On a foreign mission


Fancy a different kind of summer holiday? Students are volunteering to go abroad and help make a real difference, writes PETER McGUIRE

BRIAN MCCARTHY was bored of the usual holidays. Various TY projects had opened his eyes to both the diversity and injustices of the world, so when an opportunity to work as a volunteer in Ghana arose, he took it. Brian got a part-time job and saved the requisite €2,000, plus around €600 for flights.

“I’d always wanted to do something like this,” he says. “My group was building a childcare centre for parents who couldn’t afford childminding, while many other volunteers were teaching.” Brian travelled with Projects Abroad, an international organisation that arranges volunteer work for school and university students and professionals.

The day before he left, Brian felt very apprehensive. “What am I doing?” he asked himself. “What if I don’t like it? Will I be able to make a difference?” The questions were running through his head. As he got on the plane, he was a bag of nerves.

Life in Ghana was, initially at least, a culture shock for Brian. In the city, most people spoke English, but he was based in a rural area where he didn’t know the language. “I worked in a very beautiful part of the country,” he recalls. “It was up on the top of a hill and surrounded by greenery. There was electricity but the plumbing wasn’t great. People were overwhelmingly friendly.”

Outdoor physical labour in Ghana’s August weather wasn’t easy, but Brian says he knew what he had signed up for. “This wasn’t like a Transition Year trip to visit a Christian Brothers mission and just observe what was going on. We were actually doing something tangible and had something to show for it.”

On his days off, Brian had the opportunity to visit a national park, where he spotted elephants, snakes, monkeys and other local wildlife. He was intrigued by Ghanaian food, with its staples of chicken, fish, bread and rice flavoured with local herbs. For the more adventurous volunteer, there were also chances to try offal and “bush kill”, including rats.

THIS SUMMER, Brian will sit his Leaving Cert. It’s a long way from Africa, but he hopes to return to Ghana and visit his host family.

“I finished my building role two days before I left,” says Brian. “I visited a friend who was volunteering as an English teacher in the local school. There was one kid who had no English; he was about seven or eight and behind the rest of the class. We spent two hours working with the child, and the other kids all helped him too. It felt like real progress.”

Koreen Walsh works with Projects Abroad in Ireland. She first became aware of the organisation when, as a secondary school student in St Joseph’s, Rochfortbridge, she travelled to Costa Rica on a five-week voluntary teaching placement. Before she left, however, she had to raise over €2,000. Bag-packing, non-uniform days in the school, organising a gig, and asking her male friends to get their body hair waxed brought her to the goal.

“I was considering teaching as a career and volunteering overseas gave me a chance to see what it would be like,” she says. “We worked in local primary schools as classroom assistants. Because we spoke English we were useful for the kids to practice. There were other volunteers at the time, from all over the world. Costa Rica is a gorgeous country, and we saw the pristine rainforest, waterfalls, and the Arenal volcano. Birds, monkeys: the whole gamut of local wildlife was there. We learned so much from the local people.”

Projects Abroad offers volunteering opportunities and support for different groups of people, including students aged 16-19.Hartstown Community College, Newpark Comprehensive, and St Joseph’s in Rochfortbridge are among the schools which have sent students overseas with Projects Abroad. For more information, visit projects-abroad.ie.