Rebecca Heilman remembers what it was like to be far away from home on Thanksgiving Day. As a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in in Zambia in 2014-15, 6,000 miles separated her from her family—and those she loved.
“What makes it even harder is that Thanksgiving falls near the end of the first three months of service,” she says, “when one really becomes aware of cultural shock, and any anxiety they are experiencing because of it.”
Which is what current YAVs Samantha Shaw, Julie Sanders, Amanda Barger, and Laura Kate Gamble are experiencing in Glasgow, Scotland. Even as they prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving with new friends in Glasgow, who have had such an impact on them, they are feeling “a little sad.”
“We are feeling a bit strange,” Shaw wrote via e-mail earlier this week. “But as we began to prepare the food for a big meal, we were reminded that there are many different families to be thankful for—not just the ones at home.”
When asked what YAVs missed the most during Thanksgiving, Shaw replied, “our families, hands down.”
Not being home for Thanksgiving affects each YAV differently. Because of varied backgrounds and experiences, they each miss certain aspects of being home. “Like watching football with my family,” writes William Loder from the YAV site in Daejon, South Korea, “or traveling with my mom to Colorado to see the rest of my family.”
But this year, Thanksgiving will be like any regular week for Loder, which is why he’s grateful to to be with the other YAVs in Korea. Loder, Alexis Erdelyi, Emily Kent, Linda Kofler, and Alyson Kung were able to get most of the traditional Thanksgiving meal items. “There’s a Costco here,” Loder says, and they’re feeling the traditional stress of preparingthe big meal.
“Some of our site directors from our work placements will eat with us,” says Loder. “So it might be a bit more professional than what I’m used to. But at least we won’t miss our carbs or butter.”
Loder admits that that when he see posts about the holiday from friends back home, including Black Friday, “he might miss it a little bit,” but wants to focus on where he is, “by living in the moment.”
Now that Heilman has had time to reflect on her yearlong experience in Zambia, she says that’s great advice for YAVs everywhere, whether they are serving domestically or internationally, to try to live in the moment. It’s ironic, but now she misses the excitement of living in a country that is so different from what she knew.
“It’s important for YAVs to recognize what they’re feeling, that it’s okay to miss and call home during the holidays,” she says. “That’s part of being human, part of the gift of love and family, it’s okay to have that longing.”
Heilman also says she would tell YAVs to rely on the community they’re in, especially when it’s hard. A year ago, as her parents got off the plane to visit her in Zambia, she received a text from her sister that her grandmother, who had been in sick in Valdes, N.C., had died.
“My parents had received a blessing from Grandma to come see me,” says Hielman. “It was a crazy good time. I got to be with my mom as she was hearing about her mom’s death. Those around me in Zambia also had experienced death—so we were able to walk through our grief together as housemates.”
The YAVs we talked to, past and present, are grateful for their experiences this Thanksgiving. For them, it’s all part of a growing spiritual realization, that God works through people and relationships, to help them feel part of a larger family.
“When I felt homesick and prayed to God for comfort, my prayers were answered by being welcomed into the home of a congregation member to eat, and sleep and spend time with them,” says Shaw. “I felt at home with them, which is exactly what I needed.”
“The children and staff at my placement site are wonderful—they’ve been extremely welcoming, in spite of my not knowing the language well,” adds Loder. “My new community of friends and roommates are constant reminders, that people care about me.”
“I do miss Zambia, I miss being their with my host family,” says Heilman. “But I’m very thankful, and happy to be home this year.”
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