A great way to give back and see the world at the same time is by volunteering abroad. There are so many brilliant options for that today, but sometimes the choice can be a bit confusing. Trawling through the internet for the right programmes can lead to information overload!
I’ve been lucky enough to have volunteered in 3 overseas countries; Kenya, Nepal and India. Read on to find out about these experiences and the organisations I volunteered with.
I had always wanted to volunteer in Africa but struggled to find the right organisation. It’s important to me that I volunteered with a transparent organisation. Luckily, I stumbled upon an article written about an Irish man who founded Development Pamoja, a “charity working to responsibly develop disadvantaged communities in rural Kenya”. I was very impressed with the attitude and commitment of the founder, James Hennessy; in particular his focus helping communities become self-sufficient in the long-term.
James, originally from Cork, has lived in Kenya for the past 12 years and is devoted to helping the lives of others. He has built a medical centre and farm in Mogotio (yes, one of our backpacks is inspired by this rural community!). They employ local professionals, including a full-time doctor, Mary, among other brilliant staff members. The farm is used to provide food to locals but also as a place where local farmers can learn new skills about sustainability and irrigation. They also run mobile dispensaries for nearby areas, a programme to help disabled children and a female finance training programme. Impressive, right?
Working with a local farmer to build an irrigation system
Development Pamoja don’t have a structured volunteer programme in place but, after reading the article, I was so in awe of the work they do that I reached out to see if I could get involved. They take on volunteers on an adhoc basis and I was delighted that they had space for me in April last year.
The plan was for me to help out planting vegetables and crops on their sustainable farm. My 3 week visit was the perfect time of year for that – during monsoon season, when the “big rain” falls, as Kenyans describe it. However, when I arrived there was a severe drought in Kenya, and so, no rain fell. This obviously had devastating effects on the rural communities in Kenya who depend on rain to grow their crops.
So the plan for my time with Development Pamoja changed. Aside from doing small admin tasks and helping out in their dispensary where I could, I spent my time essentially shadowing James. I would spend a part of the day at the centre and the rest we would motorbike around to different areas to visit patients, or to check on elderly or disabled people, most of whom live in mud huts.
From working and living side by side, I got a valuable insight into how James lives and runs his charity. I was staying next door to him, in very basic accommodation where he’s lived for a decade. There are no showers, no cookers or ovens, no TV. Buckets replaces showers, gas cylinders are used to cook food.
I have never, and probably will never, meet someone as selfless and dedicated as James. He spends the entirety of every single day, 6 days a week, checking in on others and helping them any way he can. From the minute he wakes up at 6am he is thinking about the day ahead, to late at night when he is still taking phone calls from the community. From what I witnessed, his only time off is watching some football on a Sunday evening. He tries to visit home once a year for a couple of weeks, but the rest of his year he is here – helping people, day in day out.
And that’s just one member of a very dedicated small team at Development Pamoja. There are so many admirable things about this team; their commitment to the cause, their innovative ways of working and getting by, their ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. But the thing I like the most is their honesty. I have witnessed their work first-hand so I know it is an extremely trust-worthy and reliable charity. But they are fully transparent in everything they do, disclosing all facts and publishing their annual reports on their website.
The Development Pamoja team and I
So although I didn’t have the chance get stuck in the way I had hoped, the experience was more insightful than I could have hoped for. Although I didn’t manage to pick up a word of Swahili, much to the teams dismay (sorry guys!), the experience taught me about kindness and humanity in its rawest form.
If you are looking for an Irish charity to donate to, look no further. You can rest assured that every single cent you donate, whether it’s a one-off or a monthly direct debit, will go 100% to funding projects in Kenya and helping those that truly need it.
I volunteered with All Hands and Hearts last year and the first thing I will say is I wish my experience on this programme was longer! All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) describe themselves as a “volunteer-powered disaster relief organisation that addresses the immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted by natural disasters.” They are incredibly well organised, with bases in affected areas all around the world and I would highly recommend volunteering with them.
First you apply online for a programme you are interested in volunteering with and then, if successful, an on-the-ground Volunteer Relations Coordinator will be in touch. They give you plenty of details such as an Information Packet and directions to get you to your base when your dates roll around. I was travelling from Kathmandu to Sindhuli, and then onwards up the mountains to where our base was. This was a long journey and AHAH even put me in touch with other people travelling from Kathmandu on the same day as me so we could all touch base prior and travel together.
The project I was involved with was building schools in a very rural community that had been affected by the 2015 earthquake. The schools we were building were designed to be earthquake resistant to ensure the safety of the children attending. I’m not sure about the other bases around the world, but our base was a campsite – temporarily built for this project, so obviously the toilets were holes in the ground and we used buckets for showers. Some people volunteering were just staying a couple of weeks, others had been there for months – some even since the project started a year before.
It was definitely tough labour-intensive work, but we got fed very well to keep us energised. Our base had no mobile signal and the wifi was only switched on for a couple of hours on our day off. So it was a great place to really get to know others and engage in conversation with people from all different backgrounds.
Every morning and evening (after breakfast and dinner) the whole group meets for a check-in to get updates on how the projects are going. We worked 6 days a week, and working hours were from about 7.30am to 5pm. Each week we were assigned a job on site, which was great because you could change it up each week. Some volunteers were electricians, builders or project managers, so had vast experience and would do the more complex jobs as “team leads”. But the majority, like me, had no experience in construction.
The best part of the day, was when the children would come out after they finished school in a nearby temporary building. We would all line up and they would high-five us as they left the area to head home. Despite the language barrier we could sense the genuine appreciation from these kids, that we were building them a safe school, and it acted as a great motivator.
Unfortunately my time at this base was cut short due to a national holiday that I wasn’t aware of prior to arriving. I wish I could have stayed on, even a week longer. This volunteering experience is as much about breaking down cultural and social barriers as it is about helping communities get back on their feet after natural disasters. All Hands & Hearts is an organisation I really hope to work with again in the future.
Back in 2006 I was lucky enough to travel to Kolkata (Calcutta), India at the ripe ol’ age of 15. A group of us went via school with the Hope Foundation, a wonderful organisation from Cork (Ireland) working to “free children and poor families from lives of pain, abuse, poverty and darkness.” We were required to fundraise for the trip and, although it wasn’t the volunteering experience I had hoped for, it was a fantastic eye-opener at such a young age.
Our school had never been involved with the Hope Foundation prior to this. But having heard about the foundation from my Mum, I knew I wanted to get involved. So I asked my teachers and school principal if someone from Hope could come in to speak with our year group, and it escalated from there. As far as I’m aware, these annual trips continued for many years after within the school. My point here is don’t be afraid to show some initiative and ask. You never know what it might lead to, and the worst they can say is “no”.
So, back to the experience. You might be wondering why it didn’t live up to my expectations but it was simply because during this short trip (I think it was 7-10 days), we didn’t actually do much to help. Sure, we visited schools, slums, training centres and small villages. We played and danced with kids. I’ll never forget my first every Holi Festival experience during this trip, covered in colourful paint and dancing with the children in the streets. We talked with the women who were being upskilled through the training programmes. We got to see the incredible work the Hope Foundation was doing on the ground. But we didn’t contribute much. I mean, what did I expect, right? We were a group of young teenagers with not much to offer other than our friendly smiles and warm hearts.
Image from: hopefoundation.ie
But if time was turned back, I would do it all over again – every single time. It was a difficult yet enlightening experience as a teenager and it made me realise that I wanted to do more to help out in the future. I fell in love with India as a country during that trip and knew I would go back again someday to travel (which I did, during a 6 week period ten years later). I truly believe it helped shape me as a person; it helped me put things into perspective when I was having a “life is over” teenager moment, it made me become more open-minded as a young Irish girl who hadn’t travelled much prior, and it definitely contributed to my wanderlust!
Although each time I’ve volunteered aboard has been very different, it was the uniqueness of each trip that taught me the valuable lessons learned. Like everything, you only get out what you put in. So if you are hoping to volunteer abroad, go for the right reasons to help, help and grow. Go with enthusiasm and a can-do attitude. Go with an open mind and an open heart. I promise, you will get so much more out of it!