Volunteering overseas: a life-changing experience

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The Independent Online

Are you looking for a life-changing gap year? The chance to get real experience on your CV? Then overseas volunteering might just be for you. International development charity VSO has been sending people from the UK to Africa and Asia for nearly 50 years. The charity's emphasis is on working together with local communities and sharing skills, knowledge and experiences. Its two programmes for under-25s are designed to help you get the most out of your gap year.

Global Xchange is a six month project for 18- to 25-year-olds. Nine people from the UK are teamed up with nine people from a developing country. You'll spend three months in the UK and three months in the developing country, working together on community projects. In the past exchanges have happened between Bristol and Nigeria, Luton and the Philippines and South Wales and Kazakhstan.

The scheme is run in conjunction with Community Service Volunteers (CSV), the British Council, BAA Communities Trust and V - the young people's volunteering charity. No experience or qualifications are needed for Global Xchange, just enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

Kezra Shakir took part in the Global Xchange between Ogbomoso in Nigeria and Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, in 2003. "I'd left school and been working and volunteering for various organisations. My friend had done a VSO placement in Cambodia which inspired me to find out more. I thought it would involve practical projects like well building but when I found out it was about working with people, it appealed to me even more.

"We went to Mansfield first where I worked with my counterpart at Groundwork, the environmental charity, and on Groundwork's Jump youth mentoring scheme for young people who'd been excluded from school. The community in Mansfield were really excited to have a group of young Nigerians staying with them, but they were also a bit perplexed as to why they'd come!

"In Nigeria my counterpart, Itunu, and I worked at a school, teaching and observing. There were very little resources, so it was very challenging. Itunu, as a Nigerian, was an inspiration for the children at school. When she stood up to talk to them they were enthralled by her experiences. I'm still in touch with everyone from the team and I hope to visit Itunu soon.

"When I returned I worked for Show Racism the Red Card and then CSV. I'm now on secondment from CSV to Global Xchange as a project supervisor.

"Global Xchange can really change your life. If you're looking for experience and especially if you want to work in the charity or voluntary sector, it'll bring out your skills and help you find out what you want to do."

If you have already have some experience of voluntary or community work, then check out Youth for Development (YfD). This programme from VSO offers one-year overseas placements for 18-25 year olds. Depending on your area of interest you might find yourself doing anything from fundraising to youth work, environmental education, to working on disability rights or HIV awareness.

Nimmi Unadkat was a YfD volunteer in the Maldives: "My placement was on a small underdeveloped island called Omadhoo. I worked in the local community school as an English support teacher. My main role was to train local teachers in order for them to deliver more effective lessons. I decided to volunteer with YfD because I wanted to use my skills in a field where I could gain satisfaction. I also wanted to enmesh myself in a new culture, a new way of life.

"The best aspect of my placement was the privilege and achievement of being part of a school community where my role was appreciated and valued. I set up a library with a small grant provided by VSO which gave children the opportunity to read; something which they had never been able to before.

"The YfD experience has opened up a new world for me. I gained knowledge of international development at the grassroots level. I gained independence, confidence and satisfaction. It has developed so many new skills for me on a professional and personal level. I have recently graduated in geography and hope to gain further experience and qualifications in this field.

"To anyone thinking of volunteering through YfD I'd say the experience was captivating, truly unique and amazing. An adventure of a lifetime! Go for it!"

With the support of the fundraising staff you're asked to raise £750 for Global Xchange and £900 for YfD. In return you'll receive accommodation, flights, medical and travel insurance, visas and permits, training and a modest living allowance.

Abigail Fulbrook is a press officer at VSO

Get in touch

For more information on these programmes go to: www.globalxchange.org.uk or www.vso.org.uk/volunteering/youth. And, like any good traveller, don't be afraid to explore further afield. Check out: www.gap.org.uk www.worldwidevolunteering.org.uk www.gvi.co.uk www.gapyeardirectory.co.uk to broaden your horizons.