Stephanie Varnold '02
"It's amazing what you get back when you give of yourself."
Only four years ago, Stephanie Varnold took her first trip out of the United States, traveling to Tanzania, Africa, with Erin Kirchmer Colfax '00 and a few other friends. This year, at the age of 27, Varnold stepped onto her seventh continent as part of a year-long experience of volunteering around the world.
In September 2006, Varnold sat down with her calendar and planned her year's itinerary in one afternoon. An occupational therapist at Heartland Rehabilitation, she considered getting a job abroad, but ultimately she decided to volunteer instead. "It basically came down to the idea of just giving it all up for a year to give back what I've been so blessed with," Varnold says.
Starting in January 2007, Varnold spent seven weeks in Nairobi, Kenya, volunteering with the service organization i-to-i, followed by six weeks in Arusha, Tanzania, where she volunteered with Cross Cultural Solutions. In Kenya, Varnold worked with children at orphanages and helped organizations seeking to increase AIDS/HIV awareness and education. In Tanzania, she served with an organization called Kitumusote, which promotes women's empowerment, educational opportunities, and cultural awareness within the indigenous Maasai tribe.
Varnold's travels were not without a few scares. Almost immediately after arriving in Kenya, Varnold was diagnosed with a blood clot in her left leg, requiring a week of bed rest and several months of medication. In the face of this setback, Varnold counted her blessings and continued her volunteer work.
At the end of May, Varnold joined another project with i-to-i in Darjeeling, India, at the Hope School for mentally and physically disabled children.
She's had too many amazing experiences to choose one that's paramount, Varnold says, but a few that stand out include watching the sun rise over Mount Kenya in Africa, seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, riding a yak near the border of Tibet, and walking on a glacier in Iceland. Varnold's most breathtaking moment came in India when she saw one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal, while on her seventh continent. "To gaze upon that marvel of architecture and to realize that I'd accomplished my goal was pretty incredible," she says.
Varnold also has been overwhelmed by the generosity and spirit that pervades even the most destitute of communities. "I've been inspired everywhere I've turned," she says. "I have learned that most perceptions of Africa and other third-world countries are inaccurate. Yes, there is poverty, but when you look closer, you see people surviving day-to-day and boundless human spirit."
Now more than halfway through her year of service abroad, Varnold is settling into the final leg of her journey, a 16-week stretch in Peru. There, she's looking forward to becoming fluent in Spanish and learning how to surf.
The volunteer experience has been a life-changing one for Varnold. "It's amazing what you get back when you give of yourself," she says. "The people who I have worked and lived with have taught me so much more than I could ever have hoped to teach them."
--This article, by Jill Coste, originally appeared in Elizabethtown Magazine.