Volunteer Stories

Sonja Marie Hansen


Name: Sonja Marie Hansen
Current title/profession: Student at Stanford University


Name of project: Farmer-to-Farmer in the Philippines
Organization that sent the volunteer: Grameen Foundation


 Written by Sonja Marie Hansen

FRIEND Foundation is a community development organization that serves Agusan del Sur and Davao del Oro, two regions of the Philippines comprising farming communities with a high incidence of poverty. FRIEND boasts an impressive number of services for its communities. Its staff leads job training to secure new income streams for local farmers, conducts workshops on sustainable best agricultural practices on their educational farm, promotes female entrepreneurship through their radio show, runs an annual youth summer camp on leadership and financial literacy and among other services. I came to learn that FRIEND is incredibly skilled and approaches their work with an inspiring degree of love, compassion, and willingness to try and make mistakes.

While pursuing my B.S. in Earth Systems at Stanford University with a Notation in Science Communication, I am always seeking opportunities to connect with others through service, so when I came across an email from my University advertising volunteer positions with Grameen Foundation, my curiosity was piqued. My mother had worked in Manilla and told me of how some of the kindest, most welcoming people in the world can be found in the Philippines. I found her opinion to ring true in my experience. As a student, spending time with FRIEND did wonders for my education.

The goals of my assignment were to continue to empower FRIEND to advocate for themselves and the communities they serve, to give FRIEND the organizational tools for project planning and resource mobilization to provide relief and to identify out the many opportunities and directions they could pursue for change which projects would be most useful for both immediate and long-term healing of impoverished clients.

Over the course of my virtual, remote assignment I adapted and applied knowledge I had learned from prior volunteer experiences and my university coursework on organizing and community development to design a series of five webinars with activities on goal-setting, tactic selection, strategizing and project planning. Activities included filling out matrices, power mapping and facilitating discussions on my host organization’s capabilities and vision for the future.  

One lecture I taught was on the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), an information gathering technique rooted in community engagement. Rather than FRIEND design its own questionnaire in isolation, facilitate a group discussion or conduct a series of interviews, the PRA framework encourages a community development organization to galvanize action from community members by calling upon their input in deciding what questions they should ask and the best way to collect such information. PRA enables residents to take ownership of the data collection process through participation, to think critically of the solutions they would like to see introduced to their communities and to drive commitment to future projects.

My favorite webinar that I shared with FRIEND was on persuasive communications. With some fine-tuning, the stories of FRIEND’s staff can be persuasive tools in compelling others to engage, volunteer and donate to their mission. To prepare for the webinar, I asked the staff to come with the story of their favorite day from working at FRIEND. One staffer shared the story of her first day as FRIEND’s radio host and how it had been her dream since childhood. Another spoke of  reluctantly facing a teaching position for FRIEND that turned into a job from which he gained much insight. And one woman told the story of how working at FRIEND brought her closer to her faith as they hold daily team prayers.

"Over the course of the activity, some attendees cried out of joy and thankfulness for their coworkers and the mission that brought them together. They spoke lovingly of the lives and work relationships they had cultivated at the organization. Facilitating this activity was moving. I was able to conduct a meaningful exercise that brought the group together and reminded them of the power that they already hold, the years of work that have taken them to this point and the value of their teammates. Especially in light of the pandemic and the organizational shift that FRIEND is undergoing, it makes sense that at times members have felt overwhelmed or uncertain."

I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to speak and learn from FRIEND over five weeks. Even though it was virtual, the time I spent with FRIEND, sharing knowledge and skills, was incredibly enriching and life affirming. We certainly had our fair share of technical difficulties, brownouts and schedule mishaps, but every day I spent with FRIEND was met with gratitude and positivity, and there was not a single webinar that went by without laughter.

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