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The Oneness of Mankind

26 Jun

Last Tuesday I attended a community building event that revolved around Indigenous peoples and their struggles. The attendance was minimal, but the learning unlimited. Though I took a different approach and stance to one of the guest speaker’s views (an Indigenous activst), I still felt positive afterwards.

His retrospective attitudes and beliefs were backwards, harmful, prejudiced to all races but his own, and in essence tried to fight fire with fire. Today, this won’t achieve any real change. Rather than leaving disheartened, I left feeling further enlightened to the need of humanity’s best interests-the upliftment of the ‘human race’ rather than the exaltation of any one race or culture.

Taking a prospective approach to such injustices is a far more effective method. This is summed up perfectly in the following counsel of Baha’u’llah:

Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

Complacency and apathy are our defence mechanisms

26 Jun

Above: The BBC news piece that caused a stir across the globe in 1985.

Beware: Diatribe below. Proceed with caution.

We, in the first world, choose not to care.

That way, when we hear about bad things happening in the world, we can still live our lives in comfort and enjoyment. By choosing not to care, we insure ourselves against disappointment, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable feelings when things go wrong. So if we don’t care about immigration issues, if the sex slave trade sky rockets in Australia, we can successfully disengage and categorise it as someone else’s problem.

How do we so successfully achieve this state of uncaringness (I just invented that word)?

This is achieved by becoming complacent with the state of mayhem of the world, resulting in apathy, which paralyses us from taking steps to do anything about it. I’m not surprised by this. There are two key reasons I would like to point out as to why we, in particular the young people of the first world, are complacent and apathetic.

1. Aid doesn’t work. Giving money and volunteering in foreign countries doesn’t solve the world’s complex problems. Well, more accurately, aid hasn’t accomplished the transformations that many people hoped it would. Look at Africa, for example. I read an article while in university, that decades of aid has not lifted Africa out of poverty. It supports the structures that continue to entrench Africa in a cycle of poverty. I don’t know where that article is, but I’ve found a useful article written in 2009  I’ve also found a blog site that illuminates on the subject.

Above: A short glimpse at the “Dead Aid” in Africa issue in 2009.

The old marketing strategy of guilt-tripping people into giving aid money by broadcasting ads containing starving, sad-looking Africans on TV, especially during mealtimes – no longer works. Live Aid of the 1980s and Live 8 more recently, revived by Bono, as part of the “Make Poverty History” campaign has likewise not brought about transformative changes.

The makers of the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionnaire, donated £500,000 to charities in India, prompting others to do likewise. The recent TV documentary mini-series, Go back to where you came from, has found a new type of story-telling which speaks to people and has ignited renewed dialogue on this global issue. The twittersphere and other online spheres continue to buzz about this issue. Despite these glimmers of hope that those in the first world are engaging in these issues, there is still the general population who have disengaged with these global issues.

The second key reason why we’ve become complacent and apathetic toward global issues is:

2. We have not been brought up to care about global issues.

I read a fantastic book by John Raulston Saul, called The Unconscious Civilization. It discusses how the institutions in society are geared toward encouraging passivity, mindless and continually increasing consumption and unconscious living.

One of the solutions that he poses to unconscious living is to take back our governments. This means that those of us who live in democracies need to become active democratic citizens in order for our government to truly represent us, instead of whingeing about and putting up with the government of the day.

Those of us in Australia who have gone through the formal educational institutions were never taught how to be democratic citizens, to express civic duties and responsibilities, and in turn, receive civic benefits. High school education is focused on ticking the boxes set out by the curriculum. University readies us to be worker bees.

In amongst all of that education, you don’t learn how to be a good citizen. To engage in community work, to protect and preserve the surrounding natural environment, to support the disadvantaged in the local area. We haven’t grown up being encouraged to do community work, like regenerating native bushland where it has come under attack by foreign species; or helping out at the local disability centre; or volunteering for the community fundraiser concert.

Thus, we don’t know how to be actively democratic.

If we grew up with a greater appreciation of civic duties we would be able to care and take greater ownership of our lives and our democratic nation. In turn, we would also care about and engage in global issues which concern each and every Australian. By actively engaging, we would have no need for defence mechanisms to protect us from feeling upset about Africans dying from treatable diseases. We would be OK with such feelings. We would also most likely take steps to engage with such issues.

Sebastian, Inequality and Good People

23 Jun

On Thursday February 3, I went on my first and only house visit to Pumamarca in the Cusco region. That afternoon I met a fourteen year old boy, Sebastian, who possessed the kindest and purest heart that I have ever met. He has suffered a lot in his life and is heavily malnourished due to poverty. His mother is a severe alcoholic, who in her states of delirium sells the family’s only source of revenue such as a cow for S./5 (approx. $1.80). Sebastian is then forced to go into town to buy another one for 50x the price with money that they do not have. His father is currently in hospital as a result of being hit in the head by a bull. He has younger brothers that he has to look after as well as the livestock. Despite all this and then some, he is hopeful that things can better for him and his family and he still clings onto his dreams. He has a bright personality and humble heart. As we were speaking to his mum, we heard him up the mountain while herding the bulls, singing joyfully. Meeting Sebastian and this house visit remains to this day the best day of my life.

The lives of people in poverty are so far removed from the minds of us in the western world. Sure, we can empathise because it is not fair that people should suffer and an indignant anger is a natural response but what of it if nothing were practically implemented? We should be compelled to care more and be moved to DO something greater then our feelings and emotions dictate otherwise we are wafting to and fro in a haze of emptiness. That’s why I love Peru’s Challenge, because they are practical and are respected in the Cusco region. The work that they undertake has a goal of sustainability which is crucial in development yet the concept of sustainability is often made redundant in favour of instantaneous change which is ephemeral. Change can be immediately tangible but it’s success is in its longevity and sustainability. Empowering local communities, families and individuals is the best way to implement change and aid.

Another hurdle that the natives of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca must face is the discrimination between rural and city folk. There is still a great disparity between those from the city and the indigenous people and this inequality makes it difficult to complete an education as most of the secondary schools are situated in the cities, which makes it almost impossible for the children from Quilla Huata and Pumamarca to attend as the costs of transport is so high. Often times, families favour their children to make handicrafts to sell to tourists instead of completing their education. Or the children would be working on the things they should sell in class therefore their attention and efforts are divided. I heard of one story where a bright young boy in Pumamarca was aspiring to be a politician in Peru and had the intelligence and charisma to go far, however his family demanded that he stay home and care for the livestock. I have no doubt that these unfortunate occurrences are common.

Despite these negative realities, I have seen for myself that the future of Quilla Huata and Pumamarca is bright because people are starting to understand how important education and community is. Furthermore, the children and families are eager to learn and give back to the community. I can name a plethora of stories that I heard about the community members going out of their way in their strengths and efforts to give back to each other and Peru’s Challenge. One story that has stuck with me is when a family’s house was completely ruined and unlivable due to flooding. Peru’s Challenge intervened and built a new house for the family who was already undergoing extreme domestic hardship. As a result of Peru’s Challenge’s benevolence, Christian, a fourteen year old boy contributes his strength to building classrooms, walls and other people’s houses. He shows up on the work site ardent and committed to help those who are less fortunate. For someone so young to understand pure generosity completely blows my mind and challenges me to live better and kinder.

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The Semi-Frustrated Volunteer

20 Jun

Spending nine months in Africa stirred an array of emotions-many positive, many enlightening and many frustrating. In many respects I could easily express concepts and beliefs whilst volunteering than I could not normally here. The reason for this is that most people here don’t have time for certain matters. In Swaziland, as well as most of the places that the rest of us volunteered to, we could stop and genuinely chat with strangers, neighbours, villagers etc, for hours on end. People were welcoming as many of us have learnt. Because of this it allowed me to express and directly share my beliefs with others. It allowed us both to learn, develop and appreciate the harmony and consistency of our (wrongly perceived) different beliefs. I shared the principles of the Baha’i Faith with families, city-dwellers, rural people, Priests, Pastors, teachers-people of all walks of life. With the backdrop of community building and unfolding peace and unity this was easy to achieve. Here in Sydney in everyday life is another story. How can people not want such ideals? Because of many people’s reluctance to give time, I find it sometimes difficult to express my most cherished thoughts and beliefs. I am constantly let down at some peoples lack of concern, indifference, and biased opinions. Despite this, I happily welcome the challenge and strive to detach myself from such negativities-easier said than done!

On a humanitarian point of view, the level of poverty, widespread corruption and disease was not something I could express every day whilst in Swaziland-this I feel is easier to voice here in Sydney. There I was living amongst it. Friends and families who I stayed with or constantly engaged with were affected by both poverty and disease-HIV/AIDS. How do you express your feelings of anger, embarrassment of ‘Western’ countries’ lack of concern, the luck (as Carlos would put it) that I have without offending them? What frustrated me the most, and continues to do so, is my helplessness in the matter. How can I contribute to the betterment of these peoples’ lives? I have a money tin sitting in my room with no idea what to do with the collection? I know I want to donate it back to others, but it’s petty.

I’ve come to understand that the most effective way I can contribute to such injustices is to raise awareness of the situation our fellow human beings are living in. To help enlighten others. To help inspire others to make a difference. Imagine everyone arose to make a difference-the changes would be infinite! If only people were to understand the TRUE meaning of sacrifice-giving up something of lesser value for something of higher value, rather than the widespread belief of giving up something of higher value for something of lesser value. The purpose of sacrifice is to better others and not focus the attention on ourselves, right? If so, then the former definition of sacrifice obviously makes more sense.

under barbed-wire fencing to share with 'neighbours' (kilometre or so away) ways in which to improve community and individual life.

Living away from home, learning to be self dependent, crossing over, under and through barb-wired fences, walking for hours in the heat of the Africa sun, are but a few examples of how my friends in Swaziland sacrifice their time (lesser value) to create a more united and better society (higher value).

Only a few hills, meadows and valleys till our destination

Arise and Serve!

15 Jun

While watching last night’s news I was surprised to see Princess Sikhanyiso Dlamini, the eldest daughter of the King of Swaziland, being featured. She was proudly showing off her new apartment in Sydney which she will call home, for this year at least while furthering studies at Sydney uni.

After passing the excitement of seeing little known Swaziland on the news, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and eventually anger. Reason being-where does all the royalty’s money come from and how justly is it spent? This question, I feel, can be and should be asked by all of us to the countries where we served in! Yeah, AUSAID, USAID, various NGO’s, UN bodies etc like to boast how much they help fight poverty, disease and the like in ‘third-world’ or ‘developing countries’, but that is as far as their concern (not all, but many) goes. Are they truly concerned about the development and difficulties at the grassroots? Reflecting on their approach to just throwing millions of dollars annually at the leaders of such countries would suggest otherwise.

In the case of Swaziland, for example, I can guarantee that this money does not filter down to the grassroots and rather stays in the pockets of those with power at the top. This too, can be argued for many African countries, nay worldwide. Corruption, politics, money and greed can be seen as a vicious cycle of destruction. What saddened and angered me the most is that Swaziland has a HIV prevalence rate of about 33-49%. That is ridiculous! How many ethnopeeps are there of us? 23? That means about 7 of us are HIV positive and no doubt ALL of us know someone personally living with the disease and very likely have had direct family members already die of it! Hearing such stories of my friends who I grew to love, having grown up with no parents because they died of the disease, having to look after their siblings, rely on wider family for support and further burdening them, became a common story. It was rare to meet someone who had not been directly affected by the disease. Now tell me, are aid organisations doing enough? Do they really care?

The leaders amass stupendous sums of wealth and waste it on material pursuits rather than the betterment of mankind and the progress of the human race. That is where the money goes. This sad reality reminds me of a quotation that I reflect on, it reads:

“All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”.

Were it not for simple yet profound guidance we have before us, such as the above, human beings would be left to their own devices and undoubtedly would fail. Changes are happening though. Slowly but surely. How can anyone disagree? We were all and are part of this change by the service we have provided to the advancement of humanity, right? If one were to disagree, why sit idly and argue and wait for change. Do something about it! Arise and serve!

Our efforts today will lay the foundations for their futures

Nothing in life is more rewarding than seeing the smiles you can put on someone else's faces 🙂

Lucia

7 Jun

We never really know how lucky we have got it until we open our eyes and see other people’s stories. One of the moments that will never leave me is the afternoon I spent with Peru’s Challenge on a social house visit.

Her name is Lucia and she has four children. From the rural village of Puma Marca, she has overcome adversity and is a testimony of the successful work that Peru’s Challenge is doing in Cusco.

She ate infected pork meat which led to her developing a brain cyst. Despite her obvious deteriorating condition, she was unable to see a proper doctor due to monetary constraints which is an unfortunate commonality in Puma Marca. However, when she began to lose her motor abilities she went to see a local doctor but he missed the cyst because he did not have the adequate tools to see what was really wrong. Peru’s Challenge intervened and paid for a proper visit to a hospital because at that point, she could hardly walk or remember her children. That is when they found that she had a cyst. Peru’s Challenge scheduled her in for an operation at their cost. It cost them a few thousand but it was successful because after a week, she was able to move better and start constructing some coherence in her sentences. After two weeks, she was able to remember one of her children.

All the while, Peru’s Challenge faced opposition from the village because Lucia’s husband was depressed because they kept Lucia in the hospital for so long. He thought that they were taking her away. The women in the village gossiped about Peru’s Challenge, saying that they were doing Lucia wrong. However, Iris (the social worker) mediated and set the bar straight and told them of Lucia’s situation. She said that Peru’s Challenge was helping her and her family. It was necessary that they step in because Lucia was not receiving adequate care on her own. Unfortunately, she was discriminated against because she is a rural lady and the disparity between rural and city folk is still great. Without the support of Peru’s Challenge, she would not have received the care that she got.

After seeing the work that Peru’s Challenge did in Lucia, the village grew to respect the NGO greatly. Lucia is significantly improving. She can remember two more of her kids and her husband’s depression is getting better. Peru’s Challenge have also started teaching the family about hygiene and cleanliness in the house. They have built them rooms and a pig pen.

Remembering this story brings tears to my eyes because I saw her. I met Lucia and I saw the state of her house and her family. I felt her old hands grip mine as she looked into my eyes and smiled. She was real. I cannot take for granted the work that local NGO’s do because they are effective. I have so much love and respect for Jane and Selvy who are in the midst of people’s struggle and poverty, helping them in whatever way they can.

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The Volunteer Position and its Realities

23 May

I am pleased to introduce our new guest blogger Lyn Drummond, who is sharing today an apart from her article Volunteering in Chuuk, Micronesia. Lyn is a journalist who has also worked in public affairs with overseas Australian embassies in Brussels and Budapest.  She completed her Masters in International Relations degree at Macquarie University in December, 2010.  She has worked on two volunteer assigments, in Chuuk, Micronesia, in 2002 and in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2010 with a group from Macquarie University.

I went to Chuuk, one of the four administrative divisions of the Federated States of Micronesia in the South Pacific Ocean, to work as a volunteer. I had been offered the 3-month contract through an aid agency which places business volunteers mainly in Asia and North and South Pacific countries for short term assignments lasting from a few weeks to a maximum of six months. I took three months leave without pay from my job and set off.  I settled into a small but comfortable room at the Truk Stop. Next door was the “office” where I worked, occupied by my client, who slept there, one or two staff, and me.

Resources scarcely existed. My employer had a laptop which she loaned me while she went overseas for five weeks, leaving me to figure out what she actually wanted me to do. Not quite what I expected from the job description which specified that all necessary resources would be provided for my work, including a computer and a client who would be present.

Back in Sydney, the job had sounded intriguing. It included training Chuukese women in public relations, holding relevant workshops, producing a newsletter, and initiating various gender awareness campaigns. The reality was quite different. I was led to believe my employer was a women’s network, but in fact it was only one woman who was campaigning to get into Federal politics

Upon her return from various trips my employer’s views about my role constantly changed. Ultimately I had no idea what was required. I could have returned to Australia immediately as the resource criteria had not been met, particularly after a vicious cyclone devastated the island a few weeks into my arrival, causing landslides which flattened many flimsy homes and killed hundreds, including some of my client’s relatives.

The aid agency asked me if I would consider returning to Australia, but I was challenged and involved by then, and wanted to stay. An imminent threat of cholera almost changed my mind but luckily the disease held off. I helped with cyclone relief work, delivering food supplies to the stricken islanders who had pitched tents beside the rubble of their homes, or where they used to stand—now buried under the landslides.

I returned to Australia from Chuuk sad that I had not completed the extent of the work I had hoped, but with potent memories of friendships, a greater understanding of my own and other’s fallibilities, and memories of the special excitement of unexpectedly finding things which meant so little back home—like baked beans and coconut cakes.

P.S. Lyn’s recently published book “Where to Go For a Seven-year Cycle” will be launched at Gleebooks on Saturday 25th of June at 3:30 pm.

Where to Go For a 7 year Cycle is a philosophical, often off the main tourist beat travel book based on the author Lyn Drummond’s seven years travel experiences working mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. The book’s title is based on a Jung philosophy that 7 years of our lives represent a particular cycle and she has just completed such a cycle.

Food Perspective

19 May

Response to Carlos’ question:
How did you deal with the problems you had while on your volunteer placement?

Isn’t it funny how our short time, comparatively, in our countries have changed the way that we live our lives. Or at least for a while it did. I saw confronting and unforgettable poverty in Peru and I vowed that I would change my materialistic ways and for a while I was doing good. I would indignantly get angry when I saw superfluous expenditure. I would judge people when they would overindulge in their meals, while comparing them to the kids in Quilla Huata who barely had a thing to eat. I know it was not fair for me to impose a standard of living because food and money is more accessible to us in the Western world. Even as I write this, I am eating blueberry pancakes with honey accompanied by orange juice and peppermint tea. Though not super fancy, it still kind of is compared to what some of the kids in Quilla Huata normally get.

The transition from my world to theirs and vice versa was undoubtedly the most challenging thing that I faced. It was culture shock but not in the sense that the Peruvian culture is vastly different to mine, more so a sense of lifestyle shock, if there is such a thing. It was impossible to ignore. Inescapable, surrounding me like a misty haze on a dark night.

It was something I never got used too. The disparity did not plague me incessantly but sporadic pangs of guilt crept up when I would arrive in the village in the morning after having a scrumptious, rich and nutritious breakfast made by our chef at our home. After a while, I was numb to the difference, naively or ignorantly I faced the fact that life was just like that. I’m rich and they are poor and that’s why we were there to help. But somehow, and thankfully, it isn’t so black and white. As many others have mentioned on their blogs, they have so much more than monetary wealth and fancy meals, they have a true and joyous spirit and that matters so much more. So much more.

So when I came back to my real world, I made a conscious effort to not be frivolous with my money (not that I had much by our society’s standards) but still generous with what I have. The cost of meals perturbed me here as I silently and constantly say in my head how much that amount can feed in Peru. Now, four months later, I am still challenged by the difference of our lifestyles. I have learned to cope but feel so helpless sometimes. A few of my friends are ‘living below the line’ this week and I have seen how hard it is for them. Seeing my friend do it has challenged me to remember my little Peruvian kids and appreciate being here where I can eat what I want, when I want.

A meal for $2 a day in Sydney buys:

  • Tea bag
  • Half a cup of rice
  • An egg
  • Half a cup of oats

A meal for $2 a day in Quilla Huata buys:

  • ½ fried chicken
  • Half a plate of hot chips
  • A plate of rice
  • Salad and vegies

If we saw a meal like that here for $2, we would be rejoicing on mountain tops because that is a bargain! But that meal is an extreme luxury for most people in Quilla Huata. My biggest challenge taught me PERSPECTIVE.

One of the amazing things that Peru’s Challenge started this year was providing the kids with food at school to help with their concentration and health. Also Peru’s Challenge are aware that some of the kids have nothing to eat at home so by providing a solid meal at school, there is a greater chance of the kids actually attending school now.

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walking late

17 May

Now I lay in bed a steady breath a struggle, rolling over an accomplishment. Dying a small death of sorts, able to reflect and sigh and not get what I was running for.

The elasticity of indian time, and how it thwacks me in the face. Checking his watch, another hour. That’s fine, another 40 mins. Not a problem. Nowhere to be, nothing to do. What a luxurious and fearful space to occupy. Its ok because I know this has a limit, and until then I can embrace it and plumb the depths of ill health, of hazy thoughts and dozing eyes.

No sympathy if self induced, she said when I turned up for 8 hours of work without sleep and probably still drunk. I didn’t understand what she meant at first, oh, head down kick on. Never leaving quite enough time for the task at hand, pushing myself day after day, and finally I hit the precipice and instead of having a moment to consider whether or not to jump I’m figuring out how to position myself to quicken the fall and get busy landing.

I pretend I meditate, I don’t. in my mind I think ‘yeah, I meditate’ or at least I can meditate, sometimes practicing violin I fall into a deep focussed state, but I don’t set aside time to sit, and breathe. And be. But I don’t, if I really wanted to I would.

India allowed me to stop: the work pace (can it even be called a pace?) the walk pace (stroll. Not a brisk walker to be seen). I fell into it and have been running late (walking late) ever since

“Did I make a difference? SHOULD I have made a difference?”

16 May

In regards to my time volunteering in the Philippines I’ve often asked myself the question “did I make a difference?” At times the answer has been “yes” at others “no” and, more recently (and perhaps realistically), “sorta”. I cannot deny that on a small-scale level, my group certainly made a difference in the lives of those we interacted with on a regular basis. Whether it was teaching computer skills, helping with homework or just hanging out, our time with the children at the Bahay Tuluyan (BT) centres was important. In my diary I wrote “I don’t think I’m going to have any lasting effect on any of these boys but that’s fine. I guess teaching C__ and J__ how to do a bird call using their hands is a big enough achievement.”

Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar but, ultimately, very different question: “should I have made a difference?” The answer that I’ve come up with is, once again, “sorta” – but I’ll be able to better rationalise that answer to you after this story.

The main project that my group of volunteers was involved in was organising two identical two-day children’s congresses to be held on two different occasions. Basically, we had to come up with a program that enabled Filipino youth leaders (who we called “the facilitators”) to teach children’s rights to high schoolers. Our core group was divided into 5-6 smaller teams who would then take on one facet of children’s rights to work with (for example, me and my team-mate Amy worked with “Special Protection Measures”).

Some of my volunteer group with the sign for the first congress: photo supplied by Amy Fell

The first of the congresses was held at the BT centre in Victoria. In many ways, it was a frustrating process, though certainly very fun. Amy and I did not have time beforehand to properly familiarise our facilitators with the program and a lot of the congress time was spent explaining activities and discussions and then having that translated to the high schoolers by the facilitators or by senior members of the BT staff. At times, I was unsure whether or not we were making any sense. In the end we (and the other teams) got through it and the event was deemed a success. Everyone of my 10-strong volunteer group was certainly feeling emotional (in a good way) after the first congress and there were smiles (or tears, but in a good way!) all around. I remember feeling pleased and perhaps even a little bit proud, but I cannot deny that I felt that there was something missing…

The second congress was held a week later at the San Antonio BT centre. I will admit that, in a very selfish way, I found this congress slightly less enjoyable than the first one. Amy’s and my role was minimised and that meant that we didn’t get to interact with the high schoolers as much as we did at the first congress. Our facilitators were now fully familiar with the program; they took control and we were designated roles that were focussed around running errands and organising materials for the activities. The facilitators excelled. At times, I felt almost useless. But this was the best feeling in the world! Instead of us trying to put forward a message, it was the facilitators who presented the message. It was Filipino youths teaching Filipino youths: sustainable teaching and learning in its most basic form.

And this is the reason that I answered “sorta” to the question of whether or not I should make a difference. Teaching and informing in a “Third-world” environment should not come from privileged Westerners. Change must come from within. Certainly we played a role in this but, in my opinion, all we did was give the young Filipino facilitators the framework with which they could teach other youths about their rights. The facilitators already had the skills, the potential and, most importantly, the drive. They just needed us for the “menial labour”.

And once again, I’ll say that this was the best feeling in the world.

_____________________________________________

Disclaimer: whilst I have been using inclusive terms such as “us” and “we” I have to stress that this is entirely my own opinion and I could not (and should not) put forward the idea that I am representing the viewpoints of all of the 10 members of my volunteer group nor even the aforementioned Amy whom I worked very closely with.

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