IVLP Alumni Spotlight: Volunteering from Oklahoma to Kazakhstan

Amina and fellow IVLP alumni with TGA Board Member John Harper at their Toast the Travelers Reception


The following was written by Bob Lieser, Vice President of Program at Tulsa Global Alliance.

In October 2018, Tulsa Global Alliance (TGA), a Community-Based Member of Global Ties U.S., collaborated with Meridian International Center to host a U.S. State Department International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) from Kazakhstan titled “Volunteerism: Charity and Civic Action.” Their schedule included tours of the Little Light House, a faith-based non-profit providing free educational and therapeutic services to children with special needs, and Jenks High School, where they learned about special needs education at a public school district. The visitors also volunteered at Iron Gate, serving meals in a grocery pantry, and at the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, preparing packets of food for Tulsans. All these experiences had a profound impact on Amina and have directly influenced her recent accomplishments.

TGA Board Member John Harper has brought news of some wonderful accomplishments by one of the participants, Amina Zhardemkyzy, since her return to Kazakhstan. John and his wife, Esther, hosted several visitors for home hospitality and have remained in regular contact since then, even visiting them in Kazakhstan in 2019. “Amina instantly impressed me as one who ‘takes the bull by the horns’ as we say in Oklahoma,” John stated. “She talked about what she saw needed done, and then went home to Kazakhstan and did it. It is not a one-off thing for her, but helping others is the core of her personality.” Amina has been active in volunteer work since 2013 when she and her friends organized charity projects to send a hundred children abroad for surgery.

Before Amina took part in the IVLP, she was renovating a space to open the “Venus” center, an inclusive space for children with autism, and worried about how to raise the funds to finish the project. She returned from the U.S. a completely different person. She had known before about fundraising and crowdfunding but did not have much experience with them. She says that thanks to IVLP, “I learned about very cool tools that can be used in charity.” She began to slowly translate her ideas into reality.

Amina and fellow IVLP participants visit Jenks High School near Tulsa, Oklahoma

As she continued work on the new “Venus” center, she remembered visiting the Little Light House, and was so inspired by its story that she wanted “Venus” to be a small copy of it, right down to the room colors. Six months after breaking ground on “Venus,” she and her colleagues opened the “Mars” social centers. In planning these centers, she remembered Jenks High School, with its independent rooms for special needs students to encourage their creativity. She included a similar space for students age 15 and above to make sculptures, embroider, and draw.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered Amina an opportunity to expand volunteerism efforts in Kazakhstan. She launched a volunteer center to deliver food and medicine to the elderly in Atyrau by creating a team of volunteer drivers, some of whom are between the ages of 30 and 60. Traditionally in Kazakhstan, volunteers are very young, but Amina learned from her IVLP project and her time in Tulsa that many volunteers in the U.S. and other countries are over 40. “You can become a volunteer at any age!” She was impressed with the variety of American volunteer activities – delivering hot lunches to seniors, organizing charity events, helping the homeless, and recruiting other volunteers.

Amina writes that thanks to the IVLP, “I gained a lot for myself. I learned to help on a large scale. I am very grateful to all the people who worked on the program, to all those who received us, and shared their experience with us. It was a big contribution to me!”