A wealth of service

Voluntary Service Overseas celebrates its golden anniversary in Edinburgh next week – 50 years during which thousands of volunteers have shared their skills in dozens of countries. We meet some of the Scots for whom it has been a priceless experience...

AS EIGHT hopeful teenagers boarded a plane in 1958, bound for a year's voluntary service, they could not have imagined that they were setting a precedent for the 50 years of perseverance and change that are being celebrated in Edinburgh this Saturday. Indeed, when the VSO project began, few could have foreseen the future for this international development charity.

Since its inception – it was founded by the late Alec and Mora Dickson, with backing from Christian Aid and the late Bishop of Portsmouth – VSO has attracted more than 30,000 volunteers and served 70 countries around the world. As a committed team, volunteers have fought tirelessly against poverty around the globe, in their determination to work for equality for all.

From humble beginnings, VSO's scale has altered considerably, but its vision has never faltered. Working directly with disadvantaged people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific islands, volunteers use their skills to help change lives, providing hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged people with the opportunity of an education, a secure livelihood and good health.

While once attracting mostly school-leavers, the VSO collective has become increasingly popular with a wide range of individuals, and the average age of volunteers is now 38. But whether they be a teenager or someone taking a year out from work, each one brings a unique set of skills to a variety of projects.

Over the years, VSO has attracted a number of big names, including broadcaster Jon Snow, and Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer. Volunteers have been recruited from a number of countries, and national agencies in Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Ireland and India have ensured the effort is as global and far-reaching as possible.

Today, the VSO team is continually recruiting, placing everyone from teachers, social workers and health professionals to gap-year students, accountants and farmers throughout the world. The majority of placements are for two years, but they have been known to be as short as two weeks, depending on the individual project.

Volunteers currently range in age from 18 to 75 – the only stipulation is that they hold a formal qualification and some work experience. Recruits are provided with accommodation and a local allowance as well as travel costs and insurance. Today more than 1,500 skilled professionals work in 34 countries. Below, we talk to volunteers who have already given their time and skills to VSO as well as those embarking on their trips this year.

Clare Meredith, 59, South Queensferry

Primary teacher, Turks & Caicos Islands, 1968–69, 1990

Clare Meredith's volunteer project in the Caribbean in 1969 threw the young primary-school teacher in at the deep end. With little teaching experience and almost no resources, she found life in the classroom a struggle.

"There was only one textbook for the teacher and we were really lucky if the students had brought a pencil or activity book to school," she says. "But I still had to keep them going all day and teach them every subject. At times I remember being absolutely sick with worry about what I should teach. I was only 20 at the time and I loved doing it, but I made lots of mistakes. I just hoped that I was able to help my students."

Two decades later, Clare had put her teaching days behind her and settled down back in Scotland with a family and a career. Then a telephone call from the past changed her life. "Out of the blue, one of my old students had come to Britain to do a course and had tracked me down," says Clare.

"We hadn't spoken for 20 years, but he had never forgotten me and wanted to let me know that I had made a great impact on his life."

The student, Tomlinson Skippings, visited Clare and her family and the two decided to keep in touch. A few months later, as a consequence of that visit, Clare and her husband uprooted their three young children and went back to Grand Turk to teach for a full school term. "It took me several years to realise just what I had done there," she said. "It shows the difference between investing in people and just spending money on a project."

Two of Clare's children have since taken their own trips with VSO and Clare now helps the group select new volunteers. "What I've learned from my friendship with Tommy and the people in Grand Turk is the importance of sharing and openness between cultures," she said. "It is something that I wanted my children to experience."

Veronica Ross, 57, Aboyne

English teacher, Laos, 1972–73

Veronica Ross joined VSO straight from school in 1972, looking for a chance to see the world and to help others at the same time. Undaunted by a posting to teach English in Laos, a country bordering war-torn Vietnam, she packed her bags and soon found herself halfway around the globe and beginning an adventure that would change her life.

"I worked teaching English at a teachers' college a few miles away from the capital, Vientiane, where I lived," says Veronica. "I had a little scooter and rode it to school every day. It was quite intimidating at first because we had large classes and not very much training, but everyone there was really eager to learn."

The work could be exhausting, but she was able to relax by exploring the country in her free time. There were exciting trips to the market with its jumbled collection of strange fruit and vegetables and interesting food, and quiet walks through some of the countryside's richly decorated temples. She even kept a pet monkey, Jimmy, that she carried around everywhere in her shoulder bag.

But her fondest memories are of the friendships she made. "At that time it was before a lot of tourism to the country and there were not many foreigners there," she says. "But everywhere I went, everyone was so friendly and let us get involved in their festivals and culture.

"Learning about their way of life was the most interesting thing of all. When I came back to Britain I felt that being there had probably done more for me than I had done for the students. I was able to open up my mind about other people and parts of the world in a way that I didn't think was possible."

Ivan McKee, 44, Killearn

Business advisor, Bangladesh, 1986–88

"I wanted to do something a bit different from the normal career path," says Ivan McKee of his decision to head to Bangladesh in 1986. As a recent graduate in engineering and business management, he helped advise 130 workers at a co-operative agricultural equipment factory and worked on plans to help the business become more productive. He lived in Comilla, a city of 250,000 people near the Indian border.

"For the first three months in the country I took intensive language and culture classes, so by the time I arrived at my project I had pretty good beginnings in Bengali," he says. "I knew enough to communicate with the guys." It was just as well, as only one other person spoke English.

Ivan lived in a flat near the factory, and at weekends he would take his saxophone into Dhaka and play in local bands. VSO had a large presence in the capital, and spending time with the other volunteers helped to ease homesickness during the holidays. But working away from the city allowed him to experience another side of the country. "It was great to be around the other volunteers and other ex-pats, but I liked to hop on a bus and escape the ex-pat environment," he says. "I could speak to other people in Bengali and fit in."

The two years Ivan spent in Bangladesh left him prepared for anything, he says. "Now I'm doing some management consulting and travelling a lot internationally for my job, so it has really come full circle. At the end of the day I can go anywhere and be able to adapt to any environment."

Richard Crosby, 43, and Sylvia Crosby 41, Moffat

Doctor and physiotherapist, Malawi, 1993–95

When Richard Crosby went to Malawi, the 29-year-old medical graduate did not expect to be running a 240-bed hospital in Nchisi, a town in the mountains. "I'd had training courses that were very good, but the job itself was far beyond anything I had ever experienced before," he says. "While there, I had to do Caesarean sections, and I wasn't a trained surgeon – but they had to be done. "

Running the hospital, helping provide medical care, working to get better accommodation for nurses and training local practitioners were just a few of the jobs Richard was tasked with during his stay in Africa. But for him the work was a labour of love. "The people there are just incredibly lovely, kind, smiley and happy despite the terrible malnutrition and low life expectancy," he says.

"They may have had nothing but they were so generous and kind. Being there taught me not to be driven so much by money. There is far more to life."

His VSO experience changed his life in another way as well. While there, he fell in love with Sylvia, a fellow volunteer who worked as a physiotherapist for people with disabilities. The two married in a local ceremony attended by their friends, fellow volunteers and neighbours.

Last year Richard and Sylvia took their three children to the country on holiday, and may return to work there. "If the right job came up at the right time, we would definitely want to work in Malawi or another African country again," says Sylvia.

Craig Cowbrough, 38, Glasgow

Public relations, Kigali, Rwanda, 2007–8

The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is a triangular, white building surrounded by palm trees in a quiet suburb of the Rwandan capital. Dedicated to teaching the public about the 1995 genocide, it is a combination of museum, place of remembrance, research centre and mass grave. Beneath the building's foundations lie the remains of more than 25,000 people who lost their lives in the terror.

Craig Cowbrough traded his Glasgow office for a spot on the team there, and for a few months worked with local staff to help raise the centre's profile and raise more funds. A senior public-relations adviser with Scottish Enterprise, Craig took a career secondment to volunteer with the group and help teach some of his marketing and PR skills to the local staff.

"I had been to Africa a number of times before as a tourist and had worked briefly in Belize in late 2005, but nothing can quite prepare you for the radical change in environment," he says. "Working every day in an office, you are used to these cocoons of technology in your life, and there things didn't always work all of the time.

"Sometimes the electricity would go off when it rained and often there would be no water for no particular reason. But once you got used to these things and got to know the people and culture, you were able to make some progress."

While Craig was sent to Kigali to help share his skills, he says he returned with a deep understanding of the people and the country that he never could have gained as a tourist. It was also an adventure that helped him gain perspective on his working life back home. "Everyone I worked with there had been affected by the genocide in some way," he says. "Many had become orphans or had lost other family members. But once you got to know everyone it was quite a close-knit community.

"A traveller is only in a country for a short time, but if you are working and volunteering, you are able to build relationships with people. Being able to do that is a mark of success in the project."

FUTURE VOLUNTEERS

Stuart Guthrie, 18, Glasgow

Student, Indonesia, departing March 2008

While at school, Stuart Guthrie spent his weekend afternoons working with the elderly and helping out at an epilepsy clinic. But he wanted to give back something more, so he put back his admission to medical school to take part in a six-month volunteer project with VSO called Global Xchange.

"I haven't had a proper adventure yet," Stuart says. "My whole life, for the last 18 years, I've lived here in Glasgow, so this is going to be a massive jump for me. I'm really quite excited about it, but as the time gets closer, I do get more nervous."

Stuart will be paired with another volunteer from Indonesia. The two will live together for the next six months – the first three in Stansted, Essex, and the following three in West Sumatra, Indonesia. They will help one another learn their respective languages, teach each other about their different countries and work together on various community service projects in each country. The goal is to build lasting international friendships while giving back to the community at the same time. "I'm going to take a kilt with me over there," Stuart says. "And maybe a haggis too.

"I've been so impressed with how everything has been organised so far, it has really been quite remarkable," he says. "I just hope that I can give back as much as VSO has been able to give me."

Gordon Findlay, 42, and Miranda Service, 43, Edinburgh

Management consultant and community worker, Nepal, departing March 2008

After years spent working in the corporate world, Gordon Findlay and Miranda Service decided they needed a break. Miranda convinced Gordon to try VSO, a programme she had wanted to take part in since she was a student. The two depart Edinburgh for Kathmandu next month.

"While it wasn't something that I was aware of, I became quickly motivated by the organisation and its values," says Gordon. "It has definitely changed a lot over the years – they aren't just looking for people to dig latrines or teach English. They've got so many people around the world working in all levels of positions."

Gordon will be the first volunteer ever to work with the government of Nepal as a management consultant. Miranda will lend her services to an NGO that helps the 'untouchables', people who occupy the lowest level in the caste system. They will spend two years in Kathmandu.

"We've both been really fortunate in our working lives so we feel it is an important opportunity for us to give something back," says Gordon. "I've heard that pilots flying into Kathmandu always say, 'Turn your watch up 15 minutes and your head back 300 years!' So, I think that sense of humour encapsulates some of the differences between there and Edinburgh."

The language barrier is one of the biggest challenges Gordon foresees, but adjusting to different food will be another. As Nepal is a Hindu country he'll have to give up his favourite food – steak. But this is all part of the adventure, he says. "Everyone has a different VSO experience, but in the end we're all trying to do the same thing. We're here to share our skills and knowledge, give back and create something sustainable that will continue even after the volunteers are gone."

• Interviews: Samantha Novick

• For more details about VSO, see www.vso.org.uk

Your VSO: Celebrating 50 years of VSO takes place at The Hub, Edinburgh, on March 1, 2008, from 2pm, including a panel discussion on international development and a video presentation of outreach work, as well as live music and a drinks reception. Tickets are a 20 donation from www.vso.org.uk/50th or by calling 020 8780 7500.