Volunteer Spotlight: Rachael Ochoa, Western PA Area Team

Volunteer Spotlight: Rachael Ochoa, Western PA Area Team

Meet Rachael Ochoa, a volunteer with the Western PA Area Team for the past year. Learn more about her AFS story here:

How did you learn about AFS and what prompted you to get involved? 

I learned about AFS from our local high school’s website. We had just moved back to Pittsburgh after having lived in Albuquerque for the previous 10 years. It was a bit of a culture shock for my kids, who lived most of their lives in New Mexico, and were struggling with the move. I wanted to show them what flexibility looked like and that there were much more challenging scenarios for teens to be going through. We’ve always been interested in travel and culture so when I saw that our high-school had a strong AFS program, I thought it would be the perfect way to blend all of those things together. It worked–my kids LOVE being back home and their new siblings!

What keeps you coming back to volunteer each year?

The work is fun and fulfilling. I love being able to do something that I’m passionate about that has such a profound impact on both my family and my local community.

What’s a typical volunteer “shift” like for you? Anytime I have free time, I try to do something for AFS.  I spend many hours sitting in my car at sports practices for my kids and that’s a great time to read/write bios for students and talk to prospective host families. During the days, when I have free time, I work on school outreach, completing team tasks that need to be addressed, and planning for the Hosting Advisory Committee. Some days, or weeks, I have more time than others and I love that I have the flexibility to put in the hours when I have the time, and rely on my team members when I don’t.

What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience with AFS? 

Aside from the obvious things like learning about cultural differences and having an expanded global family, which are completely amazing, I have learned so much about myself as a parent. I have learned how to self-reflect and how to deal with parenting situations with each child individually. I have learned to listen before reacting (and sometimes step away for a few minutes). I have learned to set expectations and the importance of going over those expectations many times and in many different ways in order to clearly communicate those. I have learned to say and accept the words, “I’m Sorry” and move on. Overall, I have grown as a person and as a parent and I can fully appreciate the differences and unique needs of each of my children to meet them where they are so that we have a strong bond and lifelong relationship.

Please share the best or the funniest thing that’s happened to you while volunteering with AFS. 

The best thing about volunteering with AFS is absolutely finding love and family with all of my beautiful global children and their families. This year was especially hard. We were planning on hosting and then ended up losing 6 or 7 kids that either deferred or their country pulled the program.  However, we’ve been virtually hosting and the experience has been just as rich and amazing for our family as in-person hosting. We now have four new kids, instead of the one that would’ve ended up living with us. It’s been a blessing in disguise.

The funniest thing that has happened was last year with our Turkish son, Jon. Jon was a force. He knew everything about everything and he liked to make sure that everyone knew. He was vocal and he was stubborn (he was also charismatic and loving). All of the AFS kids went to a festival at the University of Pittsburgh Nationality Rooms (if you haven’t seen them, look them up on YouTube!!). My other son and I had to meet the AFS group there a little late due to a previous commitment. As the two of us were looking for Jon and walking around, we stumbled upon the Turkish room. We listened to the presentation and looked at all of the artifacts in the room. As we were leaving, my then 10-year old turned to me and said, “Mom, you know that Jon is going to tell the presenters that what they are saying is wrong. I know he will complain about something in this room.” Shortly thereafter we found Jon and the first thing he said, “MOM, did you see the Turkish room?” I explained that we had recently been in it and that it was beautiful. His response? “MOM, it was ALL WRONG. I told the presenter everything that he said wrong and told him how to fix it. I also pointed out that the pictures of Istanbul weren’t at scale and should be fixed!” Sigh…we knew exactly what to expect from our boy and despite that, we loved him immensely!

What do you want to say to people who might be interested in volunteering with AFS? 

There are so many different volunteer opportunities available for AFS. Find something that utilizes your skill set or that fits with your schedule. It doesn’t have to be 20, or even 2, hours a week, it can be seasonal or sporadic. Use the time you have but when you commit, be engaged and be invested.  You have the opportunity to change lives so enjoy it!

What’s one thing AFS volunteers and staff don’t know about you?

I have a super secret, and nerdy, dream of wanting to play the clarinet in a polka band (and I haven’t even played the clarinet since I was in 9th grade).