Ever wonder how the Olympic games run so smoothly? Lauren Jones, MS, OTR/L, had that question as she watched the Summer Olympics several years ago. When she found out about the large team of volunteers who work as support staff behind the scenes, she decided to apply.
Jones just returned from her time as a volunteer at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang and talked to AOTA about her experience in South Korea.
AOTA: What were some of your tasks and duties as an Olympics volunteer?
Jones: Olympics volunteers fulfill hundreds of different roles and positions during the Games. My role was not particularly glamorous—I was a volunteer on the “Event Services” team, where I served as an usher and even a crossing guard at one point! As part of the larger Event Services team, I was responsible for providing spectators with guidance and information, as well as helping ensure people navigated around the site safely.
AOTA: Did you find that you were using your skills as an occupational therapist as a volunteer?
Jones: During one of our on-site training sessions, the leaders were demonstrating how to help people with disabilities get into and out of a wheelchair and accessible van. During the wheelchair transfer, the demonstrators gave a general overview of how to help spectators get into the chair, but I was able to join the demonstrators briefly to demonstrate how to swing the footrests away from the chair and make sure the brakes were locked to ensure transfers were done safely.
During my work shifts, the actual job I was performing was not particularly “skilled”—I was simply helping spectators find their seats, locate various events, and navigate the park safely. However, I was able to implement my skills as an OT when I was interacting with fellow volunteers, helping problem-solve when things did not go smoothly, and finding creative ways to engage in everyday occupations (eating, sleeping, socializing, and performing work tasks and leisure activities) when the contexts, routines, and materials had completely changed!
AOTA: How did you promote OT as a volunteer?
Jones: I was able to educate others about occupational therapy as I met and became friends with people from around the world. I keep a bright red OT pin on my travel backpack, and as usual it proved to be a great conversation starter!
AOTA: Did you come into contact with any other OTs or OTAs?
Jones: Before I went overseas I contacted Dr. Ji-Hyuk Park, a professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea, to schedule a meeting and tour of the hospital where Yonsei University OT students complete their training. Meeting Dr. Park and his students was one of the highlights of my trip, and I truly enjoyed our discussion about the differences between occupational therapy in the U.S. versus in South Korea. Finding OT practitioners and students who were passionate about the profession, even when I was so far from home, made me feel as if I am truly a part of something bigger, and has inspired me to find a way to go to a global or international OT conference at some point in the future.
AOTA: What are some ways that being an Olympics volunteer helped you increase your knowledge of other cultures?
Jones: One of the most valuable ways I learned about other cultures was during conversations with volunteers from around the world. During bus rides, breaks, and meals I was able to share stories and hear perspectives from people of all ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. One night, we had a “food exchange” party where each person brought a favorite food from their country. We took turns sharing snacks and telling stories about current events, food, and culture. Through these conversations I learned about holidays, traditions, foods, customs, and other cultural phenomena from people living in Argentina, Australia, Russia, Great Britain, Korea, and many other countries.
AOTA: Were there any experiences that you will apply to your practice?
Jones: I had to adapt to using new modes of communication to get things done. For example, I had to download a new app in order to communicate with the members of my team, because it was the only way to know what was going on. I learned how frustrating it can be to not understand what is being asked of you, or to not be able to interact with others due to a language barrier, which gives me a deeper empathy for clients who have communication barriers. After this experience, I am prepared to get creative and find ways to collaborate effectively with people who have different values, backgrounds, and modes of communication in ways that are meaningful and effective for them.
AOTA: What surprised you the most about this experience?
Jones: One thing I was not expecting when I went overseas was how much attention I would receive as a black foreigner! During one of my work shifts in a busy “standing room only” section of the Olympic arena, I was approached by no less than 20 people who wanted to take a picture with me! People just kept walking up, saying “Picture? Picture?” and being overjoyed when I agreed to let them take a photo with me. It was a strange experience, but a friend explained that Korea is mostly an ethnically homogeneous country in which many people have never seen or interacted with a non-Korean person before and were excited to have the chance to do so. Still, it was quite strange feeling like a celebrity for no reason at all!
AOTA: Would you recommend volunteering at the Olympics to others? What should they know about it?
Jones: I would absolutely recommend volunteering at the Olympics to anyone who can go! It is truly a unique experience, and one that I will never forget. If you do decide to volunteer, you should know that applications are due over a year before the start of the Olympics, and the application process can be quite lengthy. Volunteers should know that they will be working and learning alongside people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints. This can be challenging at times, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity to “grow your brain,” as a favorite teacher used to say. Finally, you should plan to be very flexible. The sheer enormity of this event and the size of the workforce meant that things did not always go according to plan, and potential volunteers should be prepared for plans to change at a moment’s notice—or with no notice—and roll with the punches.