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Game Changer: Q&A with Fair Trade Tourism’s First Certified Volunteer Program in the World
Does this sound familiar? You are a person with sought-after technical, teaching, and/or artistic skills that would love to combine your passion for travel with your pay-it-forward attitude. You have the drive, but are unsure about whether that volunteer program that looks good to you (and your family) will actually help the community. How do you know that it will be a rewarding experience socially and environmentally?
Eco-certification goes a long way toward providing that necessary transparency and accountability, but until recently, there weren't any volunteer programs that were certified. Enter Volunteer Africa 32 South.
Just after my recent trip to Cape Town, I was contacted by Volunteer Africa 32 South, which places volunteers in high need community and conservation projects throughout South Africa and has the distinction of having the world's first certified Fair Trade volunteer program.
In this Q&A, we find out a bit more about the certified Wild Coast Schools Program, and its impacts on the people and communities it serves.
What was the catalyst for starting Volunteer Africa 32 South?
As South Africans, we looked outside out backyard. We decided that we couldn't change the world, but we could change our backyard. Sean Price and Mike Denison originally started Volunteer Africa 32 Degrees South to address the challenging environment which South African rural schools face of overcrowded classrooms, poor resources and understaffing of teachers.
Computer literacy was identified as a key transferrable skill which the students were not receiving as part of their education. Starting with just 2 or 3 laptops and a car, VA32 now delivers computer literacy lessons to hundreds of learners in rural schools each week, from Grade R-7. Computer technology is something which can easily be taken for granted on a daily basis. VA32 computer lessons deliver English language learning objectives, as well as having an environmental focus.
Therefore, students are learning about being a responsible citizen, whilst gaining employability skills and practising their English.
Voluntourism has come under scrutiny in the last couple of years for not providing volunteer experiences that were in line with expectations. With that, what criteria does Volunteer Africa 32 use to choose projects and choose volunteers?
Volunteer Africa 32 works alongside community partners and non-profit organisations to ensure that our projects are needs-driven, communication and collaboration is vital. (Friends of Chintsa, a grass roots and committee run NGO which we started in our local community and CORA (Caring for Orphans in Rural Areas) which helps to identify and gain funding to set up early learning enrichment centres in the Eastern Cape. We select volunteers on the basis of enthusiasm, energy and willingness to get their hands dirty! We do have a specific criteria, depending on whether they are seeking to work with children or on our construction projects. On our Wild Coast Schools Project, it is a bonus for us if you are a teacher, or have experience working with children. We do also ask for volunteers to undertake a criminal record check before undertaking any volunteer work.
How do you measure whether your projects actually make a tangible difference in the communities you serve?
VA32 use a combination of qualitative and quantitative evaluation to measure our projects. In some projects we evaluate children across multiple personalised development areas, including teacher feedback, school reports and one on one conversation with students. We are actively engaged in the community from a grass roots NGO level, and we have a strong interaction with our beneficiaries. Qualitative evaluation we utilise includes record keeping, computer initiative training and feedback sessions for both volunteers and schools involved.
The Wild Coast Schools Project has the distinction of being the World's first Fair Trade Certified Volunteer Program. Why was pursuing this certification so important to the company?
It was really important for us to be the first in the world to seek accreditation as we are passionate about ethical and responsible tourism. We strongly believe in the fair trade principals of fair share,fair say, respect, reliability, transparency and sustainability. This is also pertinent in light of the rise in volunteer organisations who are not necessarily honest and conscientious in their practice. We are surprised nobody else has gone for the accreditation as it does show that we maintain a highly ethical outlook in our working practice as a company and in the projects that we deliver.
Is there an anecdote you can share about a child (or adults) whose opportunities have changed as a result of the Wild Coast Schools Project?
One day, Sean and Mike were working in their office and a man walked into their office. "Thank you." He said. "I came here today to say thank you for putting computers in my school." This former student had gone to the local Byletts High School, (which was the first school VA32 had installed computers into). "I am now successful in the IT industry."
Another story comes from a wonderful woman called Nokuhumla Pakamile. She is a special friend to many volunteers who have been on a VA32 programme. She is a mother, teacher, wife, care-giver, community worker, student, sports coach and project administrator. Her life is rich with diversity, but it has been a life with challenges. Her early years started well, but after passing grade seven, things began to get tougher. She had a 10 km walk to school and an unstable home environment that left her pregnant, stressed, disappointed, shy and rejected by her family. She dropped out of school and move in with her grandmother where she helped look after her newborn and her siblings. Phumia eventually finished high school at the age of 19. At this time, she returned to her birthplace, Chintsa.
Before long, Phumia's gift with children and love for teaching was recognised and she was offered a teaching position at Chintsa Primary School. Phumia has acquired many skills through working closely with VA32 South volunteers over the years and she is now also teaching adult computer literacy. In 2010, Phumla started studying for her teaching diploma with the support of Friends of Chintsa; a local non-profit organisation that VA32 is closely involved in. Phumla has five children of her own that all live in the area. But, these are not her only children. She has opened her home to vulnerable children in the village.
If you had all the power in the world, what would be the one thing you'd change about voluntourism? Why?
I would ensure that all voluntourism organisations were held to account by an independent body, who audited each business. This is essential in making sure that all working practices and projects are ethical and responsible and that volunteer's money goes directly into projects and not somebody else's back pocket.
What is your vision for Volunteer Africa 32 in the next 3-5 years?
What projects and goals are you trying to accomplish?Over the past few years we have noticed a huge increase in group projects, which is wonderful for all community service work. However, there has been a large decline in individuals coming to volunteer which is a worry as our daily projects depend on them to survive. Therefore, it would be fantastic to see an increase in volunteers, as they are the drivers of our project and our projects would not be what they are today without them.