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FEATURE

B

otswana, Kiribati, Cambodia, Vietnam,

Tanzania – they’re the sort of places

people put on their bucket list as a must-

see travel destination, but not everyone who

goes there is just passing through. Thousands

of people are heading for places like these every

year to give a helping hand to local communities

and contribute to projects from environmental

conservation to health care.

Australian Volunteers International (AVI)

began when university graduates were inspired

by a delegate at a world conference asking for

technical experts to work in Indonesia. But

he also asked for something else – he not only

wanted them to share their knowledge, he also

wanted them to participate in community life

in what then was a newly independent society.

That was back in 1950 and the first student

took his placement as a translator in 1951.

Many others followed his footsteps and today

AVI offers several volunteering programs,

including the government-funded Australian

Volunteers for International Development

(AVID), and there are currently about 400

volunteers working on projects in 35 countries.

AVI matches assignments to skilled applicants

who take up their placements for periods up to

two years – and while the initial concept may

have appealed to university students in the early

days, now the average age of AVI volunteers is

more likely to be 40-something.

Tuli Stacey is typical of many applicants

approaching AVI today.

“[Volunteering] is something I wanted to do

since I first went to university. I came across

an ad for a pre-school teacher in Vanuatu once

but it just wasn’t the right time so I kept that

in the back of my mind for a while. I really

enjoy trying new things and I thought it would

be a really good opportunity to combine my

professional background with that desire to be

immersed in a different culture at the same time.

“It took me a while. I saw that ad probably

about 20 years ago and it was always brewing in

the back of my mind until the right time and

the right opportunity came up,” she says.

That opportunity did come up and Stacey

spent a year on the Pacific island of Kiribati as

a teacher trainer at a special school for children

and young adults with disabilities. By then

she had qualifications and experience in early

childhood learning and special education.

Stacey saw the assignment advertised on

the AVI website and applied. The process is

just like getting a job – including interviews

and personality assessments – to make sure

candidates are the right fit for assignments

and the adjustments of living in often remote

communities.

Stacey found her role broadened once she

arrived in Kiribati and she was thrilled. “Initially

my role was to work with the teachers of

children who were hearing impaired but when

I got there it expanded to working with all the

teachers at the school, building knowledge,

working with kids (from prep to young adult-

age) and determining what sort of strategies and

resources we could use.

“It was more than I expected and different

to what I expected in a good way. It was an

amazing experience as well because you are

working in local communities, you’re on the

ground, every day is different, you don’t know

what to expect every day and your role becomes

very varied so you become involved in a lot of

things you don’t think you would be part of.

“For example, I was invited to work with

other NGOs and volunteers on child protection

policy and I probably wouldn’t have had

the opportunity to do that otherwise. You

experience so many different things that you

wouldn’t get in your normal everyday life.”

Stacey also found other benefits. “It helped

me in problem solving and made me more

resourceful. When you don’t have access to

all the resources you have at home you say,

‘what can I do instead’ and I think that’s what

I brought back home. You think differently;

outside the box.

“I got quite a culture shock coming back to

Australia, rather than the other way around.

Things like traffic noise and watching TV with

all the ads blaring at you [took a bit of getting

More people are finding that travelling for a cause is an enriching

experience, writes

Heather McWhinnie

10

| BNE July/August 2015

VOLUNTEERISM