Ozarks alum reaches out through Red Cross

Release Date: 12/9/2011

Even before she graduated from Ozarks this spring with her degree in accounting and management/administration, Mayra Hoch knew she wanted to do a project with the Red Cross during the summer. She had volunteered with them before, so she decided to go to the place where the Red Cross started: Geneva, Switzerland.

"I have been a volunteer for the Honduran Red Cross for approximately six years," Hoch said. "Knowing that the headquarters for the Red Cross was in Switzerland was what made me want to work specifically in Geneva, in order to learn from their experience in project development. So I volunteered and worked in the different projects being developed for the summer."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), established in 1863, works worldwide to provide humanitarian help for people affected by conflict and armed violence and to promote the laws that protect victims of war. An independent and neutral organization, its current mandate stems essentially from the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, it employs some 12,000 people in 80 countries. It is financed mainly by voluntary donations from governments and from national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

"It was not my first time in Europe, but it was my first time in Switzerland," Hoch said. "The country is absolutely beautiful. The cities are surrounded by lakes, mountains, and many other breathtaking natural resources."

She described working with Swiss volunteers as "an amazing experience" she'd love to repeat. "Learning from professionals gave me many valuable experiences that will help me develop better projects for the Honduran Red Cross," she said.

Hoch worked with the Red Cross Center for Cultural Integration in Geneva. "The center's goal is to make it easier for immigrants to work themselves into European culture," Hoch said. "It makes readings available to them in their native languages and encourages their involvement in becoming fruitful members of society."

She said in order to meet its objectives, the Red Cross works to help those young people most vulnerable in Geneva, according to the needs it has identified. "It operates in the areas of social integration, health and education, and other forms of aid," she said. "The Red Cross offers a library, a summer camp for kids, and French courses, and tries to provide a place of encounter and exchange between foreign people and the people of Geneva."

During her stay, Hoch worked in four different project areas: International Humanitarian Law Training, Summer Camp for Immigrants, European International Volunteer Year activities, and a Youth Action project.

Teaching young people about International Humanitarian Law is one of the tasks of the Red Cross. Hoch helped plan and execute a simulation activity with Ecole Internationale de Genève, the International School of Geneva, for students ages 12-18 in order to teach them humanitarian issues involved in conflict situations. "This simulation activity aimed to give practical demonstrations to young kids in order for them to be able to learn by example and teamwork," Hoch said. "Throughout the activity, the students played different roles, including prisoners, civilians, soldiers, and humanitarian workers. This gave them several viewpoints of life during an armed conflict. At the end, the students had knowledge of International Humanitarian Law, history of the Red Cross, new types of conflict, landmines, war crimes, and protection of children in conflict."

Because integration in a different culture is always difficult, especially for children, the Red Cross offers a summer camp for immigrant children. "Children face a lot of challenges, including both language and cultural barriers," Hoch said. "Geneva has been a place of asylum and refuge for victims of religious persecution since the 16th century. Over a third of its population made up of foreigners. For various reasons, many children cannot fully enjoy the summer holidays. Many are left alone in their houses. Day camps are tremendously expensive and not flexible enough for many parents who work long hours and do not have anyone to take care of their kids. That's where we helped. The kids were taken care from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Meals were provided through donations by local supermarkets. The sponsors agreed to deliver food for the meals each morning."

Hoch was also involved in the project honoring 2011 as the European Year of Volunteering. The objectives of this movement were to create a better environment for volunteering, to empower volunteer organizations, to improve the recognition of voluntary activities, and to raise public awareness of the importance of volunteering for society.

Humanitarian celebrity Super Swiss Woman partnered with the Swiss Red Cross to celebrate the European Year of Volunteering. "The main event of this celebration was a parade to raise awareness and funds for the Red Cross," Hoch said. "The Red Cross volunteers sold bracelets with optimistic messages throughout the parade to help raise funds. At the end of the parade, Red Cross volunteers directed the people in the parade in order to form a human chain symbolizing how human beings should work together in order to help each other and make this world a better place for everyone."

All the funds raised during the day are used for the maintenance of the apartments the Red Cross provides to young people that live in extremely poor housing conditions. Young people ages 18-25 are admitted in this center. Hoch said a social worker is available to provide them with advice and help to create a warm atmosphere that will allow them to successfully finish their studies.

Hoch's final project was helping work out the ideas and proposal for the Red Cross Youth Group to compete in designing a cultural center for the youth of Geneva. "The center will make cultural materials such as encyclopedias and art available to young people," she said. "It will also provide healthy entertainment at nights by inviting different artists to share their talents. Small details that remain will be corrected and the project will be presented by the volunteers still present in Switzerland."

Hoch said she had had no specific plan when she went to Switzerland, except to work with the Red Cross, and she felt the experience had been exceptionally rewarding. She is currently working as the Shore and Operations Manager for a U.S. franchise yacht, the Aggressor, in Honduras.