Awake early, Melissa Jensen walked out of the circular yurt into Mongolia’s vast rural lands. “I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m used to cows. But I’m not used to brushing my teeth at an outside sink with primitive plumbing and being surrounded by cows,” says Melissa, who at the time was a college student from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. “That big culture change is what I love.” Melissa was volunteering to help rebuild a destroyed Buddhist temple in Mongolia, just three years after her second head injury near the end of high school.
When Melissa began college, she didn’t know the extent of her injuries or how she would react in a school environment again. “I even had a doctor say I shouldn’t try to go to college, that I would be setting myself up for failure. But I just knew I was going to college and there was no doubt in my mind about that one,” says Melissa, who graduated with a psychology and religious studies degree. Others must have felt the same; in the same year she graduated, 98 other students with brain injuries were registered with disability services at the University of Wisconsin’s 2- and 4-year campuses.
When researching a trip to California after her freshman year, Melissa came across the website for the Cultural Restoration Tourism Project (now Restoration Works International - RWI) based in California. Its short-term volunteer opportunities in Asia immediately caught her attention. Aside from the flight to California that summer, Melissa hadn’t traveled more than three hours from her home.
After initially laughing off Melissa's first mention of the Mongolia trip as a passing fancy, Melissa's parents were ultimately supportive of her decision. “I don’t know the extent of how worried my mother was, because she tried to stifle that to let me follow my passions.”
The volunteer organization was also supportive of Melissa's desire to make a difference abroad. Despite not having had many people with disabilities participate in their program at the time, it had welcomed other diverse participants of all ages, including those with diabetes and those who participated as families. Working together with the organization, Melissa began planning her volunteer trip to Mongolia a year in advance.
However, you can only plan for so much, as Melissa discovered when it was finally time to embark on her journey. Although she had booked all her flights easily enough, some of those flights had changed unexpectedly. Suddenly the three-hour layover in Korea turned into a 16-hour layover. “This was not optimal to say the least. It was my first experience dealing with airlines and being an advocate for myself,” says Melissa. After hours of being transferred from one person to the next, the airline finally agreed to pay for hotel accommodations and a shuttle in Korea.
Despite moments like this, Melissa took it in stride and didn’t end up having any migraines during the trip. Melissa’s short-term memory wasn’t an issue either with traveling. “I had my itinerary with me and everything was written down. I’ve learned to accommodate for that,” says Melissa.
Once on the project site, Melissa met previous volunteers who knew the routine and program staff who helped her settle in. She participated in various activities from planing boards or sawing rods for a new yurt to cleaning a temporary monastery for monks arriving during her second week.
“Mongolia is close to my heart because I booked my trip, I was in charge of what I did and when I did it, and I went on my own and met everyone else on the trip,” says Melissa.
The experience also shaped her future goal to work with a social change non-profit organization “to make a difference but have the community sustain itself once I leave.”
In Mongolia, a twelve-year old boy in his monk robe asked to say a blessing for the new yurt that Melissa was helping to build. He pulled out his prayer book, said a blessing, bowed and then ran off to play.
“To see that a line of distinction isn’t there, that someone can be full of life and lighthearted like people would expect from a kid and also very serious, focused and dedicated, is amazing to see,” says Melissa. She learns and teaches others that people aren’t always what they first appear to be. And, like others living with brain injuries, while she may not be able to predict what the future holds, she has a new understanding of what is possible.
Will you be volunteering internationally with an organization that needs more information about welcoming participants with disabilities? Refer them to the NCDE for free advising and technical assistance.