Spring 09: Careers for the Common Good – Becky Handforth ’05

In her essay on helping others, Handforth discusses her work with Operation Smile and the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., as well as her volunteer service in Ecuador.

Becky Handforth ’05, at right, with Operation Smile

Following my passions

By Becky Handforth ’05

I’m sitting at an Internet cafe in Quito, Ecuador. As I stare out the window at “Gringoland,” the tourist part of Quito, I ponder how my life came to this exact point. What led me to Elon, to partake in summer internships, to volunteer with medical missions, to sign up for a year of Americorps, to quit my fabulous job at a food bank to travel, to apply for a masters degree?

Life takes so many turns and offers so many options; it’s strange to look at it in retrospect. One thing is for sure. The greater part of my life has been shaped by experiences volunteering and working with various communities. Though earning money is necessary, I’ve always placed a higher value on enjoying work and doing something meaningful with my time.

Those values led me to complete two summer internships with Operation Smile, a global organization that provides craniofacial surgeries to children with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. Following my graduation from Elon in 2005, I continued to volunteer with Operation Smile in its medical records department. Since that time, I’ve participated in Operation Smile medical missions to Kenya, Thailand and Venezuela as either a photo-imagining technician or medical records volunteer. All my experiences with the organization, including hosting children at my family’s home, gave me a greater appreciation for my Elon international studies degree, as well as for cultural differences and the health field.

During my time at Elon, I heard about Peace Corps and Americorps. Though Peace Corps seemed like the obvious choice given my undergraduate studies, Americorps was a better fit at the time. In January 2006, I began a year of service with Americorps at the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., where I worked as the Operation Frontline assistant coordinator. Operation Frontline is a nationwide cooking and nutrition program that assists low-income individuals ages 8 and older.

Following my year with Americorps, the Capital Area Food Bank offered me a position as Operation Frontline coordinator, which I gladly accepted. I served in that capacity from 2006 to 2009. In both roles, my day-to-day work included recruiting and retaining volunteers, creating menus, grocery shopping, finding sites to host the classes and then assisting with the classes.

Earlier this year, after lots of debating, I decided to leave Operation Frontline and the food bank to fulfill my dream of returning to Ecuador to volunteer with various communities. Ever since studying in Ecuador in 2004, I’ve had the desire to return to see more of the country, volunteer and practice my Spanish. It was finally time to accomplish this goal.

In Ecuador, I have found there are more passions to follow, more dreams to fulfill. I completed a month-long volunteer stint at Santa Martha Animal Rescue Center south of Quito, where volunteers care for a variety of wild animals, including monkeys, cats, bears, reptiles and parrots, among others. After I decided to forgo a science degree at Elon, I promised myself that I would continue volunteering with animals whenever possible.

The tasks at Santa Martha required patience, creativity, ingenuity and teamwork because we lacked many efficient tools and even some basic materials. In addition, it rained most afternoons. However, the volunteers were motivated, and we helped each other once our individual tasks were complete.

My favorite type of project involved the construction of new habitats. Though I worked with the teams that revamped the capuchin monkey and porcupine habitats, the largest project I helped complete was for the speckled bear. This meant finding fallen trees and branches, carrying wood long distances on our shoulders, using machetes to cut the materials, climbing the enclosure to make corner platforms and fixing the mini waterfall. I was exhausted by the end of the week, but watching the bear play in her new habitat for the first time made the hard work worth the effort.

Handforth in Ecuador

The following month brought me to La Hespería, a biological reserve in the cloud forest that is devoted to natural resource preservation. What I definitely miss the most about La Hesperia is the scenery. I woke up every morning to lushly forested mountains, lightly touched with wispy clouds. Listening to the birdcalls that welcomed the sunrise was the perfect way to start the day.

Throughout my time at La Hesperia, I had the opportunity to plant and weed in the organic vegetable garden, clear a large plot of land to grow corn and beans, plant baby hardwood trees to help reforest the area, bake bread for our breakfasts, pick coffee and volunteer at the community’s health clinic.

Every other Friday, all the volunteers went on a hike together through a part of the reserve. On the first hike, we walked more than six hours to the highest point of the reserve and through various types of forests. On the second outing, we hiked to a waterfall and then scrambled up the mountain back to the main house.

In April, I finished my three months of volunteering at Rio Muchacho Organic Farm on the coast. During my time there, I decided to take a more in-depth approach to learning. For three weeks, I took a part-time course that focused on various farming methods, composting, pests and crop relationships.

The mornings came early at Rio Muchacho — 6 a.m. to be exact. For the first hour, we took care of the animals, which are used primarily for their excrement. Yes, that’s right! The farm collects excrement from horses, cows, pigs, chickens and guinea pigs, which is then mixed with other natural materials to make compost for the garden.

Following breakfast, we often worked in the garden planting, weeding, irrigating, laying compost, digging new beds or adding soil to bags for the plant nursery. The late afternoon work typically involved more long-term projects. Some of the jobs included grinding chilis or spices, revitalizing the meditation garden, painting a mural, construction or refurbishing parts of the school.

Just before waving goodbye to Washington, D.C., I applied to graduate school at Emory University and Tulane University to pursue a global health degree focused on nutrition. However, my hands-on education in Ecuador and time away from the normalcy of life back home has given me time to think. I’d be lying if I said I feel certain a global health degree is still the perfect plan. I’ve dabbled with the idea of pursing a nursing degree, and I’ve thought about continuing on the community-cooking path. Plus, gardening is really growing on me as well.

If I try to sum up all my experiences working and volunteering for the common good, the first word that comes to mind is JOY. I’ve gained skills and new perspectives, met friends and helped improve the lives of my neighbors. This type of work is ingrained in me. I cannot imagine my life any other way and will surely continue along the same path throughout my future no matter what degree or job I pursue next.

Sometimes, people comment on how much time I spend serving the community. The truth is, it’s all fun! What I’ve chosen to do with my life is not extraordinary. I’m just following my passions.