We're celebrating sixty years of making a difference. Here's some of the highlights from the last six decades.
Alec and Mora Dickson set up VSO
In response to a letter from the Bishop of Portsmouth asking for people to teach English in Borneo, the couple recruit 17 volunteers to send overseas: ten to Sarawak, three to Ghana, one to Nigeria, one to Zambia and two to Cameroon.
The first volunteers leave for their placements
David Brown, one of the first batch of volunteers, has kept his plane ticket to Borneo to this day.
It was my first time out of the UK, my first time abroad, my first time in a plane… I was setting off on the adventure of a lifetime… which must have been as exciting for every one of us who had volunteered.
The first education projects
Early press reports
Chris Tipple, another of the first volunteers, read about volunteering from a newspaper article. Chris volunteered in Ghana as a schoolteacher from 1958 to 1959.
When the Sunday paper thudded onto the mat that spring day I had no idea it was going to transform my life.
The first women volunteers
Althea Corden and Bronwyn Quint sign up.
I fell in love with Africa because of my experience with VSO. I didn’t want to leave at the end of the year. I think I gained a tolerant view of life, trying to understand people. It left me with the impression that most people are very well meaning, and when you get to know them they are kind and compassionate and hospitable.
The first supporter groups
The first VSO supporter groups give returned volunteers the opportunity to meet up, discuss their experiences and continue to support VSO after their volunteering placement ends.
One VSO volunteer, Heather Thomas, founded two supporter groups in Shropshire and Wolverhampton after volunteering as a science teacher in Jamaica in the 1970s. Heather continued to volunteer for VSO in the UK for three decades, even opening and running two VSO charity shops.
I believe in VSO as an organisation. It was a wonderful experience. It changed my life.
By 1964, VSO has sent 1,000 volunteers overseas.
One of these 1,000 volunteers, Dr Nick Maurice, worked his passage to Togo on a liner in 1961, painting the ship in lieu of a ticket. Nick became a lifelong volunteer, later volunteering in Papua New Guinea, 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. One of the things that was so striking is how we’re all trained to think that these places are full of poverty, and that when you volunteer you’re going to address poverty. I’m always asking people to define ‘poverty’ – it’s a loaded term. We need to acknowledge the social wealth of these communities.
Reaching past education into improving livelihoods
VSO begins to look at issues besides education that keep people trapped in the cycle of poverty. As well as beginning work in health, VSO becomes committed to helping people access a sustainable income, so they could live a life of dignity.
VSO reaches its 10,000th volunteer.
The first office overseas
First overseas office is set up in Papua New Guinea, four years after the first volunteers arrived.
After 50 years working in Papua New Guinea, here are just a few examples of the impact volunteers from around the world have had on the development of this diverse Pacific nation.
The coming of the computer
The first VSO computer programmer, Richard Rideout, volunteers in Malawi, working with the Ministry of Agriculture to train in the use of micro-computers in the Malawi government.
More than half a century after beginning work in livelihoods, VSO is still committed to helping people earn a decent living.
The fall of the Berlin wall
VSO begins works in Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. VSO initially sends mostly English language teachers and then branches out into childcare and working with marginalised groups, such as migrants and those with disabilities.
An invitation to Rwanda
Rwanda’s Minister of Education requests that VSO open a programme in Rwanda to assist with the shortage of teachers in the wake of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. VSO has worked in Rwanda ever since.
The fight against HIV and AIDS
VSO begins work helping people with HIV and AIDS.
Partnering with businesses
VSO pairs with businesses for short-term volunteering programmes. One example of such a partnership is the one with Syngenta on the Growing Together project where volunteers have helped Bangladeshi farmers access new routes to market and trained them in better ways to manage their crops. By 2020, this project aims to have improved the livelihoods of 100,000 smallholder farmers.
A new model - national volunteering
VSO begins to recruit people to volunteer in their own countries. To reflect the changing nature of volunteering, VSO launches the first national volunteering programme and opens the first southern recruitment base in Kenya.
Niyonsaba Brown is one national volunteer currently working in a deaf school in Rwanda. Niyonsaba is deaf herself, and is helping deaf people access healthcare information. You can read more about Niyonsaba's work here.
VSO sends its first Parliamentarian volunteer. VSO has since sent 52 political volunteers on short-term, high-impact placements. Rosena Allin-Khan MP, volunteered in Bangladesh in October 2017 to help tackle early and forced marriage in local communities through working with national partners and ICS volunteers.
You can read more about our parliamentarian volunteers here.
Youth volunteering is back!
Two thousand young people from the UK and 24 other countries volunteer across the globe through the VSO-led and DFID-funded International Citizen Service. Over 30,000 young people have since volunteered on this programme.
VSO has 24 offices across the globe
VSO opens a new office in Myanmar. VSO now works in 24 countries – discover all of the countries we work in.
VSO send nurses to work in response to the Ebola crisis that hits West Africa.
My role was to train maternal health care students. But as the disease took hold, women stopped coming to the clinic because they were terrified of being infected or misdiagnosed. I got involved in workshops with local youth groups so I could replace these damaging rumours with facts. Ebola is an experience I never expected to have, but it’s made me realise even more how important VSO’s work is. The effects of this outbreak will be felt for years and VSO will be there throughout.
The value of volunteering
VSO publishes ground-breaking research into why volunteering is effective in fighting poverty. You can read more about this research here.
VSO and the UN
VSO’s work through volunteers is recognised as key in achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The Nepal earthquake disaster
One year after the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, VSO volunteers help Nepali communities build resilience for future natural disasters.
Rohingya refugee crisis
VSO develops its work around responding to crises through volunteering. Read about our work responding to the Rohingya crisis.
Find out more about VSO at 60
We've come a long way in the last 60 years. Find out more about our 60th anniversary celebrations
To date, over 76,000 people have volunteered with VSO.
Are you one of these VSO volunteers? You can find more ways to get involved again here – maybe you have your own story to share, or just want to stay up to date with the latest news from VSO.