I heard about TWOWEEKS through a friend via the Doctors Network. Through encouragement by UBS I was already volunteering as a mentor in a few schools in the city, but I felt that I wanted to do more. I had 6 months unpaid leave available to me and TWOWEEKS looked like something completely different offering me the chance to do something substantial with my time. I was enticed by the opportunity of going to South Africa so decided to find out more about them.
The first step was to attend a pre-trip meeting. I didn’t really know what to expect and as a non-medic I wasn’t sure what I could offer. I felt some apprehension as I had only heard about SA through the media and it wasn’t all good…The meeting was brilliant – the team were so lovely, welcoming, keen and enthusiastic – I immediately caught the TWOWEEKS bug! They gave a presentation that consisted of background information on the charity and gave context to the projects that they were involved with. I have to admit I was worried about things like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis but they gave us a clear understanding and some ‘do’s and don’ts’ so we would be able to deal with any situations that might arise. A combination of hearing experiences first-hand and photographs of the places and people they work with all helped to make me feel comfortable and gave me a better understanding of what I would be walking into.
Anyone signing up with TWOWEEKS needs to plan a project they would like to do out there – it is good for focusing you but you need to be adaptable to change! Over the next few meetings we decided that my skills would be best placed in Ikethelo an orphanage in Valley of the 1000 Hills housing children from 1-18yrs and my project would mainly be teaching with an opportunity to be in role as a mentor for some of the older children. So my next move was to spend time learning about SA and prepare for my trip into the relatively unknown… I will never forget when I first arrived. We got picked up 45mins late but I had spent a couple of months in Namibia so I was used to ‘African’ time! As we got to the top of the hill we saw the 1000 valleys, Ikethelo and all their small coloured huts stretched out in front of us – it was beautiful. All the children came out running to greet us, asking for our names and pulling us into their world. All I could think was ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here.’
I met volunteers from different agencies who were already working there and it was great to share stories of their various experiences. I got started straight away and was welcomed into the school to help teaching the young people.
A typical day for me would start at 5am – when the sun came up! At 6am the children would get up and start having breakfast and then by 7:30am it was time to get into school. The classes were about 8-10 in size and the lessons lasted an hour until school finished at 2pm. I was out of my comfort zone as I’m not a teacher but I was able to do simple maths and English with them. We had basic resources but I had the evening to plan lessons and look at their homework ready for the next day.
Another part of my role out there was mentoring – I did this at the orphanage with the 16-17yr olds. Some of the children have spent 10yrs or more at Ikethelo and haven’t got a clue about the world outside and no idea of what it is they want to do.
This is where I was able to transfer the skills I had from volunteering in the UK and also draw from my experience of the corporate world. I’d find out their interests and help direct them in choosing what to study next and generally be someone they could bounce ideas off. I also extended this work in a clinic out in the community. I would teach basic computer courses using excel and word and help adults prepare their cv’s. I was also able to do some arithmetic and English with them and do some classes on presentation and interview skills for those looking for work.
As a volunteer it’s vital that you are motivated, flexible and adaptable – what I did was ask myself ‘what can I do?’ This meant I was always looking for opportunities to initiate or get involved with something. I had noticed that in the afternoons the older children were basically just playing computer games and not engaging with anything in particular. I decided to see if any of them wanted to learn about fixing bikes so we could recondition some of the old ones for use again. It proved a successful venture and I took a group of them to a local bike shop where they spent some time with the mechanics. One of the young people was so inspired and began to consider it as a career choice – the shop offered him work experience and he began his journey into mechanics.
All volunteers would be assigned a cottage to go to and read to the children partly to help with their English but also as it is an important part of their development. When I approached their house their faces would light up and they so enjoyed the stories. When I visited them again in 2016 I was blown away by how much their reading and English had improved and still excited for stories!
I would encourage anyone to go and be a volunteer for TWOWEEKS – it was a real changing point for me. It is incredible to walk away from somewhere knowing the smallest thing you do has a massive impact. It changed my opinions about people, the world and about me and how I live my life. Go on…do it!