What’s the value of volunteering overseas?

Ahead of International Volunteer Day, three student volunteers share what they learned


Since 1985, the United Nations has set aside December 5th as a day to honour volunteering, from the local to the global.

Research published this year by Comhlamh, an Irish organisation of returned volunteers, found 35 per cent of those that went overseas last year were under 25, many of whom went on short trips while in college.

UCD Volunteers Overseas (UCDVO) was established in 2003 by former UCD chaplain Fr Tony Coote, in response the desire among students to engage in voluntary work abroad. This Saturday, the organisation will hold a conference to explore the value of volunteering, and whether it makes a difference. Ahead of the event, three healthcare students share their experiences and what they learned from them. For more information, see comhlamh.org.


Eleanor Morris, Tanzania: ‘I learned determination, resourcefulness, optimism’

UCD Volunteers Overseas offers students a year-long programme. Over the course of the academic year, we had some productive training and bonding sessions. We had a chance to practice some Swahili, develop computer-teaching lesson plans and educational games.

I didn’t sleep a wink the night of June 12th. The next day marked the beginning of my African adventure and I was both excited and extremely nervous.

Five of us headed to Tanzania to work in a primary school in Morogoro for four weeks. Every day, we cycled 7km there and back. We taught English to 9-year-olds and 12-year-olds in the morning, and gave computer classes to the teachers. After lunch we held summer camps for the children.

Before I embarked on this trip, I had been sceptical about the value of me travelling to Tanzania to teach computer lessons. Would sending school supplies not be more useful? It’s only on completion of the project that I can see the benefit of passing on a skill that I take for granted.

From the teachers who mastered Word, Excel and PowerPoint, despite having never seen a computer before, I learned determination. From the children who filled a sock with sand to make a football, I learned resourcefulness. From the people who never stop smiling, I learned optimism.

Aine Egan, Nicaragua: ‘I learned to value my professional skills’

I was involved with the Los Pipitos project, a rehabilitation centre for children in Somoto in Nicaragua, where we treated children in the barrios with disabilities and educated families on physiotherapy techniques.

Disability is a huge problem in Nicaragua. The United Nations estimates 12.5 per cent of the population are living with a disability. I found it horrifying to discover that the majority of people with disabilities are an invisible population in Nicaragua. Many of the children are hidden indoors and ostracised from their communities.

Having already worked with children with disabilities in Ireland, comparing the two worlds was heart-wrenching. I knew that if these children lived in Ireland, they would have greater opportunities and their disabilities would not impose the same limitations on their lives.

I have learned to have more confidence in myself, especially as a physiotherapist. I also learned to value my professional skills, which can make a huge difference. When the theories and practical skills we learn in college are put into practice, they can change a person’s life for the better. I have always known this but to contribute to the change was humbling.

I have also learned a lot from the other people who were a part of this project. Everyone brought unique talents, skills and most importantly, a good sense of humour.

Martha Baker-Kenny, Uganda: ‘The trip surpassed every expectation’

A year ago I decided to apply to volunteer with UCD Volunteers Overseas. I wasn’t sure what it would entail, or whether I’d get accepted, and I didn’t know anybody else applying. Little did I know a year later I would be travelling to Uganda with a group of fellow healthcare students.

We were based at a hospital in Kisiizi, a small town in the Rukungiri district in south west Uganda. There were only eight on our project, two nursing students, two medical students, three physiotherapy students and myself, a midwifery student. Our team leaders were qualified physiotherapists.

Every morning started with chapel at 8am, where the beat of the drum, clapping, singing and improvised harmonies would set anyone up for a great day. We then separated to our different wards, learning how to provide care to patients with much fewer facilities than we would be used to at home.

The nurses have a brilliant attitude towards their work and there was a buzz around the wards. The hospital community welcomed us with open arms, and gave us every learning opportunity available.

When people ask what the highlights of the trip were, I am stuck for words as there are so many, but spending time with people who have an incredibly positive outlook on life, and getting to know the children with disabilities and watching them progress come up top. The trip surpassed every expectation I had.

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