staring at me as if I had just pulled one million dollars out. You see, some people had not received medical assistance in 10-15 years, so they learned to live with pain since they never knew if they would be relieved of it. 

The biggest lesson I took from my summer in Belize was how joyful the people were. The children had none of the creature comforts (toys, iPads, Xbox, etc.) that we have become accustomed to seeing children with, and yet they were happier than most children that I see in the states. We taught them how to play "Duck, Duck Goose" and they played for hours! I would go into the homes of some of the families and their houses would be made of materials that birds would use to build a nest, and yet they were so excited to have us come to their home and would have the biggest smiles on their faces as they would show off the little that they had. I walked away from the experience a bit embarrassed about the things I would complain about in my life and what I had been forgetting to be grateful for because I was so used to having it.

My experience in Belize is also what gave me my own reason for volunteering. To be able to pour into someone's life without any expectation from that person is such an incredible feeling. I truly feel that God gives us those opportunities so that we are able to put life into perspective. It is hard to complain about the barista at Starbucks getting your coffee order wrong, the line at the store being too long or having a bad hair day when there are people fighting for their lives and living in situations that no human being should have to live in.

So I remain committed to the service of volunteering, because I feel that in order to make a difference in this world, you have to reach out and take a step. The experience will be one-of-a-kind for you, but it will also be life-changing for those you choose to serve!

Continuing to break the stigma,

Elise Banks
Miss International 2015


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