Saving the world on a ‘package’ family holiday

Two weeks volunteering abroad is the norm, but the Mac Aonghusas stayed 10 months in Gambia, says Rita de Brun

AUSTERITY has made us appreciate what we have and aware of those who have less. Some people feel empathy from the sofa. Other people gather their children and depart to poor, far-flung destinations.

When Fionnuala MacAonghusa from Spiddal in Co Galway, volunteered for 10 months in Gambia, in Africa, via the VSO, she was accompanied by her husband, Donal, a professional poker-player, and their children, Maggie and Ferdia, who were 15 and 11.

While Fionnuala supervised trainee teachers, Donal home-schooled the children. “Donal became the muinteoir, while I became the cigire,” she says. “There were loads of highs. We were accepted into the community and we experienced a life pared down to what’s really important. The grind was hard: the heat, the dirt, the tummy bugs, and the little things, such as the fact that water and electricity weren’t always available.

“Also, the fact that as the only white people in the community, we couldn’t blend in, so there was no anonymity.”

Food was limited. Fionnuala planted aubergine seeds and rejoiced when they grew. “But, then, we ate them every day,” she says.

When Donal became ill with suspected malaria, and Ferdia broke his arm, the couple wondered if they had done the right thing.

While many volunteer for “purely giving” reasons, Fionnuala’s itchy feet and a desire for adventure played a substantial part in her decision to stay longer.

Ninety percent of families that volunteer with Projects Abroad stay two weeks, says recruitment manager, Anna McCarthy. When Anna graduated from UCC, she used her law degree on a Projects Abroad voluntary programme in Ghana. She was offered a job with the organisation. Her mother and brother flew to Ghana to meet the people who had won her heart.

Anna’s brother stayed for a month, organising sports for former street children, and he loved it. But for volunteers who have young children, Anna recommends a Mexican programme, which combines caring for baby crocodiles and rescuing endangered sea turtles on moonlit beaches. Cost is a factor for families. With Projects Abroad, two weeks in Nepal, Mongolia or India start at €1,300 per adult and €495 per child.

With Kaya Responsible Travel, five weeks of working in a rainforest, and in an orphanage in Ecuador, costs approximately €1,360 per head. A fortnight in Peru, with United Planet, costs around €4,430 for a family of four.

While all prices quoted include food, accommodation and more, none include flights. The Kaya figure also includes three weeks of Spanish classes.

“Volunteering is not a cheap option for a family vacation,” says Kaya founder Heilwig Jones. “A package holiday would be cheaper and a lot more luxurious, but bespoke trips to the locations in which we work require a lot of organisation.

“That said, once families arrive, costs are minimal compared to regular holidays.”

Lack of funds will never be a bar for the sufficiently motivated. The volunteering programme touches the hearts of others, and the cash-strapped and the pure-of-heart can meet the costs by fundraising.

With VSO, it’s different: volunteers don’t pay an upfront charge, but they are expected to fundraise for the organisation before they go.

Caitlin Ferrarini, international programmes manager with United Planet, recommends that volunteers with young children work in orphanages or in after-school care, so the children can interact with the locals while the parents monitor them as they work.

“Some of our volunteers bring kids as young as two on their trips,” says Heilwig Jones. Children often bridge the cultural gap more easily than their parents. “Western kids help their new friends with schoolwork, but the learning is reciprocal. Faced with basic conditions, limited resources and no computers, they learn to play creatively.”

For Fionnuala Mac Aonghusa’s children, the impact of their trip to Gambia, four years ago, is still apparent. “I met girls who wondered how long they’d be allowed to stay in school and when their marriages would be arranged,” says Maggie.

As a 15-year-old girl volunteering on a national newspaper, Maggie was allowed to eat with the men at lunchtime, while the Gambian women ate elsewhere. “This was because of my skin-colour,” she says. “The experience showed me how imbalanced the world really is. I decided, then, to take advantage of my luck in the birth lottery and I’m now studying human rights law in university.”

Her brother, Ferdia, says that both he and Maggie plan to continue giving. Since he saw first-hand the hurt suffered by the war survivors of Sierre Leone (the family visited there during their time in Gambia), he no longer feels detached when he watches news reports on TV.

His mother says: “Ferdia now sees himself as a citizen of the planet. For him, there is no ‘them and us’. He sees himself as part of the bigger picture. For all of us, the experience has been life-changing.”

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