My Volunteering Experience

Hello everyone! My name is Leona Dixon and I am an Old Rossallian. I was the Music Captain for Rose House, which was by far the best house, and I completed my Psychology, Theatre Studies and Music A-Levels, which I absolutely enjoyed!

I had always wanted to take a Gap Year to go volunteering, and then Mr Crombie (Director of Sixth Form) mentioned a huge opportunity to me, which I HAD to be part of: the Sixth Form trip to Ghana. The trip was incredible, and I would say everyone should try their hardest to be part of such a fantastic experience. There were 9 of us going to Ghana, and we stayed in a volunteer house in an orphanage and worked in a school called Little Roses. I made such amazing connections both in the orphanage and the school. There were three children who I felt completely attached to, and I still think about them daily: Angel, Mirako and Grace (see picture below).

Angel was only 7 years old and had a 4 year old brother and a 3 month old baby that she would carry around on her back. Every time I had finished teaching, I would rush back and shower as quickly as I could to get maximum time with Angel, Grace and Mirako. I was truly devastated when I had to leave them. Angel, Mirako and I even had a special handshake, which I will never forget. Mirako was so small that he thought that was the way to shake people’s hands, so he tried doing it with everyone.

I think the most valuable skills I developed during my time at Rossall that have helped me during my Gap Year are confidence, which I have learnt greatly from Music and Drama, and independence, which being part of an international boarding school naturally gives you. Travelling around on my own would have been very hard and scary if I didn’t have confidence or independence. Living in a school has also really helped me, as it has made me used to sharing with lots of others and also being with lots of children. In all of the volunteer houses I was staying in, you needed to be prepared to share and be comfortable with living with lots of people, which has also made me become a much more grateful and confident person, as I had to interact with others.

One of the most memorable moments that has really had an impact on me was in Cambodia, when we were taking packages of food to five different families. Each of them had incredible stories and were barely surviving but they all still had the biggest smiles on their faces and all wanted to invite us round to sit and enjoy their company. One family was a man and a woman, who couldn’t walk, and they had a farm but their children then took everything they had and sold it and ran away with the money, leaving their parents with nothing. Another family consisted of a woman who was deaf and had two children who had some complications during birth and so also couldn’t hear. She had absolutely nothing, and our tuk-tuk driver that we used found her in the middle of nowhere in a tiny shed with her children. 

The third family had a woman who couldn’t move at all and felt like she needed to sleep all the time. She was also blind and getting more and more fatigued every day. We only managed to see one more family as we were running out of time, but the package was still sent to the fifth family as well. The fourth family was the most impactful. It was a man and a woman and it was practically impossible to get to their house when it had rained before, we were basically all swimming to get to them. It was a man and a woman and the man was diagnosed with HIV and diabetes. The HIV he got from his previous wife, who then ran away from him and just looking at this man made me want to cry about how unfair this world is. They also had a gorgeous baby boy, but the man wasn’t reacting well to his medication and the day I left the volunteer house, the man died. This was a truly shocking experience for me, and I am actually quite embarrassed as to how shocked I was, meaning that I had been living in a bubble in Europe for such a long time where I had never seen things like this happen. 

I personally think, if you are able to, then save up and take a gap year, not just as a ‘big holiday’ but to volunteer and see incredible things about different cultures, it really changes your perspective and opens your mind up to something other than the culture you have been brought up in. I truly think I am a completely different person from who I was before I started volunteering. These opportunities have forced me to step outside of my comfort zone so much and just embrace everyone who is around me, as I have had no other choice. I have shared with so many different and unique people in hostels, volunteer houses and schools and now I have lifelong travel buddies. The communities I have worked in have been truly grateful and although I may not have made a huge impact on these children’s lives, as I have been moving around a lot, I would say that volunteering has made a huge impact on my life and the way I see things.

I have faced a few challenges since starting my volunteering work, and I’m sure the list will go on, but they have made very funny stories. I dealt with multiple train strikes when I was helping as a skiing instructor in Austria and my credit card was swallowed in the machine as soon as I arrived in Zambia. After multiple attempts, I finally managed to receive a new card which had to be shipped from England. I had water damage on my phone in Cambodia, and I also waited in Phnom Penh airport for 4 hours, terrified because I was all alone. Turns out the person picking me up was just late, but I quickly learnt everything always worked out to be fine in the end.

Right now, where I’m staying in Zambia, there is a cholera outbreak so the school I’m meant to be working in hasn’t opened. However, this has actually given me time to get to know local children, go hiking, and learn water skiing. I’ve faced lots of challenges throughout my time volunteering and I’m sure the list will go on, but they have made some fantastic, adventurous trips and I have really learned not to be too dependent on things going to plan. I was also quite naive when I first started travelling, especially since I’ve lived in this bubble of boarding school practically my whole life, but all of these challenges have helped me become so much more independent, adventurous and especially chilled as things always go wrong and there’s nothing you can do about them.

Some advice I would give to people interested in volunteering is to try and also do some travelling around the country you are in, especially in hostels as it is cheaper. I have spent Monday to Friday volunteering and then I had the weekends and school holidays to travel and explore in Cambodia and in Zambia. Go into this experience positively but also, don’t be naive. I was in shock the first time I got to Cambodia as I hadn’t planned and researched transport and accommodation – so it is important to be resilient and be prepared. I would also take as little as you can, you don’t need many clothes, and you can hand wash them everywhere, and bring clothes that cover you up, even if you are in a place that doesn’t necessarily need that because there are always historical places worth seeing that you would be expected to cover up in. You should also embrace and be respectful of the culture and make sure you get your vaccines! Most of all, just embrace everything, just say yes to everything, unless it is something very dangerous.