Alumni Spotlight: Marcia Heisler

Marcia Heisler
Volunteer Corps, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand
Marcia Heisler of Nyack, New York has participated in AJWS Volunteer Corps in India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. She is currently on her fifth assignment with AJWS in Thailand.

What led you initially to seek out Volunteer Corps?

I had just retired. I've done a lot of traveling on my own with my backpack. When I retired, I had time to see the world not just on vacation time. I do volunteer work when I'm home, but the travel really pulled me.

When I participate in Volunteer Corps, I live somewhere for three to four months and really become part of the culture. I go to an office, and I actually live with the people. There's nothing more satisfying. You learn and share so much.

What is your professional background?

My background is in fine arts and sculpture. When I go on my assignments, I work with the groups on their handicrafts and I assess what they're doing to take them a couple of steps further. The crafts themselves are usually quite beautiful because they carry on the work that people have been doing for centuries in their villages. If they want to go into exports, I help them develop patterns for things that people are likely to buy abroad.

How has each volunteer assignment differed?

Each assignment has always been slightly different. In India, I worked in New Delhi with an organization called Dastakar, and they ran a large bazaar, which is a big crafts show, once a year. I would help the crafts people when they arrived with setting up their displays.

In Sri Lanka, I was basically designing coya mats. Coya is their main industry, the fibers from inside the coconut shell. They had certain designs that they made and I introduced new designs for them which would be good for the tourist trade.

In South Africa, where they really can't compete with exports with India and China, I helped them improve and change their ideas from season to season.

Do any experiences particularly stand out?

I think the most rewarding experiences were working with women. In South Africa, where AIDS is rampant and so many people are dying, people often don't come to work because they have to be in other provinces for funerals for their relatives. When I was there, it was really hard for the women to get their energy going. But we would sit there and they would make such beautiful things that they felt better about themselves, especially when they found that they could sell more things and come home with a little more money.

One woman I worked with was totally paralyzed except for a little movement in her fingers. She had been an artist but could no longer do any of her own work, and she was the head of a group that works with handicapped people. We collaborated on making a product they could sell. I was the hands, she was the brain. Together we created something so she could then supervise other handicapped people and they could make money for themselves.

Another woman asked me, "Why would you come so far and without pay to work with us? Why would somebody from New York do that?" It gave them a sense of their own worth that somebody would go to the other side of the world for them.

How have your experiences impacted you?

They have impacted the way I relate with people. I stand up more for what's important to me. I've learned that people are the greatest value, rather than things. When you see what people live through and what they live without, you learn that contentment doesn't come from what you have or where you live but inside yourself.