From fostering cross-cultural understanding between countries, to furnishing hundreds of classrooms, many volunteers carry on making a difference after their official VSO placement has ended. This 'ripple effect' is still changing lives around the world.
For many VSO volunteers, the valuable contributions made to local communities does not end after placement. After spending an extended period working and making lasting friendships with local people, the urge to carry on making a positive difference can be stronger than ever after returning home.
We catch up with two VSO volunteers who are continuing the fantastic work long after their official placement has ended to see how they’re still making a difference.
Furnishing empty classrooms in Rwanda
Before going on placement in 2014, Mary Watkins had no idea that she would return to Rwanda eight times after leaving and continue to stay in touch and work so closely with the local community in the Rusizi district.
When Mary and her husband Glyn travelled to Rwanda, it was with plans to improve education – particularly for nursery children.
“The year before I arrived, the government had introduced training for teachers in nursery education. However, there was no curriculum, no suitable classroom facilities and nursery teachers aren’t paid by the government so could often go without wages.”
On arrival, it became clear that training teachers to carry out nursery lessons for young children in Rwanda was going to be a bigger challenge than Mary had expected.
“We would have teaching practice lessons every Wednesday morning and it was an absolute nightmare. There were normally 60 children just sat on the floor in one class without any desks or chairs. They just are not teachable for three hours sat on the floor. I concluded that the only way we would be able to get these kids to do anything useful would be if they had furniture.”
To tackle the issue at hand, Mary went above and beyond her VSO placement and contacted the local disability center where young people were training to be carpenters. Mary fundraised and then made an order for 16 tables and 32 benches for the two nursery classes – and has continued using the same carpentry school to fill up to 11 further classrooms with furniture.
“The carpentry school previously had no orders so couldn’t afford a teacher or resources. Asking for the tables and benches was great for the boys at the carpentry school as it meant the teacher could come along and boys had something to do and learn.”
Today, five years after returning from her placement, Mary is still in touch and working closely with the nursery teachers she trained with VSO. And when nursery teacher, Jean Hakizimana, told Mary he was opening his own nursery for his local community, Mary worked hard to fundraise the money to fill the classrooms with furniture and resources.
“I have heard from Jean every week since I left Rwanda in 2014 and when he told me that he wanted to start a nursery in his own village, I thought it was amazing. I raised hundreds of pounds through doing talks to groups including the Rotary, U3A and Soroptimists.”
So, what does it feel like for Mary, knowing that she continues to make such a big difference to this day despite her VSO placement ending in 2014?
“It’s bizarre really. It happened but was never really planned. I really thought I would go for one year, do something to help, have a good time and then come back to Wales. If someone told me in 2013 that I would keep going back to Rwanda I wouldn’t have believed them!”
Fostering cross-cultural understanding between the Gambia and the UK
Dr Nick Maurice, 74, volunteered with VSO in 1961 when he was 19 years old. After meeting with VSO’s founder, Alec Dickson, Nick travelled to Togo on a teaching placement. Determined not to let his volunteer career end there, he later went on to volunteer with VSO in Papua New Guinea, and with other organisations in Nepal, Cambodia and the Gambia.
“Through volunteering I became a global citizen rather than a UK citizen, and I felt I was now part of the world. It opened my eyes to a world I found deeply attractive.”
It was after spending four months in Cambodia that Nick felt a turning point in his work and established the Marlborough Brandt Group, an organisation based on equal partnerships between countries and people. The Marlborough Brandt Group has three objectives: teaching people in as wide a community around Marlborough as possible about development issues; bringing those issues to the notice of politicians; and to form a partnership with Marlborough with a location in the developing world.
“The partnership has now been going for 35 years, involving the exchange of 1,700 people between two communities in the UK and the Gambia”
Thanks to Nick and his team, Gambians are going into UK schools and teaching children about their culture, faith and food. They are also taking part in training in a variety of skills such as Early Childhood Education, welding, hotel management and other skills. He also is helping to connect young people with mental health problems and elderly people in both the UK and the Gambia, to help bring people together to share and support one another.
“I had my 65th trip to the Gambia in October 2017 and was given honorary citizenship. It was an extraordinary experience to receive this, large numbers of women turned out and danced in the streets, somebody estimated there was at least three thousand people attending, it was wonderful.
Dr Nick Maurice
The benefits I’ve accrued from working on this has completely outmatched anything I have given.
“The benefits I’ve accrued from working on this has completely outmatched anything I have given. My closest friends are Gambians and every time I go, I stay with this same family each time, I consider them part of my extended family.”
“From all the time I’ve spent volunteering, the message I’d give is the importance of engaging with and enjoying difference.”
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