New year, new you: Britons swell ranks of a growing volunteer army

For many, fed-up with gloomy predictions, the lure of unpaid work where they can sit out the recession and do some good is strong

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The Independent Online

To many, the New Year will be marked by a doomed attempt to quit smoking; a brief flurry of gym activity, and a desperate prayer that the recession bites elsewhere. But for a small, and growing, number of British professionals, it means giving up jobs and homes for a new life, often on the other side of the world. Instead of enduring a grisly commute to the office, and waiting in line at Waitrose, they will staff hospital wards in Sierra Leone; ministry offices in Mongolia; local government in Libya; and farms in Tajikistan.

Applications to overseas volunteering projects from the private sector last year increased by 10 per cent on 2010 – a record, according to Voluntary Service Overseas. And a recent survey by Lloyds TSB found that some 15 per cent of British ex-pats have cancelled plans to return to the UK, fearing the lack of opportunities here.

"The global map of working Britain is changing," says Emily Lomax, of VSO. "Volunteering abroad is no longer viewed as a year off – but as an opportunity to wait out the recession, use your skills to good effect, while also becoming more employable."

But who are these people? And why are they throwing away everything to start again? As a new year begins, The Independent on Sunday hears the dreams and schemes of five people who are changing their lives for 2012.

The doctor

Dominic Waddington, 31; Leaves Newcastle this month to join Kenema Government Hospital, Sierra Leone, for a year

"When I graduated in 2003, the NHS appeared to be a job for life. But the upheaval this year has been staggering.

"When the White Paper was announced earlier this year I had already given in my notice [as a hospital doctor], and when I return in a year's time I plan to retrain as a GP....

"I am leaving at a time where there is a lot of anxiety over the changes in the public sector. Many of my peers feel that the changes are going against the very ethos under which the NHS was founded. There is a greater sense of unease running through the service.

"My girlfriend and I plan to escape the recession ... on a placement in a hospital in Kenema. We will work with outpatients. The idea is not just to provide healthcare but training and support, so people there can, in turn, maintain better healthcare.

"I'm not fond of the idea of the changes happening [in the NHS], particularly the thoughts of privatisation ... but I hope the placement in Sierra Leone will allow for a healthy change of perspective."

The student

Thomas McCormack, 35; Changing direction in Coventry to volunteer on the CSV's Child Protection programme

"I grew up in a family of five where I was subjected to abuse. There were many years in which I worked in a warehouse and felt as though my life was stuck in a rut.

"In the years that followed, much of that has remained with me – but it has given me a passion to help others. In the past, I have tried to get into social work but have been unable to do so. David Cameron harped on about the Big Society as a call to action. But in this recession I have seen something different happening; people are coming together of their own accord. It has come out of necessity rather than out of government policy.

"Next year I will be volunteering and I'll be assigned to a family in the Child Protection programme. My aim is to help families and carve my long-term career ambition, which is ultimately to get into social work. I am hoping that – having struggled to do it first-time around – volunteering will provide an alternative option."

The policy adviser

Saffron Clackson, 30; Taking a break from the Ministry of Justice to volunteer in Mongolia

"I will be working on participation in governance, between the office of the Mongolian president, in Ulan Bator, and a network of Mongolian NGOs in an effort to encourage the use of volunteers and the growth of the volunteer sector through the Mongolian government.

"The reason I am going now is because at this time in my life I have developed enough experience to have something to give, and I don't have ties to keep me here. Also the Mongolian economy is growing really fast and I think it will be exciting to be somewhere where the outlook and trajectory is different, and where there is not a lot of depressing chat about the economy.

"I am lucky in that I have a civil service job and they have given me a career break so I will have a job to come back to. In that sense, I'm in a privileged position."

The financier

Derek Bethom, 43; Sheffield accountant heading to Tajikistan to help farmers improve yields

"I spent much of my early career with News Corporation and Trinity Mirror and later started my own business. For the past six years I ran my own business which is gradually winding down. After assessing where I was in life, I realised I had an opportunity to do something dramatically different.

"I have reached a point where the state of the economy will no longer determine what I will do next. I will choose whatever it is that takes me forward. Most of my friends have a wife and kids and I don't have any of those ties. I suddenly felt it was time to do something dramatically different.

"I am heading on a volunteering placement. From my perspective I am leaving with an open mind. I could stay with something overseas or I could return to the UK and restart my business.

"I don't think the state of the economy will determine what I do next, what I do next will be determined by the next way forward. I am going with no timescale in mind. Essentially, I am going to consider what is next with no particular view to returning until I have found the answer."

The town planner

Ginny Jukes, 34; Moves from Birmingham to Zambia this month to help with town planning there

"It took me five years to graduate in town planning. I studied during the boom years and when I did finally graduate into the job market, opportunities had become far narrower and more competitive. Jobs at the junior level were hard to find and I ended up taking a consultancy job in Birmingham until May [2011].

"When I lost that job I started researching other opportunities. It was only after sustained rounds of interviews that I found myself with two opportunities – one was interviewing for a prestigious role in London while the other was for a placement in Africa.

"I suppose the recession has been serendipitous. It sparked the decision to do something that I had always wanted to. I was worried leaving could damage my career, but the thought of seeing out three years in Zambia provides plenty to get excited about. I'm hoping that challenges of working and assisting town planners there will equip me with new skills and allow me to wait out the recession. It should lead to opportunities that I might not necessarily be open to if I had remained in London.

"The Blair years were far more carefree. When the economy was booming there was a feeling that you could change careers and emerge safely and find work. That has changed; people are thinking long term, and want to make sure the next steps they take are the right ones."