Dispatches 

The joy of youth

There's so much rhetoric and political strife circulating around the Israeli-Palestinian plight that it's easy to forget how many children live amid the chaos. And despite the death and uncertainty, kids will be kids and that means they need to play.

Born-and-bred Whistlerite Danielle O'Reilly has been living in Dubai for the past four years and now spends part of her time volunteering for the Palestine Children's Relief Fund. The non-profit organization's mandate is two-fold; its main goal is to provide advanced medical treatment to children who would otherwise be left to suffer, and in the summer it organizes camps for Palestinian youth.

"The age range is three to 13 years old so there is a big age gap, but pretty much they just appreciate everything that is going on and every person who is there - just the fact that you travelled to go see them means a lot," said O'Reilly, who dipped into Whistler for a visit last week before flying back to Dubai.

"The way the camps are structured means we've tried to put together theme days for the kids. We have an educational day, we have a field trip day, we have a media day where they write stories about what is going on and we watch movies.

"We've had disposable cameras donated and we've had them all take pictures and we get them developed.

"We have a sports day where everyone plays soccer or badminton, we have a theatre day where they put on a production and, of course, there are arts and crafts every day."

Social workers rely on volunteers, many of who are travelling from other countries and donate their time and resources, to run the camps. Soliciting the vacation hours and energy of the travelling public is the only way PCRF can provide the camps, and O'Reilly said the rewards fall on both the adults and children.

"We have volunteers there that are of Palestinian origin and from many other countries and the children couldn't feel more adored and loved like little celebrities by all of the people who travel to be at the camps," she continued. "It's a different thing - you have to go with an open mind and open heart and just kind of go with the flow because it's a little bit chaotic, but the kids are so cute and so energetic and so enthusiastic that hopefully more and more people will be willing to help out."

PCRF volunteers typically pay for airfare and accommodations while donating their time to the camp. Many expats living in the Middle East are drawn to the program, as location makes it easy to put in a week here and there. Other volunteers have come from as far as Europe and North America, showing a new trend of travellers who prefer to give something back instead of touring through.

"It's an opportunity for people, if they want to get involved, to help out, volunteer and go on a nice vacation to the Middle East," said O'Reilly. "When you go, you go to see how you can assist, you don't need to be of any profession but if you are, that's great too - teachers can help with different English skills, that kind of thing."

Fifteen PCRF camps are run throughout Palestine, two operate in Gaza, one in Lebanon and one in Jordan. They are primarily attended by children who live in refugee camps. Some of them are also recipients of the medical services provided by PCRF, including kids who have received prosthetic limbs, cancer treatments and cleft palate repair. Through the medical service side of PCRF, those with serious conditions are regularly sent abroad to developed nations where doctors provide treatment pro bono.

After growing up in Whistler, O'Reilly said the realities of life in a Palestinian refugee camp came as a shock, but inspired her to help out as much as possible.

"I have never seen a refuge camp in my life and so yes, it was a pretty big eye opener and it makes you really, really, really appreciate where you've grown up, and what you have, and how fortunate we are to have a country, and to have so much to be thankful for, and so much beauty around us and food on the table every day, and facilities, let alone all of the extra activities that we participate in on a daily basis," she said.

"It's a pretty different lifestyle. In fact, it's an extremely different world. We have nothing to complain about when you see the conditions of these camps."

For more information go to www.pcrf.net.

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