The Malta Independent 30 November 2022, Wednesday
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From Gozo to Sumba, the life of a teenage volunteer explained

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 30 October 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 1 month ago

As many would say, volunteering freshens up the mind with new perspectives and ideas.

The same thing happened to 19-year-old Elena Attard, who after being raised on the small island of Gozo and moving on from one scholarship to another, is now in Indonesia volunteering for the Sumba Hospitality Foundation. Sumba is an Indonesian island on the eastern part of the country.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday via a video call, Elena, visibly sweaty because of the heat and the lack of an air-conditioning system said that she wouldn’t trade her life for anything in the world.

Currently helping young Sumbanese better their life through hospitality training at the Foundation, Elena, who has been on the move in her volunteering endeavours for the last three years, said that the only “chunk” of time she visits Malta, especially Gozo, is during the summer. She is always glad to be able to spend some time at home but that returning to Gozo comes with mixed feelings. She looks forward to reuniting with friends and loved ones to spend time in the beautiful familiar beaches, but the return also brings apprehension as to what developments she would find.

“Every time I go to Gozo I see more and more cranes from the Gozo ferry,” she said.

Although saddened by the view, she said that Gozo should strive towards sustainable development as otherwise it is going to end up overdeveloped.

Asked why she chose Indonesia for her current volunteering experience, Elena said that one of the aspects which pushed her to this is the fact that Indonesia is an island just like Malta.

“I chose Indonesia because I’ve always wanted to see Asia. I also find it to be geographically and historically similar to Malta’s history of colonization, being an archipelago island nation.”

She added that in comparison, the island of Sumba is far less developed than Malta and Gozo, however they are very forward with their sustainable thinking as eco-friendly materials are used for the building of hotels and other private households. Apart from that, hotels are also taxed and encouraged to donate some profits to foundations to give back to the surrounding community.

Elena said that although for the building of hotels with sustainable materials is “a little too late for Gozo”, the island could still adopt the “foreign investors working hand in hand with locals” mentality that Sumba seems to be thriving on.

Additionally she said that Gozo could also adopt a more positive approach when employing people, as instead of going through recruiting agencies, employers should take their time in getting to know the people that they employ and take the opportunity in employing locals while offering fair wages and considerate work-life balance.

Future Wellesley College graduate, Elena is helping SHF in whatever ways she can, whether teaching English or developing the students’ interviewing skills and administrative work such as applying for grants, she is sure to make herself useful.

The Foundation is tasked with helping selected Sumbanese who come from across the six provinces of Sumba, totalling 60, to graduate in hospitality departments such as housekeeping, culinary practices and food and beverage to find better jobs that can better their quality of life and break the poverty cycle.

During their studies students are given the opportunity to train for two weeks at Nihi Sumba, “twice voted the best resort in the world”. Additionally, on completion of the course, students are also guaranteed a six-month internship at a luxury hotel in neighbouring Bali.

Elena said that after such an experience students are free to travel to other foreign countries and have a better chance at finding a good job there. After which they (as many of them do) can send money back home. She also explained that it is not the first time that ex-students come back to their original island and open up their own restaurant and family business.

Elena said that in the two weeks she has been on the island, she has come to understand the level of poverty the locals are experiencing based on the structures of their houses and their access to certain resources such as potable water. She went on to say that the beaches are full of trash and they are still burning rubbish on the side of the road due to lack of awareness about the harm of such practices. However, she is in awe at how locals live in harmony, despite the way the island is split from a religious point of view.

“I am here to do everything that the Foundation needs,” she said.

Elena has been on the move since she was 16 years old, as after winning a scholarship for one of the 18 United World colleges situated in Armenia, there was no looking back for her. She said that the Indonesian opportunity came just right on time as she was thinking of taking a gap year from her studies. She will be in Indonesia until December, following which the student is planning to head for a “semester at sea”, where she will be “visiting a bunch of countries and doing multiple courses while living on a cruise ship”.

Asked what does her future look like, she said that she is not sure of what she wants to do for a career but is not excluding the possibility of becoming a journalist, lawyer or teacher, but will see what future opportunities hold and trusts that with time the best path forward will become evident. She also sees herself shifting from different careers.

She said that through all these live experiences she wants to have the opportunity to teach others to advocate and fight for themselves, if she cannot do it herself.

Assuring she has not changed as a “born and bred pure Gozitan”, Elena said that she had done nothing special other than apply for scholarships like many others and is encouraging others to never miss out on such opportunities as “they can be truly life-changing”.

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