Mexico gives Legal Secretary Volunteer Platform

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Elizabeth and JoseA Leeds legal secretary has set out on a 12-week adventure to Central America to undertake voluntary work aimed at improving the lives of people and animals in the region.

Elizabeth Cohen is volunteering in Mexico thanks to the support of national law firm Simpson Millar LLP. The firm granted her the sabbatical so that she could take part in 2 programmes offered through New Zealand based, International Volunteer HQ.

“The idea of volunteering abroad and experiencing another culture really appealed to me, and Mexico is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. Once I’d discovered two worthy causes that were right up my street, my mind was made up,” says Liz. “I knew I wanted to go but didn’t want to lose my job. It was a huge relief when I was given the blessing of Simpson Millar LLP to follow my dream.”

Saving money to pay for the flights and living costs meant Liz had to forgo much of her social life in the run up to her trip. “It was another hurdle but I felt sure it would be worth it,” says Liz who landed in Cancun at the beginning of February. Her first challenge was heading off alone by coach to Merida, where she is now based for the remainder of her stay.

Liz is currently engaged in a special needs programme in a hospice run by nuns and funded by charitable donations. It is geared towards the requirements of children, adolescents and adults with physical and mental disabilities. Volunteers help the teachers by overseeing activities, carrying out daily classroom maintenance, and preparing and serving meals.

“The first couple of days were emotionally really tough; I hadn’t anticipated how severely disabled some of the residents would be,” recalls Liz. “My Spanish is improving but is still limited, and nobody speaks English. Sometimes, I have learnt, words are not as important as actions though. Everyone just wants to share cuddles and hold my hand – and the children love to dance and play!”

Elizabeth with the team of special needs workers and residents

Liz works from Monday to Friday but has afternoons and weekends off, enabling her to teach English to adults and high school students in her free time. It also gives her ample opportunities to explore the region with new friends.

During her second week in Merida, Liz severely sprained her ankle which put her out of action for a week. Five weeks into the programme, she is still on crutches.

“I missed out on several excursions and social activities with other volunteers but just being here is worth it,” she says. “I wanted to gain more confidence, an insight of another culture, both in a working environment and socially, improve my ability to use my initiative, and gain independence. In addition, volunteering has been a real eye-opener that has put my own life in perspective and made me realise how lucky I am. It has been truly life-changing.”

Liz has set up a web link at www.gofundme.com/48vcuo and all money donated will be given to the special needs hospice. When she has completed her time there, she will be volunteering on the Animal Care/Animal Rights programme which is another passion of hers.

“The plight of animals is often overshadowed by the needs of people, but they suffer and need our compassion too. There is a major problem with dogs and cats being abandoned on the streets and sadly many are put down because of lack of resources to take care of them. I’ll be working with a group trying to make a difference by providing free or low-cost neutering clinics, and offering a safe heaven for some of the abused and abandoned domestic animals locally.”

As well as hands-on care, including cleaning out pens and dog training, Liz will also have the opportunity to get involved in local fundraising which pays for the shelter and for public education programmes aimed at changing local attitudes.

“The ultimate goal is to find people to adopt the cats and dogs being cared for, and to reduce the number of strays and unwanted pets. I’ll miss everyone I’ve met on the special needs programme but am also looking forward to helping the animals,” says Liz who would recommend volunteering overseas to anyone interested in travel.

“A lot of people have fun travelling but volunteering is more special, and you can even incorporate it into your travel plans. There are volunteers here doing just that. I’d say to anyone that if you get the opportunity, go for it! It has been the most exciting and challenging experience of my life and the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Simpson Millar LLP’s support for Liz’s trip has been underscored by the encouragement of her boss and family solicitor, Emma Hopkins Jones, and by the many messages of encouragement she has received from her colleagues who contributed towards the cost of her trip.

Says Emma: “Not only is Liz making a real difference but she’s also gaining invaluable life experience that will hold her good stead both personally and professionally. She is part of a global team, gaining confidence and skills that will ultimately improve and professional skills. Crucially, she is giving something back for the benefit of the wider community and her determination to go has been a real inspiration to many of her colleagues.”


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