Graduation is an extremely important time in one’s life. Often the new-found freedom and sudden expansion of available life choices can be overwhelming.

However, for my younger sister, the choice was easy.

Sitting across from my 19-year-old sister, Melissa Mark, with her deep and even tan, Masai tribal burn marks and ebony jewellery, it is difficult to contain my emotions.

Five months ago, Melissa left Whitehorse for the journey of a lifetime. Destination? Arusha, Tanzania, a city located just a short drive from the base of the famous Mount Kilimanjaro.

Arriving home near the end of May, Melissa spent the majority of her four months in Tanzania dividing her time between two locally based orphanages.

“I have always wanted to travel to Africa and I figured that volunteer work was the best way to do it,” says Melissa. “Through volunteer work you are not only doing something constructive, but you also get a better understanding of the country and its culture.”

Through the International Volunteer Headquarters, based out of New Zealand, Melissa was able to find safe and inexpensive accommodations in Arusha. The organization then found Melissa a work placement in a small orphanage of about 10 children.

Upon arrival at her work placement, Melissa discovered that three of the younger children were unable to attend school because of lack of funding. She then took it upon herself to find sponsors for the children.

After a series of e-mails, a collection of individuals as well as Hidden Valley Elementary School and The Social Justice Club, of Porter Creek Secondary School, sponsored the children.

This week, Melissa has been visiting with sponsors to Introduce them to their sponsored children through a series of short video clips and photos.

Originally scheduled to come back to Canada in mid-April, Melissa decided to switch placements to a larger orphanage and extend her stay in the country.

“If I had left in April, I would have felt like I had missed out … My work was not finished,” says Melissa.

After her first placement, Melissa began working at a second orphanage that offered care for approximately 200 children.

“Every day was different – one day I would be teaching Math, the next day I would be taking children for medical checkups,” explains Melissa.

With approximately 30 of the children being HIV positive and most children being malnourished, maintaining health in the orphanage was one of the top priorities.

“It was important that volunteers went along on doctors’ visits as often we were the only ones who could afford to pay the bill.”

Regardless of their situations, Melissa found that Tanzanians are happy and generous people.

“It sounds cliché to say that the people are beautiful, but that is one of the things that I remember the most; they were the friendliest people I have ever met, living the simplest lives and they were still so happy.

“They really taught me to appreciate the little things”

Generosity and hospitality were among the most admirable traits of Tanzanians. On a visit to a family home where orphans had been taken in, Melissa observed as the owners of the small dirt-floored hut walked 15 minutes to purchase a bottle of soda (which they could not afford) so that they would have something to serve the volunteers.

“It was hard to accept these kinds of gestures because we knew the people could not afford to give them, but with every kind gesture I gave, the locals were constantly giving back to me in whatever way they could,” says Melissa through a smile.

Now, back in Canada, Melissa plans to attend North Island College this fall to study photography, and already she can not wait to get back to Tanzania.