16 Aug Why choosing to volunteer abroad in your 30s is a good idea

Guest blog post with EMBRACE Volunteer Program Development Coordinator, Vanessa Parlette


Two months ago, I took a leave of absence from my career in public health with a Canadian municipality and landed in Rwanda. Here, from June through November, I have the great privilege of contributing to program development with ADRA Canada’s EMBRACE project (Enhancing Maternal Child and Newborn Health in Remote Areas through Revitalized Health Care and Community Engagement) through Youth Challenge International (YCI). My role as a Volunteer Program Development Coordinator is to document the EMBRACE program model to highlight best practices that contribute to its success, while also identifying unique challenges in the Rwandan context and evidence-based strategies to address them.

Joyful opening to community-based meeting.

So that’s the purpose of my placement, but why exactly am I here mid-career and mid-30s with a mortgage and a spouse back home? I can’t pretend I didn’t revisit that question in my first few weeks here as I adjusted to a new work culture and life as the constant focus of public attention as a highly visible “Muzungu”. When I looked at all the pictures of lakes and gatherings friends were sharing over the July long weekend, I wondered why I didn’t at least arrange to leave Canada in November through June instead of the other way around. But, I reminded myself that for all the things I’m missing this year (which will be there when I get back), I’m gaining so many experiences through inter-cultural learning and collaboration that I could never get at home. The reality is that although I love my municipal work on poverty reduction and social equity, I’ve been increasingly driven to expand my focus and impact to international policy and global justice. My volunteer placement with EMBRACE draws on my public health planning and research expertise to advance Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more broadly in our global community. I am excited by this opportunity to work with Rwandan partners to develop, test and scale innovative collaborative strategies for improving family and community health as a critical gateway to long-term sustainable development and equality.

First visit to a Mother-Child Health Group – this is where community members are engaged and mobilized to improve income security, health, nutrition, and equality.

At the same time, I began seeking an international role cautious of colonial politics that are often bound to international development. Before my departure, I invested a lot of time and deliberation to choose the right project and organization, which I found with YCI and EMBRACE. I didn’t want a role where it felt like transactional short-term assistance as an extra body (which can be the case with voluntourism projects), but rather a position tailored to my skillset and where I can make a unique contribution. Being more aware of power dynamics and seeking a position with potential for meaningful impact when volunteering overseas doesn’t eliminate the challenges entangled with international development. However, it does add value to the need for ongoing collaborative efforts to improve global relations. Two months in, I have already learned so much from, and been inspired by, the dedication of my Rwandan colleagues. I believe this kind of international collaboration and learning is critical to advancing progress on SDGs and developing more just and inclusive global policies and politics.


I look forward to sharing more about the work we are doing soon. In the meantime, you can follow on Instagram to join my journey alongside the EMBRACE Rwanda team as we work together to showcase and spread the EMBRACE initiative’s success in fighting malnutrition through poverty reduction and sustainable development.


About Vanessa
Vanessa Parlette has a PhD in Urban Geography from the University of Toronto and a Master’s and Honours in Communication Studies from Simon Fraser and York University, respectively. She has been working in community development, poverty reduction, and public health for 15 years and is passionate about mobilizing collective impact to achieve social justice and empowered communities. She is currently on leave from her position as a Health Strategy Specialist with a Canadian municipality to expand her expertise and contribute to sustainable development on a global scale.

EMBRACE is a four-year project designed to improve the maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) of vulnerable women, girls and boys in Cambodia, Myanmar the Philippines and Rwanda through improving access to essential health services, building the capacity of local health workers, and providing community education programs. Funded in part by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada (GAC), EMBRACE is a project led by ADRA Canada and implemented in partnership Youth Challenge International (YCI) and the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre (HDC).


For nearly 30 years, creating solutions for sustainable development, especially sustainable livelihoods, has been deeply rooted in all of YCI’s work.

Learn more about the EMBRACE project, other YCI solutions and how you can get involved >