Volunteering holidays for school children

I remember challenging a friend of mine when she put a post on Facebook a few years ago about how proud she was that her twin 16 year old boys were going to help build an orphanage in Uganda for a month during their school holidays. They were trying to fundraise for the trip, thus the Facebook post, the target amount being £4000. Or £8000 for twins. With photos of Ugandan children being hugged by 17 year old Londoners just to get the message to really hit home, at first glance I thought they were raising money to help fund the orphanage. But it didn’t take long to realise that they were actually fundraising to pay for a holiday. A four week holiday in Uganda, ten days of which was to be spent helping paint a wall or two, giving an English class and playing football with local  children,  the rest was on safari, with six beach “chill out” days and, if we wanted to ‘fund raise’ for the optional extras, getting their PADI course and  summiting Mount Kenya. So, I chose not to ‘like’ and, in addition, made that ultimate faux pas of questioning it. Which, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the mum.

Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

My challenges

My friend’s main argument was, at the end of the day, this was a fantastic experience for her boys. I couldn’t argue with that one.  And that the trip would, according to the travel company that sold the holiday through the school, get them 70 UCAS points (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) for their university applications. I bit my lip, until recently, as my own son’s year group is about to be sold the same shenanigans. I am glad to say that he is old enough to agree with my challenges, as below, which still remain the same. If you agree with them, I ask that you spread the word to geography, science or heads of year teachers who are somehow buying into the notion that these are ethical holidays that make a difference to those on the ground, but also to other parents who might be considering handing over thousands of pounds. The choice is theirs of course, but perhaps just think outside the box a little before starting the cake sales:

  • How can it possibly benefit a small community in Uganda (or many other places that have projects waiting for 17 year olds to fix) having school children paint their walls, play football with the children and so on, when there are expert NGO’s there already working round the clock to break the poverty cycle?  As well as, in many cases, expert local and international adultwho are qualified to do the job. Or could be trained by experts to do so.
  • Would you want a group of unknown seventeen year olds coming into town to take over your children’s education and building projects without any sort of vetting or professional expertise? And then be hugged by them to be spread all over Instagram, #volunteer #love #awesome
  • Why are young people put under huge pressure to ‘fundraise’ for something that isn’t a charity? These are profit making holiday companies that throw a bit of community work into the package because ‘doing good’ sells.
  • Why would UCAS favour young people who have paid £4000 for some UCAS points? (see more below, but quick answer is – they don’t)
Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

Mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed

What stands out for me, however, in the case of volunteering holidays that are being targeted at school children is that young people are being mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed. Mis-sold because the reality is that these aren’t ‘do good’ volunteering trips that are all about charity. They are holidays. With companies making a lot of profit out of them. Give even half of your fundraising directly to a grass roots charity on the ground, and see what they can do with it. They would build a lot more than a wall, or paint a classroom. Mis-treated, because education is competitive enough at 17, without young people being pressurized to raise £4000 to keep up with their friends. And mis-informed because these trips do NOT guarantee extra points towards university. In fact, having just embarked on our UCAS journey and university open days ourselves, not one of them said ‘you know what, go and build a wall in Africa for £4000, and the deal is sealed.’ What they do suggest, is get involved in your own local community, political or social justice groups – now that would be interesting. Oh, and study.

The UCAS point of view

To clarify, I spoke with UCAS about this issue of volunteering holidays being a way to gain university points. Ben Jordan, Senior Policy Executive at UCAS:

“Volunteering holidays in themselves do not attract UCAS Tariff points.  However, some volunteering programmes may offer an accredited qualification as part of it.  For example the ASDAN award is an accredited Level 3 qualification that can be delivered through such programmes. But, far away volunteering breaks aren’t the only way to achieve such a qualification and they can be delivered more locally.  It’s important to remember that although the above qualifications are recognised in skills development by some, not all universities will accept them as suitable for entry and not all institutions use the UCAS Tariff points system. Therefore it’s vital that students research the claims of such programmes properly and look into the requirements of the universities and courses they’re interested in.

What anyone applying to study should be aware of, is that universities take a wide range of factors into consideration when recruiting students. This includes grades, relevant experiences relating to their chosen course and their personal statement. Universities are also aware that it won’t be possible for all people to engage with such volunteering programmes, therefore no learner would be disadvantaged by not attending.”

The children who don’t have a choice

Most importantly, however, in this debate is that children being sold these holidays have a choice whether to go or not. The children who don’t have a choice are those in the destinations where our seventeen year olds are going to spend time. And this is where the companies that promote themselves as selling ethical school expeditions must really be held to account. Do they adhere to strict responsible tourism guidelines when it comes to working with young school children abroad? What child protection policies do they have in place? Do they seek qualifications or at least some experience from those people paying to volunteer if they are going to be teaching or caring for young people abroad? I contacted various expedition companies that target pre university young people to get their feedback on this subject, and to get more details on their ethical policies.  One example is Frontier – One of their projects is to work in a Cambodian orphanage, where on a two week volunteering holiday kids can “help take care of them (orphans) and give them the vital education they need for a better future.”, the highlights of the trip being, “Teach and care for fun-loving, orphaned children, earn your TEFL certificate absolutely free and assist in the operational running of the orphanage centre.” At date of publication, I had no reply or feedback from Frontier.  I am not a lone voice in this belief, however, with a lot of experts trying to get the message across about how volunteering in orphanages can actually have a damaging impact on children and their communities – despite whatever good intentions are involved. See Save the Children’s  excellent advice on the subject as well as responsibletravel.com. 

Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

Ethical volunteering guidelines are a must

For a truly ethical volunteering holiday, ethical guidelines must be followed. You can see examples of these here on responsibletravel.com. In my view, a truly ethical volunteering holiday will place the needs of a community first. And although I know my seventeen year old would do his bit if he went to Uganda, I also know that he will not be making real difference to a child’s life there. Nor will he make a big difference to his university application.

My main hope with this blog is to spread the word among schools and school parents. Please question these £4000 trips. Demand transparency when you go to the sales talks. How much profit is being made from these trips? Can schools really justify this concept of ‘fund raising’ which is no more than a profit making exercise? Teachers and parents should question if they would want unqualified, unvetted people coming into their children’s school when they were four years old. They should ask the volunteering holiday companies about the details of their projects. How many walls are being built? When was the last wall built? Are there no builders that can be employed in Uganda or Peru? And, most importantly, and controversially, will the company vet and police check their children before going out there? Oh, and please post this on Facebook.

What can you do to help?

1)   Please share this article with your friends, family, teachers and colleagues on the hashtag  and, in particular with regards to the orphanages issue, use #StopOrphanTrips.

2)    Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too

3)     If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please contact volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org  – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.

Photo Credits: top to bottom, from Flickr Creative Commons , FrontierOfficial, Dylan Walters and International Disaster Volunteers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For women with a sense of adventure

coasteering_optHaving an adventure on holiday is such a subjective notion. The skydivers who recently completed the first ever parachute jump over Mount Everest spent 15 years planning and $24000 each to get their adventure kicks. Personally, I am a bit less extreme. My first big travel adventure was in my early twenties, when I went backpacking alone to Australia, and had the time of my life. Just discovering the joys of solitude was an adventure in itself. And I didn’t even go near a bungy rope. Rainforests yes, shark cage diving, no thanks mate.  But that’s just me, for whom, now pushing middle age, just getting away from the children for a weekend is an adventure. Here are some of my favourites for all those non-skydiving adventurous women out there:

1.                  Coasteering is not some sort of pub game you play with beer mats on a girls’ night out. But it does involve wearing a lot of rubber, and it is about as daring as I get these days. Decked from head to toe in the thickest wetsuits possible, plus helmets and buoyancy aids, coasteering is, basically, all about chucking yourself into deep water from rocky heights. No ropes, just scrambling up rock faces, with the supervision of qualified adventure instructors, and then jump. And swim. Climb up somewhere else, jump in again, and swim. Or, as one instructor put it, “all those things your mother wouldn’t let you do in the sea when you were a child”. This has to be one of the best ways to get to know the UK’s only coastal National Park, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, in South Wales.  Warm up in an eco-lodge at the end of the day, lap up homemade food, plenty of local ale, and head out for a bit of cave swimming the next day. It all happens so close to Ireland, you could almost coasteer your way there, just 9kms from Fishguard ferry port, with daily sailings from Rosslare (see www.stenaline.co.uk).

www.preseliventure.co.uk, Tel: + 44 (0) 1348 837709, Preseli Venture, Parcynole Fach,
Mathry,
Pembrokeshire, SA62 5HN, UK. 2 day coasteering weekends from £189 sterling, including two nights’ accommodation at the  Preseli Venture Eco Adventure Lodge, all meals, two half day coasteers and a half day hike, equipment and qualified instruction.

2.                  Back on much drier land, weaving rugs with women from the Berber tribes on the Plains of Marrakech is one of the most adventurous holidays I have ever taken. It is a women only holiday, due to the cultural morocco-062_optsensitivities of working closely with Muslim women. But there is nothing of the ‘knitting circle’ about this break, where you start off your trip shopping with a local guide in Marrakech. Then head up to the weavers in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains for weaving, eating fine local food, and chatting about different lifestyles and life experiences during the day, and out to the coastal fishing port of Essaouira at nighttime. Unlike other girly trips to, say New York, the only seabreezes you’ll get on this one are real ones off the Atlantic. But you are guaranteed to laugh just as much, learn so much more and take the adventure of a lifetime (and small rug) away with you. This company also offers cooking and painting holidays in Morocco.

www.ingridwagner.com,
Tel: +44 (0)1830 540 047 / +44 (0)191 565 3627, Ingrid Wagner Real World Journeys, Studio 5, The Stone Barn, Kirkharle Courtyard, Kirkharle, Northumberland, NE19 2PE, UK, Eight day weaving holiday €1196 approx (£925) including flights from UK.

3.                  The multi-taskers among us will just love Delphi Mountain Resort in Connemara. They have so many activities on offer, you need a spreadsheet to prepare your trip. Get down and dirty during the day, as instructors guide you up mountains, teach you to take on the Atlantic surf, have you jumping off the pier to swim to your kayak (all wetsuits provided), or simply send you off on a quiet bike ride across the Delphi Valley. Perfect for a hen party, as you can chill out at their natural spa afterwards, with seaweed baths and hydrotherapy pool, and eat for Ireland in their excellent restaurant afterwards. Choose from luxury four-star accommodation, or budget bunk rooms. If you get out there and make the most of every activity they lay on for you, all you will want to do is fall into bed at the end of the day anyway.  Delphi is quite simply divine, rain or shine.Delphi Mountain Resort, Leenane, Connemara, County Galway.  Rooms from  €40-€300 per night including breakfast. Mid-week spa breaks from €99 per person per night for luxury room and breakfast, use of thermal suite and free seaweed bath. Activities from €25.

www.delphimountainresort.com, Tel: +353 (0) 95 42223,

4.                  Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking takes people kayaking off the Atlantic Coast off West Cork in summer, and then to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula in Winter. You still have time to sample West Cork, where Jim works closely with one of the Ireland’s leading Whale Watching companies, Whale Watch West Cork, well into winter. Swap Atlantic for Pacific for a January boost, where you not only learn all the kayaking skills you need, but also snorkel, hike, fish, visit local fishing villages, go whale-watching and discover mangroves by kayak. Oh, and just to add to the adventure, you camp on the Island of Espiritu Santo, an uninhabited volcanic Island about 5 miles from the mainland, the perfect base for paddling from one white sandy beach to another.

www.atlanticseakayaking.com, Tel: +353 (0) 28 210 58,
Atlantic Sea Kayaking, The Abbey, Skibbereen, West Cork. Half-day kayaking trips in West Cork from €50 per person. 12-day Mexico kayaking trip (for beginners and more advanced) from  €1450 per person sharing, not including flights.

5.                  If you associate Crete with drunken hen nights and all night clubbing, think again. Crete is also famous among geologists and conservationists for its superb gorges, leading down to empty beaches and aquamarine waters. Especially if you travel out of hen season. In April and May, it is a pure flower fest, as botanists and nature lovers flock from all around the world to see the Crete burst to life with abundant wild and rare flowers. You can travel with Pure Crete, who has been bringing walkers and flower lovers here for over twenty years.  Staying in locally-owned villas, you will be guided across the high plains, to the snowcapped peaks of the White Mountains, down through the Imbros Gorge, past orchid meadows at Spili, to one of many sandy coves. Experts Dr. Stephen Waters and Clive Daws tell you all you need to know about the 150 endemic species of flowers and orchids, as you walk from one side of Crete to another, watching it come alive with colour.   www.purecrete.com, Tel: +44 (0) 845 070 1571 Pure Crete, Bolney Place, Cowfold Road, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH17 5QT, UK.  Crete in Bloom package €920 approx (£715) including accommodation, air fare from UK (including Belfast), expert guides and excursions.

6.                  I found that climbing to the top of a sixty foot oak tree was the best natural way to deal with an ever-growing fear of heights. Recreational tree climbing is big in US, but still pretty unheard of in this part of the world. catherine-climbingI loved it; the solace at the top of an ancient oak is like nothing else, not to mention the child-like glee at having got yourself up there. Safely harnessed and helmeted, you are carefully guided up by arborist Paul McCathie, using the usual climbing techniques of ropes and carabiner clips. He is on the Isle of Wight, one of the UK’s most underrated beauty spots. The Mighty Oak Tree Climbing Company in Cornwall take it one step further and lets you sleep up there, using tree boats, specially-designed four cornered hammocks safely suspended up in the branches. An early morning breakfast is sent up to you as you swing serenely to the sound of the Cornish dawn chorus, www.mighty-oak.co.uk,  00-44 (0) 1983 563 573. 2.5 hour session €45 approx (£35.00) for adults, €32 approx. (£25.00) for children aged 8-16.
 
www.mighty-oak.co.uk, Tel: +44 (0) 7890 698 651. Prices for tree camping from €180 approx(£140) per person for groups of 2-5 climbers, including instruction, climbing, equipment, dinner, and breakfast.


www.goodleaf.co.uk, Tel:  00-44-0797 0033 209

7.                  You won’t get much more adventurous than some of the women who head off to volunteer for a holiday. Most volunteering organisations find that the majority of their clients are women. It feels like a safe way to travel alone, for example, as you plan your trip in advance with an agency, which then guides you and offers support while you are abroad. You can travel the world cheaply by volunteering through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Wwoofers stay with farming families, offering a maximum of five hours a day of labour, while your hosts provide you with clean warm accommodation and all your food. If you want to make a more generous contribution to communities in need of help in the developing world, you could spend an extended trip volunteering abroad. One of the most highly-regarded ethical volunteering companies, People and Places, set up by, yes, two women, allocate you to one of their many life-changing projects, according to your skills and interests, in Africa, India or Indonesia. For further information on volunteering, see also www.comhlamh.orgTel +44 (0) 8700 460 479 www.wwoof.org.

www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk,

8.                  Riding out on the ranch is no longer the macho City Slickers holiday that it used to be. Celebrity ranchers like Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts have turned the traditional huntin’-fishin’-shootin’ ranching image into something not only a bit sexier but also more sustainable. Take a break on a ranch in the America’s ‘Wild West, and you can not only improve your  riding skills, drive herds out to the prairies or do sunset cattle roundups, or but also go hikin’- bikin’ and raftin’ as well as swimmin’ and hot tubbin’. You don’t have to ride a horse like Nicole either, as they welcome beginners too.UK airports, full board, accommodation and activities).

www.ranchrider.com, Tel:  +44 (0) 1509 618811.7 nights from £1395 (approx € 1640, including flights from many

9.                  If dancing in the church hall is the nearest you have got to learning Salsa, then how about taking on the real thing in Havana, Cuba, where Salsa is the national dance, and the cha-cha-cha still oozes from every brick of the city’s famous pastel coloured buildings. There is yoga in the morning, dancing in the afternoon, and excursions to see the real thing in the evenings, as well talks and outings to teach you more about this fascinating country’s culture and history. Ideal for women traveling alone, as you are allocated a local dance partner during your afternoon dance sessions. 

www.responsibletravel.com, Tel: 44 (0)1273 600030 10 days from £895 (approx. €1051) excluding flights, but  including  shared accommodation, breakfast, Salsa dance classes with local dance partner, history talks and excursions

10.              Need a bit of cryotherapy? Who doesn’t from time to time? You need to the Aquacity Resort in Poprad, Slovakia, where cryotherapy is the completely mad act of entering a room at -120˚C, wearing nothing but woolen shorts, mittens, socks, a headband to protect your ears, and a paper mask (not really a romantic break, then), walking around for two minutes, and then going back into the warmth of a gym for a vigorous warm-up. The Slovakians call this “kick starting the body into self-healing and regeneration”. Or therapy to make you cry, more like it. If you survive this adventure, you can spend the rest of your stay enjoying the biggest geothermally heated waterpark you will ever see, heated by nature through all the seasons.  Or warm up in one of many scented steam rooms, followed by a quick cool down in cold fountains. This aqua-haven is powered by a natural geothermal spring, at the foot of the High Tatras Mountain Range, which provides the resort’s dramatic backdrop. Choose from 3 and 4 star onsite hotel accomodation, or self-catering apartments.

www.aquacityresort.com, + 421 52 7851 111, AquaCity Poprad, Sportova 1397/1, 058 01 Poprad, Slovak Republic, to choose hotel, or book a package with www.dreamslovakia.sk, with four nights’ accomodation at Aquacity’s 3-star hotel, breakfast and dinner, and full use of the water facilities, including one Cryotherapy session, from €420 pp, flights not included.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 08 August 2009)