Botswana, Kiribati, Morocco, 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 a range of 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 in his footsteps and today AVI offers several volunteering programs, including the government-funded Australian volunteers program, with more than 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 of volunteering may have appealed to university students in the early days, now the average age of volunteers is more likely to be 40-something.
Volunteering in Kiribati
Tuli Stacey is typical of applicants approaching AVI today. "[Volunteering] is something I wanted to do since I first went to uni. 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.
"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 Tuli spent a year in Kiribati, as a teacher trainer at a special school working particularly in the area of hearing-impaired students. 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 the assignments and the adjustments of living in often remote communities.
Tuli found her role more than she expected and also benefited from the experience.
"Every day is different and you become involved in a lot of things you don't think you would be apart 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 get to know other people working within the community and members of the community. You experience so many different things that you wouldn't get in your normal everyday life."
"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."
Tuli believes that without the experience she had in Kiribati she wouldn't have had the confidence to do the job she later took on back home as head of special education at a primary school in Brisbane. "Over there my role was to build the capacity of others and that's what I was able to do with my team and classroom teachers here working with kids with disabilities."
Volunteering in Botswana
Media communications specialist Sophia Walter spent two years based in Gabarone in Botswana as a volunteer in the AVI program and says the experience challenged her creativity. Sophia worked on an environmental conservation project and travelled widely in her role aimed at educating rural communities about activities to improve human/wildlife co-existence.
Her audience was primarily rural communities which were remote - she could be on the road for two days just to get to villages in areas like the Okavango Delta. Working with the local team she travelled with a drama group, filmed a documentary and organised media conferences. In the most rural areas no one spoke English and even with a translator Walter found she had to "renegotiate' the way she worked. "It really opened my mind to problem solving and working out new ways to find a solution," she says.
Sophia says she was "pretty excited" and "lucky to get to remote areas of Botswana but its biggest impact on her has been the cross cultural understanding she came home with and the close friendships she formed while she was away.
"I don't think I saved the entire environment in Botswana, but I do think the personal connections I made while I was there made a difference. I am still in touch with at least five friends I met there."
Volunteering in Tanzania
Aislinn Healy agrees that the most rewarding thing she got from her volunteering experience with Projects Abroad has been the bonds she developed with other people, including volunteers from other countries and the people she met on her project in Tanzania near the city of Arusha.
In contrast to AVI, which covers volunteers' expenses, including travel, and pays a living allowance, volunteers signing up with Projects Abroad pay their own way for the duration of their placement, which can range from two weeks to 12 weeks or more. In Aislinn's case she lived and worked at the Faraja women's centre for seven months in a gap year after leaving high school. When she returned she continued to sponsor two of the children she worked with at the centre, helping to fund their education at a boarding school, and stayed in contact with the school to make sure they are OK.
"I am proud that I am sponsoring them to go to school because they probably wouldn't be able to get an education if it wasn't for volunteers who help to put them through school," she says.
The centre was established to help women who are victims of poverty and abuse, many of them pregnant as a result of their abuse. It supports up to 60 women for a year at a time while they take classes in English and practical skills such as sewing and cooking so they can get jobs and take temporary work experience placements. Aislinn helped care for the children during class time and in whatever way she could at the centre.
The experience helped Aislinn decide what she would eventually study at university - a double degree in nursing and public health with a view to use her future experience in developing countries and she has been back to Faraja for another two-month 'placement'.
"It was great to go back. A lot of the girls had changed because they only stay there for a year but I did get a chance to see the ones I had worked with before, where they were living and a lot of them had got jobs or opened their own shops which is what they had wanted to do so it was good to see them happy and see the impact that Faraja had on their lives.
"Looking back my contribution was just being a friend to them especially as they were so vulnerable at that time and they really just wanted someone to talk to. Through their English classes and me learning Swahili we managed to form a bond and that was the hardest thing to leave . . . the friendships I had made with so many people."