A Volunteer’s Story to Inspire & Challenge Students

THE THIRD WAVE by Alison Thompson

Alison Thompson, author of The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story (Spiegel & Grau, 2011), recalls her experiences as a volunteer; experiences she believes will both inspire and challenge students to pursue their own journeys of service and action:

September 11th, 2011, marked the ten year anniversary of my journey around the world as a volunteer. On that day in 2001, when all I knew was that a tower had collapsed and that my good friend had been in it, I strapped on my rollerblades, packed up my first aid kit, and headed downtown to see what I could do to help. I ended up staying at Ground Zero for nine months, sifting through the rubble, collecting bodies, and tending to the firemen and ironworkers. Since then, I’ve made it my life’s mission to be on the ground whenever a major disaster strikes. I spent fourteen months in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami, and I currently work as a full-time volunteer in Haiti, where I moved right after the 2010 earthquake.

I wrote The Third Wave in order to provide a glimpse of what it’s really like on the ground after a disaster. I wanted show readers that

anyone can help, that small acts of kindness can create great change in the world. Although my experience as a nurse’s aid has come in handy, much of the work I do on a daily basis can be done by anyone. You don’t need specialized skills to make a difference; everyone can hand out water or give someone a hug. At our clinic in Haiti, I recently met a shy girl who had a runny nose and scabies eating away at her head. She asked me for water. I poured a tiny medical cup full of it, and she leaned back with a smile, slowly letting it slide into her mouth like chocolate. I realized that it was probably the first time she had ever tasted pure water. I felt humbled as I poured her another cup, and then another. I gave her mother a few sanitary pads, a bar of soap, and a can of milk, and she cried at the wonderful presents. That is why I volunteer.

Another reason I wrote The Third Wave was to show that you don’t need to belong to an organization in order to have an effect. When I first went to Sri Lanka after the Tsunami of 2004, I connected with a ragtag group of other volunteers, and together we rebuilt a village that wasn’t on any of the large NGOs’ radars. Today’s natural and man-made disasters are growing too large for governments and aid groups to handle them alone. We are all needed. Every college student has the skills to help, whether it’s for an hour in one’s own community, for a week over spring break, or throughout the semester.

I believe that college students today are looking for more than a classroom education; they expect to grow as individuals throughout their four years at college, to figure out what their place is in the world and what they can do to make it a better place. My hope is that The Third Wave will inspire students to think more broadly about their own potential and challenge them to take action.

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