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John Stops: Reflections on three decades of service to VSO

John with volunteer and local health workers in a remote village health centre in Vanuatu VSO/John Stops

John Stops (centre left) visits local health workers in a remote village clinic in Vanuatu

28 years. 22 countries. John Stops made an indelible mark working with hundreds of volunteers on VSO programmes around the world.

Now 72, John has ‘walked away’ from VSO. He recently completed a 200-mile walk from VSO’s office in London towards retirement at his home in Abergavenny. He’s also raising funds in memory of a VSO colleague.

John shares some of the most memorable experiences, places and people he encountered along the way:

Learning to lead in challenging circumstances

There are challenges in every country but Cambodia was probably the biggest. In the early 1990s a lot of political tension remained in the country and volunteers couldn’t travel around freely because of the threat of kidnappings.

Then there are all sorts of the usual frustrations with working in different cultures, but I took it all in my stride. 

Leadership is an instinct. I didn’t know I had it until I started working for VSO. It taught me how to listen and be tough when needed. Most important of all is the ability to build relationships.

John Stops with VSO ICS youth volunteers in Tajikistan VSO/John Stops

John working with ICS youth volunteers in Tajikistan

Voyage of discovery

The moments that will stay with me the most are when I was visiting volunteers on their placements. I was travelling great distances through amazing scenery, often by motorbike.

As a young programme officer in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s I would travel to visit volunteers in remote communities in the highlands. You would see tribal warfare, groups on either side of the road throwing spears and fighting. They would stop to let you pass by and then continue!

At the end of these journeys of discovery and adventure were the volunteers and the partners we worked with. It was great knowing you were travelling to the people who make it all worthwhile.

Witnessing the power of volunteering in action

I have no idea how many volunteers I have worked with over the years – hundreds.

There are some special volunteers I will remember forever. They were professionals who believed in VSO’s approach, as well as lovely people who I enjoyed being with.

Damien Gregory is one of those. He was already a star volunteer in the Eritrea programme when I started my role as regional director for Western and Central Africa. His leadership and influence galvanised all the other volunteers on our outstanding education programme. 

John Stops with VSO volunteer Damien and official in Ghana VSO/John Stops

With star education volunteer Damien (left) and education programme manager Dora (centre) in Ghana

Liz McCall is another volunteer I’ll never forget.  I remember visiting her at her remote placement high up in the hills of Nepal and being amazed at what she was achieving as a nurse trainer. Liz was a volunteer to admire.

John Stops with VSO volunteer Liz in Nepal VSO/John Stops

Taking tea with VSO volunteer Liz on her placement on a remote hillside in Nepal

She coped with very little support. She was living in basic conditions on a remote hospital campus. Liz thought nothing of a spending the best part of a day trekking to support village health workers further up in the hills. 

Unforgettable colleagues

In 1997, I became country director in Laos. I was there for seven years with my family which of course was special. But in terms of my professional development, it was the best of times. For that I have Liz Holmes, our great South-East Asia regional director, to thank. She had total trust and confidence in us as country directors.

Liz became a close friend as well as a colleague. She sadly passed away from a terminal illness last year. She had touched the lives of all that knew her – the two hospice facilities that have been set up in her name are testament to that.

John Stops walking from the VSO office in London VSO

John 'leaves work' for the last time, setting off on a 200-mile walk from the VSO office in London back home to Abergavenny. John is raising funds for the Liz Holmes Trust.

It would have felt wrong to just leave VSO quietly after nearly 30 years – so having ‘walked away’ from VSO, travelling over 200 miles from London to Abergavenny, I’m aiming to raise £3000 for the Liz Holmes Trust to continue her legacy.

Support John’s fundraising appeal via Just Giving 




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