When I tell people about the time I left London to go and live in Bolivia for three months, the usual response is “what?”, if they happen to be American, “huh?”, or on the off chance that they’re Bolivian – “que senorita?” It was a strange move. But volunteering with ICS had been something I’d wanted to do for years, and at 24 (the age limit is 18 – 25), I just made it. It was an incredibly exciting and weird time, one which made me reluctant to go back to London and carry on as if everything was normal. Volunteering abroad is something every lost and confused twenty something should try their hand at, and ICS is, to my mind, one of the best ways to do it. But first, the details.
ICS is a UK government run scheme, set up to provide young people with the opportunity of volunteering abroad at little or no cost to themselves. This the part that really appealed to me – little or no cost to themselves. I wanted to travel, I wanted to volunteer, but too often I was faced with a participation fee that came to thousands of pounds, on top of flights, insurance, vaccinations, food costs, etc.
ICS is different from these programmes in a few key ways:
· Flights, accommodation, insurance, vaccinations, visas, and occasionally food expenses, are completely covered by the scheme. Usually people are placed in out-of-the-way locations in homestays, to really be immersed in local communities. Our cohort was placed in city apartments in La Paz – maybe not as authentic, but it worked for me.
· Volunteers are required to fundraise £800 before flying out to their chosen country. Whilst this sounds like a lot, most people find the total isn’t too hard to reach in the end. I meant to do a fundraising event to raise awareness, but ended up taking the lazy route and posting my JustGiving page constantly on Facebook. Despite having only 3 weeks to fundraise, I managed to reach and exceed the target, just by constantly hassling my poor Facebook friends.
· ICS is a non profit, and isn’t intent on taking your money to give you “the experience of a lifetime”. There’s no trace of elitism or “gap yah” on ICS. They want to give you a genuine experience of the developing world, and provide you with a genuine opportunity to help. This is one of the only international volunteer opportunities that are accessible to young people from all backgrounds including, like me, those who don’t have a penny to their names.
· In terms of qualifications and experience, you don’t need anything specific – just an enthusiasm for volunteer work and an interest in your chosen country. Essentially, if you apply to ICS and don’t say anything particularly controversial at the training day, you’re going.
Okay, so that’s the boring admin stuff. What about the actual work? So, another awesome thing about ICS is that you can basically choose whatever kind of work interests you. I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country and do environmental work, and after placements in Nicaragua and El Salvador became full, I turned my sights on Bolivia. In my team, we helped local women form and promote their own business, as well as assist them with the day to day running of the business itself. There was also a bit of greenhouse building because, well, what volunteer project would be complete without a bit of building?
The ICS website lists a lot of different areas for work, but you don’t have to decide upon application. I had a pretty clear idea of what I was interested in and what I wasn’t (work with children, mainly) and so my placement was fairly spot on. In reality though, once you get out there, you have the flexibility to focus on whatever you want.
I’ll be honest in saying I wasn’t exactly a model volunteer on ICS. I didn’t throw myself into the language as much as I could have, I could be downright apathetic when it came to doing extra work and I enjoyed living in the heart of the city probably a bit too much. Most people in my cohort though were incredibly dedicated and committed to their projects; I just wasn’t one of them. But whilst the work itself didn’t change how I saw myself or the world, the experience as a whole…kind of did.
I arrived Bolivia with no expectations at all, which I’ve found is a fairly decent way to live life. My cousin, who had been to ICS with Tanzania a few years before, wrote a note to me to open on the plane. She said “whenever you encounter hard work, difficult friendships or problems…just take a step back and for a moment, appreciate what an amazing place you’re living in”
It’s pretty sound advice.