Children at Murama nursery school in Murama district, Rwanda.

Lessons from a VSO education volunteer

Juanito Estrada shares what he has learned from his ten years volunteering with VSO, including tips on how to make an impact on placement:

I’d just turned 36 years old when my life turned a full 360 degrees!

Just after my birthday, I found myself leaving the Philippines to volunteer in Tanzania. Now, I’ve clocked up ten years volunteering with VSO.

Although VSO has evolved in the last ten years, the heartbeat has stayed the same: sharing skills, changing lives to eradicate poverty through volunteering.

My volunteering journey has not been as smooth as the Himalayan silk. However, I have learned many lessons. I’d like to share them with you here.

Juanito has been proving that teaching materials don’t have to be expensive to capture children’s imaginations.
Juanito has been proving that teaching materials don’t have to be expensive to capture children’s imaginations.

1. Volunteering is like a cup of coffee

I always say volunteering is like a cup of coffee. It's bittersweet, it gives you momentum and it is addictive. With each new day’s challenges, you innovate and find creative solutions.

Volunteering has been in my heart ever since I was a kid. This is my way of giving back and gives me the opportunity to do what I love.

I’ve been volunteering on the Ready to Read project in Rwanda for a year and a half now. My role here in Rwanda is as a Leadership and Literacy Adviser at a pre-primary level.

I work with school leaders, teachers and parents. I’m supporting national volunteers to improve the quality of education, through teacher and parent training.

I’ve also shown how low-cost materials can be used in classrooms, and encouraged teachers to make use of classroom registers, to monitor students’ attendance.

2. Start by earning trust

The greatest challenge on the Ready to Read project was to gain people’s trust. But I overcame this by listening to what the people here wanted and needed, and how they think they should solve the challenges they are facing.

When I meet new people, I always smile as this encourages them and gives them an opportunity to relax. The people here are very warm, hospitable and interested in learning how to better deliver quality education.

Juanito encourages teachers to make stories more interesting by using puppets.
Juanito encourages teachers to make stories more interesting by using puppets.

I’ve had to earn the trust of the volunteers and teachers around me, but they are open to change. We are changing the way we teach children, moving from teacher-centred to learner-centred lessons. The lessons need to be interactive and interesting, so that students can learn in a fun way.

I have also worked with parents. We encourage them to volunteer and donate grains so that their children can have snacks or porridge at school. This stops the children from becoming malnourished, so the children become healthy and can pay attention in school.

From the Swahili ‘Hakuna Matata – no worries’ philosophy, to the politeness of the British, to experiencing Nepali hospitality to the frankness of the Dutch, volunteering has made me more appreciative of the diverse cultures of the world.

One of the best lessons I gained in volunteering was to radiate positivity and to look for the best in everyone. I have learnt to argue to raise a specific point, and not just to prove that I am right.

I have now volunteered in Tanzania, Nepal, the Philippines and Rwanda, and thanks to volunteering, I have become more tolerant, patient and understanding.

4. Focus on your ‘why’

Like any other work on Earth, volunteering has a lot of challenges. During a placement you might feel very low.

We all have the power to change the world

When this happens, it’s important to focus on the reasons why you chose to volunteer. That will give you the strength you need to continue.

We all have the power to change the world. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve met and helped over the years, but I know I’ve supported hundreds if not thousands of people during my time as a volunteer.

I believe that problems can be solved when we come together and find practical solutions that work for everyone.

On the Ready to Read project in Rwanda, Juanito made classes more fun, with puppets, classes held outside and more teaching and learning materials.
On the Ready to Read project in Rwanda, Juanito made classes more fun, with puppets, classes held outside and more teaching and learning materials.

5. When you volunteer, you become part of a global family

My brother and mother both encouraged me to leave my comfort zone and the luxury of our home to become a volunteer. Unfortunately, days before starting my placement, my brother passed away.

Now, ten years on, I believe I now have a global family. That is a bond that I will cherish forever.

Today I am almost ready to hang up my volunteer boots, but volunteering with VSO has helped me form relationships that have sparked real change.

I was touched by one person who came up to me and said “Now, because of you, I know how to speak. I can voice my opinions now.” I cried when the person said this.

I am grateful that I can empower people to become self-reliant and I feel fulfilled when people say thank you. I will forever be grateful to VSO for the skills and experiences I have gained.


Each year, thousands of volunteers like Juanito are helping to make education more inclusive.

Find out more about our work in inclusive education

Read more

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