After a litany of vaccines, a handful of Swahili phrases and her first passport, the 32-year-old production artist from Denver's McClain Finlon Advertising set off for Arusha, Tanzania, with agency financial support. There, she planned to teach art at TEKUA, a school run by volunteers, and funded in part by the students' sale of their arts and crafts including paintings and wood carvings and castings. Other volunteers at the school teach subjects like health and HIV/AIDS prevention, a life-and-death topic in a country that has 1.6 million people living with HIV or AIDS. "I [was] excited by the idea that I could use my skills to really make a difference," she said.
The journey there was rough. "We landed in Nairobi after two days of travel, then learned that our seats for the one-hour flight to Kilimanjaro had been resold," she said, forcing her and another volunteer to wait eight hours at the airport with only raw fruit and vegetables available. However, the program had urged participants to only eat cooked food.
Driving conditions took some getting used to.
"There are no rules of the road there. I alternated between being sure I was about to die, to being sure we were about to run over pedestrians," she said.
The poor conditions of the school also topped her expectations.
The building itself was made up three rooms, with her classroom resembling a lean-to built from cement bags stapled together around a dirt floor and a boulder in the middle. "There was no door, no lights or electricity or running water," she said. Bathrooms were pit latrines.
Despite the conditions, Ms. McCoy said she was inspired and awed by the talents of her students (aged 13 to 25) and their perseverance, with some of them walking up to six miles a day to reach the school. "It was an honor for them to come to school," she said. Even little things like a ruler were scarce commodities, she said, recalling her first class when she asked the students to draw a straight line and then had to wait for the one class ruler to be passed around. "They did some wood carvings that were amazing; they could have taught me," she said.
And while some of her students knew English, she relied on mime to teach spatial concepts such as near and far and parallel and perpendicular when the Swahili words didn't come to mind. "I did a lot of acting out," she said, laughing. "My students weren't very keen on the idea [of being photographed] in the beginning" but soon warmed up.
And now that's she's back, the recently engaged Ms. McCoy said she's struck by the excess of products that Americans rely on to live every day. "The first morning I went back to work, I looked at my bathroom counter and thought do I really need 30 different bathroom products? It seemed a bit ridiculous."
In retrospect, she would encourage people committed to a similar volunteer stint to not let financial barriers stand in their way because she discovered funding is available for those who seek it. Before she heads overseas again, she first wants to put her talents to use volunteering locally. "It's just ... taking the step to do it."
Devoted to a worthy cause? Have a secret fishing hideaway? Rabid about participatory sports? Ad Age is looking for interesting Off Hours stories from marketer world executives. If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an email to Mike Ryan at email@example.com.
Production artist at McClain Finlon, volunteered at a school in Tanzania.
Hardest part: The lack of hot water. "I couldn’t count on a shower ... I never got used to it."
Bus rides: The bus cost 30¢ and knew no limit, with strangers piling on each other’s laps, with some bringing live chickens along.
The meaning of TEKUA: An acronym derived from five Swahili words meaning empowerment; education; taking initiatives to understand oneself and the environment; poverty; and health.