By Ginny Teel, Interim Director of Staff Care, HQ
When our family lived in the Philippines, my heart was captured by cross-cultural workers who had heart, courage, strength, resilience, pluck, adaptability, creativity and a willingness to sacrifice creature comforts for the sake of a passion. These were people with all the usual challenges of life but with the added layers of living cross-culturally. People like this became my heroes.
As a staff care person and counselor, I’ve been privileged to serve REI staff working cross-culturally in developing countries from 2000 to 2018. This past fall (2023) when the need for a staff care person in REI surfaced, I volunteered to help as interim until a more permanent replacement could be found.
Why staff care? I know from living on the field myself and working many years with families and single men and women in cross-cultural settings that challenge, purpose, adventure, joy, excitement and growth are big pieces of the experience. But loneliness, stretching, frustration, grief and pain are also part of it.
I remember one such personal experience so clearly. We had only been in the Philippines six weeks. The day before we had finished unpacking items from our container. But on this day our son missed the bus and didn’t come home from school (an hour away). Our daughter sat at home with crutches from a soccer injury. A dam nearby, swollen by the waters of a typhoon, released a torrent of water, flooding our street with water up to my chest and making it difficult to get home. The water in our home rose to three feet, ruining much of what we had just unpacked. It took two discouraging weeks for the cleanup.
It was at that time a staff care person from another organization was visiting. We had previously met him in the U.S. He listened as the tumbled emotions of our story spilled out, affirming the normalcy of our feelings. What a gift of companionship – feeling understood in our new land and heartened to keep moving forward.
The next week my husband contracted dengue fever, due to mosquitoes breeding in the residual flood waters. It took about six weeks for him to fully recover. A hard start in our new cross-cultural environment.
Challenges like the above are not uncommon for those who cross cultures. REI understands these challenges and provides care to its staff in several ways. Our REI president and his wife provide general care to all staff, especially our country leaders. Country leaders in turn provide care for those on their teams. Team members also care for one another, and staff also find support among others in their communities.
Yet, REI recognizes that there are also times when additional support is helpful and needed. A staff care person on staff with REI is available to help provide that support. The staff care person meets new staff during their training in Colorado Springs and then provides monthly check-ins for new staff for the first three to six months on the field. The staff care person is also available to help in any number of ways at the request of field staff. These connections are made by email, phone and Zoom.
On-field visits provide longer periods of time for conversation and reflection, also offering context to understand the challenges that our field staff face. Currently our REI president is making on-field visits and when we have a permanent staff care person again, that person will also make on-field visits. In this role, I have made over 40 staff care trips between 2000 and 2018, which has proved to be rewarding as meaningful relationships with staff help provide much-needed support on the field.
While all the adjectives in paragraph one describes our staff who take the big step to live cross-culturally, at the same time these brave ones invite more vulnerability into their lives by doing so. REI recognizes that vulnerability, and we endeavor to provide support as needed. Our desire in so doing is that our staff are valued, understood and sustained in their lives and work in some very hard places.