Home and away: UCD volunteers overseas

James O’Connor looks at the progression of UCD Volunteers Overseas from its humble beginnings to the resounding success it has become today In 2003, former chaplain of UCD, Fr. Tony Coote, was approached by a number of students keen to get involved in voluntary work overseas. Seven years on, UCD Volunteers Overseas (UCDVO) has blossomed into an organisation that, in 2010, sent one hundred volunteers to five different locations in the developing world.As a result of Fr. Coote’s efforts in the summer of 2003, twenty volunteers were sent on what was expected to be a one-off project to Delhi, India. However, due to an overwhelming response, the project was replicated in 2004. Since that time the annual work has expanded to Haiti, Nicaragua and Tanzania respectively.Most recently, the summer of 2010 brought with it a second India-based project taking place in the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh. Today, the organisation is in the very capable hands of UCDVO Manager Caroline O’Connor. In 2004, O’Connor travelled with UCDVO to Delhi. Since then, she has graduated with a Masters in Development Studies and spent time interning with UNICEF before taking on this full-time position.From construction work to sports camps, the projects vary with the needs of the local communities. Over the years, UCDVO have been involved in the construction of classrooms and healthcare centres, the organisation and implementation of summer camps for local children and this year, in Tanzania, volunteers set up five computer labs in different schools using refurbished computers collected in UCD.A large amount of planning goes into deciding which projects are most deserving of the organisation’s time and money. According to Ms. O’Connor, “the volunteer leaders play a role in working with the local community on a planning trip which takes place before the main project in the summer [where] they meet with the local organisations and the local communities and assess what are the greatest needs in their area”.Business and Law graduate and volunteer in Haiti in 2010, Barry Colfer, discussed two projects coordinated to combat the devastating effects of flooding during this year’s month-long expedition. Firstly, the construction of dry stone walls took place on the hillsides particularly susceptible to the effects of flooding. Additionally, Colfer was directly involved in the planting of a “vetiver” – a plant he compared to “a thick elephant grass” ideal for erosion control.O’Connor stressed that each project and task held significance in the overall scheme. For example, UCDVO organised summer camps that were enjoyed by over 700 children in this year’s Haiti project. The exercise and activities enjoyed by the children is just one effect on the local community.According to O’Connor, enrolment in the schools in question has “shot up since [UCDVO] started the summer camps” as parents and children alike begin to see “the value of education”. It is this vision and desire to look beyond the obvious benefits that characterises UCDVO’s work in the developing world.First year medicine student and volunteer in Nicaragua this year, Nick Power, was involved in a number of projects including the building of a classroom for an agricultural training centre – a high pressure job that ran right to the very last minute and involved days of back-to-back labour.He described himself as being “burned out” and having “knots in [his] back” by the end of the project. However, when possible, volunteers are afforded a chance to rest. Many volunteers use this opportunity to visit local towns, thereby contributing to the local economy. According to O’Connor, such “exposure to other ways of life [is] really important for the experience of the volunteer”.Fundraising is a huge part of the UCDVO agenda. Volunteers are each required to raise €2,250 before they can travel. €1,750 of this covers their costs and the additional €500 is injected directly into the year’s projects.Over the years, the volunteers have been forced to dream up more and more innovative ways of fundraising. O’Connor cites the fact that “fundraising for charity is becoming quite commonplace in Ireland” as a reason for this. And despite the economic downturn, 2010 was one of their most successful years of fundraising to date. UCDVO Day and Rás UCD were both great successes in the past year.There is also an emphasis on corporate sponsorship. Corporate matching schemes, where employees raise an amount of money and their employer matches that amount, have been a very successful method of fundraising in recent times.Some are of the opinion that money raised should not be spent on the expenses of the volunteers and should be sent directly to those already working on the ground. According to O’Connor, such donations may not have been generated unless volunteers were travelling on these projects. Interestingly, in the eighteen month period leading up to September 2008, of the €631,450 raised by UCDVO over 90% was spent directly on overseas projects. This is further evidence that expenses are kept to a minimum.While demand continues to rise, UCDVO adopt a sensible, controlled approach to expansion. Last year, there were 310 applicants for 100 places. However, the focus is on the sustainability of current projects and at present, there are no plans to add further projects. Applications for projects in 2011 open on September 27th and will remain open until October 11th. UCDVO will have a stand at this week’s Fresher’s Tent and welcome visitors to their office next to Nine One One in the James Joyce Library Building. Further information can be found at www.ucdvo.org.