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Let’s start a movement to get to know those you might label as ‘others’, With Laura Viselli, of Students Offering Support

Get to know those you might label as ‘others’. Those with different abilities, of a different age or of a socio-economic status. Don’t…


Get to know those you might label as ‘others’. Those with different abilities, of a different age or of a socio-economic status. Don’t define them as just being different than you, get to know their stories, beliefs, and backgrounds that contributed to their histories. At SOS we value cross cultural exchange, but we also live it. It is a fundamental component of the opportunities we provide our student volunteers and our NGO partners — we live, work, and play right in the Latin American communities we work with. This has helped us cultivate the most trusting and enduring Global North and Global South relationships.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Viselli, Program Director at Students Offering Support. For more than 4 years, Laura has facilitated the collaboration between SOS volunteers and supporters with partnering organizations and communities in Central and South America. Laura has travelled to Guatemala, Indonesia, Spain, and Costa Rica, and believes in the transformative power of cross-cultural collaboration. Prior to Laura’s involvement with SOS, she supported uniquely-abled children and adults in Ontario as they pursued a more accessible livelihood.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

During my undergraduate degree I volunteered at the Students Offering Support Chapter at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was responsible for a 10 person team who implemented in-person marketing initiatives on campus to raise awareness about opportunities for students. That was 6 years ago and SOS has been a major part of my life since! After I graduated, I became a volunteer at the SOS Head Office. This experience gave me invaluable insight into the operations of a Canadian charity working with thousands of students across Canada and partnering NGOs in Latin America. Once a position opened at the Head Office, I applied and have been working with SOS ever since!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

SOS has allowed me to travel to communities across Canada, Guatemala and Costa Rica, where I had the opportunity to witness the incredible work ethic of SOS volunteers and our partners in Latin America. I think what’s most interesting is the commitment to building thriving communities that is evident across Canadian volunteers and our Latin American partners. The willingness to collaborate and work as teams is visible in everything we do, and our stakeholders are truly so passionate about working together. Strangers becoming teammates for social change, cultural exchange, and knowledge exchange is by far the most interesting aspect of my work.


Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

While I was an intern at the SOS Head Office, I was preparing travel documents for our volunteers participating on service learning trips to Central America. Once, I mistakenly emailed a group of volunteers and said that they were departing from Montreal instead of Toronto, and then left for the weekend! When I came back to the office on Monday, I had a lot of emails and calls to make to ensure the group that it was my accident, and that they were departing from Toronto. I learned the importance of taking your time on every single project, and advocating for yourself if you need more time to complete a project to the highest quality.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At SOS, we ignite student leaders across Canada by giving them the opportunity to make a real impact in our partnering communities in Latin America. As a social enterprise, we have a unique funding model that relies entirely on our student volunteers, 72% of which are female! Not only do they fundraise the entire cost of community development projects, but they also have the opportunity to travel to our partnering organizations and meet the community who will benefit from the project.

When I was a student volunteer with SOS, I had this opportunity. After volunteering on campus for two years, I wanted to see the impact we were having for myself. As a Global Studies student, I had questions about how SOS operated and worked with local NGOs in Latin America. My experience in Costa Rica was completely life changing in that I was able to see how my contributions over the past 2 years had TRULY made a difference. It’s a win win win for everyone involved. As a student I was able to develop my leadership skills and be accountable to a team on campus and an organization in Latin America. To top it all of, our partnering organizations in Latin America receive a crucial community driven education project.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are! 2018 is SOS’s 10 year anniversary since becoming a nationally registered charity in Canada. We are celebrating with the the expansion of our programs, forging new partnerships and the launch of our Alumni network, connecting over 10,000 SOS alumni in Canada. We have also created two new opportunities for SOS volunteers to travel to Guatemala to work with our local NGO partners and learn Spanish or learn about a community’s agricultural adaptations to climate change. At SOS, we are constantly innovating our programs to meet the needs and desires of our partnering Latin American communities and Canadian volunteers to ignite youth leaders. The United Nations recently announced their Youth 2030 initiative as a part of their Sustainable Development Goals which aligns perfectly with SOS’s goals and vision for the future.




What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Share your stories of being a female leader with your entire team. Being a woman in a leadership position gives you unique stories and perspectives. Sharing these with your team creates the space for honest and insightful conversations, while building a trusting team dynamic. The energy has never been better to discuss the implications of being a woman in a leadership position. It’s important to remember that even though there are many stories being told around the world, yours is equally as important as any other to share.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

When you have a large team, make dedicated time for every member of your team. Get to know them personally as best as time will allow and show them that you care. If you ask a team member what their weekend plans are on a Friday, ask them how they went on Monday. Don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am extremely grateful and forever indebted to Allison, who was the Director of Outreach at SOS while I was a student and gave me the opportunity to be the Trip Leader while on my trip to Costa Rica and gave me the opportunity to volunteer under her at SOS’s Head Office. Watching her work through personal and professional commitments was the definition of perseverance. She cared so deeply about our partnering NGOs and student volunteers which instilled in me the importance of putting people first.

Once, after a particularly hard couple of weeks, the energy in the office was low. We needed a spark of energy and light and Allison provided just that. After working a long day the day before, Allison stayed up and made a homemade lunch for us. Then, in the rain she brought a slow cooker full of pulled pork for the entire staff. She said we needed a pick-me-up and she delivered it! It was the most effective act of kindness.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I surely hope so. I make a conscious effort every day to check in our volunteers and partnering NGOs and congratulate them for a job well done. I want our community to focus on all that we have achieved and thrive to reach new heights, but most importantly I want everyone I work with to know how proud SOS is of them. Everyone is our community dedicates so much of themselves to fight inequalities in education, and I want them to know that every ounce of their energy makes a difference AND an impact!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1- Do the grunt work.

No leader is ‘above’ any task. Asked to make photocopies? Asked to carry boxes? Asked to take out the trash? Do all these. You’ll learn the best lessons in the most expected places.

While I was a volunteer at the SOS Head Office, I said yes to every task that was asked of me, sometimes disgruntledly. I was asked to organize a large cupboard once that was full of everything under the sun and hadn’t been reviewed in years. I thought I was better than that. But, during the organizing I found the most beautiful momentos of SOS’s history. Handwritten cards from volunteers, pictures, articles, souvenirs from previous trips, and much more that helped me understand the history of our organization. It was invaluable experience.

2- Trust your gut.

If something feels off, it likely is. …(see next leadership lesson)

3- Speak up.

….and speak up about it!! You’ll never know an answer unless you ask the question. Your coworkers and those in leadership positions will appreciate your dedication to ensuring the transparency of your work. Of course, be mindful when you’re having these discussions and do your research before demanding answers.

4- Stand for something.

What gets you out of the bed in the morning? What makes you happy, angry, sad? Your beliefs make you a unique leader and you should share your passions with your team. Your history makes your perspective unique and invaluable. You should cultivate this, not hide it!

5- Say thank you.

For a job well done, for an introduction, an opportunity, a gift. A simple but dedicated thank you goes a long way in building trusting relationships with coworkers, supervisors, board members — all stakeholders! If someone has done something to help or inspire you, reminding them of the impact they had on your life builds a unique bond with that individual.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Get to know those you might label as ‘others’. Those with different abilities, of a different age or of a socio-economic status. Don’t define them as just being different than you, get to know their stories, beliefs, and backgrounds that contributed to their histories. At SOS we value cross cultural exchange, but we also live it. It is a fundamental component of the opportunities we provide our student volunteers and our NGO partners — we live, work, and play right in the Latin American communities we work with. This has helped us cultivate the most trusting and enduring Global North and Global South relationships.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”. My personal and professional career path is always evolving. I am a planner and a strategic thinker, so I always sought out to make lists, plan ahead, and stay on track. But sometimes that just does not work. And you cannot fight it. You have to purse the opportunities and people you cherish and work hard to achieve these opportunities. Your life will take twists and turns and you just have to be along for the ride!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on twitter @l__vis and on LinkedIn!

Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!

Originally published at medium.com

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