When I first received the email from Polaris Project New Jersey asking me to attend a volunteer orientation, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I had heard many stories about sexual and labor exploitation, but being a Ukrainian American, most of my knowledge was confined to that population. It was not until my volunteer experience with Polaris Project that I began to understand how the crime precariously ingrains itself into every aspect of American culture.
My first volunteer opportunity was to work with Nina, a client in need of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Upon my first meeting, I began thinking about how our class would go. I was feeling tentative and unsure of how to act. Should the mood be somber or happy? Should I smile a lot or a little bit? What if Nina decides I am a terrible teacher? What if she wants to talk to me about her trafficking situation and I respond incorrectly? All these questions and concerns continuously rotated through my mind. Yet, upon meeting my student, I saw the kindness in her eyes and her smile was genuine. I returned it and the concerns melted away.
I began working with Nina two times a week for an hour and half each day. We always conducted our classes the same way. Nina would write a journal entry at home about very basic and neutral topics such as a favorite food, movie, song, etc. We then moved onto dreams and aspirations. Describe your dream job. If you could visit one place in the world, where would it be? She would bring the journal entry for me to correct, and read it aloud so I could help her with the words she had trouble pronouncing. We then moved onto other pronunciation exercises. Little by little, in between exercises and journal reading, Nina began opening up about herself. She began regaling me with stories about her childhood and her home country. Since she did not have a large community in the U.S., she saw Polaris Project as her substitute family and she saw me as an essential member of that family. Although learning English was the main purpose for our meeting, our classes culminated into a time where she could just speak to a friend.
I was grateful that through volunteering, I was given the opportunity to meet a resilient and strong woman who craved a trusting community. Many times we overlook how simple, friendly conversations can provide lasting, emotional support. I was also glad to rid myself of the sensationalized picture of what the media has painted as the stereotypical human trafficking victim, because at the end of the day a victim is no different than anyone else. This volunteer position provided me with an invaluable experience that truly changed my life.
U. Tatunchak: Volunteer July 2010 – August 2011, current staff member at Polaris Project New Jersey.