AFS once aided the wounded of the World Wars. Now it offers great gap years. By Caitlin Davies

How do you want to spend your gap year: trekking through a rainforest or living with a family, eating what they eat, speaking their language and learning their ways? If the latter appeals to you, then this is what AFS offers.

How do you want to spend your gap year: trekking through a rainforest or living with a family, eating what they eat, speaking their language and learning their ways? If the latter appeals to you, then this is what AFS offers.

The scheme began just after the Second World War, taking its initials from the American Field Service, a civilian corps who transported the wounded of the two World Wars. When the ambulance drivers returned home they "resolved to work for peace", according to the AFS brochure, with the idea that if young people understood their global neighbours, they could create a more peaceful world.

A non-profit organisation, AFS began in 1947 with exchanges in and out of the United States. Now the organisation is global with 54 partner countries and two main programmes. One is a school programme for 15- to 18-year-olds who spend a year abroad, living with a host family and attending secondary school. The second is the international volunteer programme which is generally for those aged 18-29. The idea is to get to know the culture of another country from the inside - whether it is Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru or South Africa. Volunteers learn to be adaptable, improve their sensitivity and broaden their sense of self.

The programme lasts six months, during which participants work on a voluntary project. You can choose to work in various areas including human rights, environment and conservation, women's development and public health issues. "You're doing something constructive while meeting your own need to do something worthwhile," explains Wendy Taylor, national director of AFS in the UK. Once again, placement with a host family is central to the experience. "AFS is unique because the host family is not paid, so it's not a commercial enterprise," says Taylor. "It's also a very supported experience." Participants get support from a network of volunteers and from the local AFS office.

But if the host family doesn't get paid, what's in it for them? Taylor says some find it prestigious to have a foreigner living in their home, but the majority want a cultural experience but can't afford to send their own children abroad. If you don't already know the language, then tuition is provided - usually 40-80 hours on arrival in the host country.

Taylor says AFS has robust procedures to vet both the host family and the participants. "Not everyone gets to volunteer abroad. If you want to swing through vines and backpack across Australia, then this is not a programme for you. We're not here for adventure gappers. Those who do the volunteer programme tend to be people who want to make a difference and can do so without specific skills. They tend to be curious about how someone else lives."

Traditionally Latin America has been the destination of choice as many UK students know some Spanish, and because of the perceived romance of countries like Peru. Taylor says those who choose to go to South Africa tend to be more altruistic. South Africa has been in the AFS programme for about 40 years, but only became involved in the voluntary scheme since the end of apartheid. Taylor promises UK students who choose South Africa will experience a challenging and worthwhile time.

While Taylor says the British have few worries about safety, AFS has risk management procedures in place in every partner country. There have been times when they remove everyone from a host country, which is what happened in Venezuela during the violent political crisis in 2002.

Once a student gets accepted onto the AFS programme, they are given a fundraising handbook. You'll need to raise £3,300 for the volunteer programme. Some apply to trusts or grants; others may get sponsorship from family and friends to complete a stunt such as a parachute jump. Gap year students tend to spend six months fundraising before they set off on their experience abroad in January. The cost covers travel, full medical insurance, 24-hour emergency cover, as well as all accommodation and food. But it doesn't cover immunisations, medical exams or spending money.

For further information see, 0113 242 6136

'I was bawling when I left'

Julia Bezanson spent six months volunteering at a children's centre in Peru

I grew up in Peru, where my father was the Canadian Ambassador, and I wanted to figure out a way to go back there. I also knew I wanted a career in development work. In 2002, when I got my A-level results, I deferred a place at St Andrews. I chose AFS because I wanted something that would allow me to be independent.

AFS match you to a project, and they don't babysit you, they let you get on with it. I was placed at Hogar De Cristo, a centre for abused and abandoned children. The bulk of the money for the programme came from my grandmother - she passed away the year before.

The high points were almost every day. I got on with the family I was staying with so well and the host sister and I went everywhere together.

The children at the centre were aged from three weeks to 18 years old. I looked after the infants and I helped the older ones with homework. I discovered I'm not a very good teacher, but I also discovered how patient I am and I was pleased about that. I was bawling my eyes out when I had to leave.

It was a bit of a culture shock to come back to Britain, especially things like supermarkets and seeing tons of food. The experience made me more certain about a career in development.

My advice to others is if you think you might enjoy it, then go for it.