Hunter Volunteer Centre

News and Events

Volunteering Overseas (Part I)

Ashley Smith, 19, from Scone, and Annabel Whitaker, 20, from Newcastle, are two girls who have more in common than just hailing from the Hunter region. Both of decided to take a gap-year to experience things they really wanted, choosing volunteering overseas after finishing school in 2009. "My gap year was for me. So, what I did was helping other people." Ashley said.

Annabel wanted a change in her life, explaining "I've lived in this kind of three kilometre bubble and wanted to do something I never thought of. I didn't want to go to Uni last year, I just wanted to do something exciting." She kept in touch with friends in Newcastle that chose to go straight to University. By accessing the social network Facebook every three weeks, she found them writing about what was happening in their lives, including doing exams and going to the beach. Meanwhile, she was going to see the Taj Mahal.

"Everyone is just doing exactly the same thing, whereas you are going on these amazing adventures", she added.

Annabel went to India on a teaching placement while Ashley went to England on a caring placement. One day while watching television, Annabel saw a story of a girl who volunteered at the Mother Teresa Foundation and decided India would be her destination. "Pretty much I just wanted to go to a country that wasn't like Australia".

Out of the comfort zone

On the other hand, Ashley didn't want to great a change. "To be honest, I am from a small town and I didn't want to jump too far. I didn't want to go to a non-English speaking country, otherwise I would lose myself", she said. Although the nature of her duties sometimes took her out of her comfort zone.

"I have a pair of nieces and every time it came to nappie time I used to say 'nope'", Ashley said. She thought they wouldn't make her do tasks like this at the caring placement, but they did and she had to do a lot of personal care.

Ashley did her caring placement at a school of 150 students, taking care of those with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy, muscular deficiency and autism to the results of car accidents. As well as personal care, Ashley experienced different roles including being a radiotherapy assistant, teacher assistant, and any other role when others were absent.

Originally, Annabel wanted to have a caring placement. However, she ended up teaching for four months at a boarding school for Tibetan refugee children. "I was living with another girl from Canberra in a small room. There was no shower, but a bucket, without hot water in the first month and then we found a washing machine, which was very exciting. But we were cooked for and everything", Annabel said.

Meant to be teaching English, Annabel also taught art, science and filled in whenever a teacher was away, covering kindergarten to year seven.

Rewarding experience

To Annabel, this experience was more rewarding than anything she had ever done. "I'm only 20 years, I haven't done that much stuff, but even things like just learning to take time to do things and just being confident. One of my really good friends, when I came back, she said 'you're so much more confident in yourself, you will stand up and do things. I used to be really shy." Annabel believes the placement helped her to mature.

"It is a good transition. We got pocket money and budgeting was major task. Budgeting for our travels, budgeting for our nights out, food and clothing and it's so hard, it took me months to get used to it. And the confidence, I mean, I was the shy one and I came back and I talk now, it is difficult to shut up. And I made amazing friends outside of work and with work", Ashley agreed.

When it comes to making a difference to people's lives and having their own lives touched by the experience of volunteering overseas, Annabel remembered what she called the "greatest smallest achievement". While teaching children in kindergarten how to write the alphabet, she taught the youngest boy the proper way to right the letter 'a'.