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Volunteering inspired me to...

VSO/Jeff DeKock

We take a look at the inspiring actions taken by five award-nominated volunteers determined to keep on making a difference after their placements.

VSO volunteer placements might take anything from a few months to a few years. But for many, the end of their volunteer assignment is just the start of something bigger.

Around half of all volunteers become more socially active after their placements. Time and again we find that when people see, first hand, the enormous difference an individual volunteer can make, they keep it up, they pass it on and they inspire others to do the same.

In this year’s VSO Volunteer Impact Awards, the nominees for the Impact Beyond Volunteering category have all done just that. These are their stories.

Yolanda van den Broek: Building a broader understanding of mental health

Yolanda volunteered with VSO 15 years ago in Babungo, Cameroon. With her expertise in psychiatric nursing, she wanted to make an impact on the country’s chronically underdeveloped mental health services – that had just one psychiatrist serving the whole population of 20 million people when she arrived.

Yolanda van den Broek

Yolanda, who was crowned "Mother of the village" in Babungo, says she'll always go back to Cameroon

Since her placement ended, she’s remained passionately engaged with mental health in Cameroon –  in particular the Babungo Integrated Mental Health Care (BIMeHC) centre and a charity back in the Netherlands, Stichting Babungo, which raises funds to support the centre.

Yolanda saw the difference it makes to have a volunteer living, working and collaborating within the community.

“[As a volunteer in the community] we can sit together and look at how it can work,” she explains.

"But I never told them what should be implemented. We always did things together. I try to understand first why things were happening the way they were, and especially in mental health, it's so important to get the local perspective first.”

In 2018, Yolanda was awarded a Dutch Royal Award (the Lid in de Orde van Oranje Nassau) for her lasting contribution to psychosocial health work. She has been invited to share her knowledge and experience with various international NGOs and shaped mental health programmes in countries as diverse as Benin, Haiti, Liberia and Sudan. But Cameroon will always be in her heart and still takes time out of her work in the Netherlands each year to visit Babungo.

“They won't let me go; when they crowned me as mother of the village I said, ‘I don’t know what you did to me. You put some elastic bands around my foot because, wherever I am, I just bounce back to Cameroon.’

I'm sure I will always go back.”


Penny O'Sullivan: Setting up a charity to help from afar

Penny’s placement with VSO took her to India from 2001-2004. She worked with an organisation called ROSHNI – a special school, therapy and training centre for children and adults with neurological disabilities.  

VSO volunteer Penny O Sullivan Penny O'Sullivan

Penny at the opening of the new Roshni facility she helped raise funds for in India

“Right from the start, I was treated like a member of the family by my new colleagues!” says Penny. “I became close to all the staff, from the director to the cleaners, and also to the families who used the services. I quickly came to realise what a difference ROSHNI was making to them all.”

Shortly after returning to the UK, Penny realised that she wanted to continue having a real impact on the lives of disabled children and their families in Gwalior, India.

In 2005, she set up a UK charity called Friends of ROSHNI UK, to help support the organisation by raising funds for specific projects at ROSHNI. And with this, Penny is keen that sustainability is built in to eveything they do.

"We have helped ROSHNI achieve a lot since we began in 2005, but have always stuck to our initial aim that they should never be dependent on us – therefore most of our funding is spent on things like training, art projects, equipment, and one of our biggest projects, helping fund the building of a new accessible building."

Penny's experience as a volunteer is something that she's passionate about sharing with others. So as well as fundraising, Friends of ROSHNI also recruit and train volunteers and has sent 31 people overseas to date.

“I had gained so much from my time at ROSHNI, and wanted to give others a similar experience, as well as them contributing to the work being done in India,” says Penny.


Nick Maurice: Fostering cross-cultural understanding

Nick travelled to Togo on a VSO teaching placement when he was just 19 back in 1961. Since then, he’s remained a passionate advocate for the value of education, volunteering and cultural exchange.

Dr Mick Maurice with local people in Gunjur, The Gambia in front of the sign declaring Gunjur linked to Marlborough (2002).

Dr Mick Maurice with local people in Gunjur, The Gambia in front of the sign declaring Gunjur linked to Marlborough (2002).

Keen to promote international development in his home town of Marlborough and nationally, Nick later went on to create the Marlborough Brandt Group which has now been going for 35 years, involving the exchange of 1,700 people between two communities in the UK and The Gambia.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate, and I have VSO in particular to thank,” Nick says. “Today, VSO is providing that opportunity for people to engage with difference, and it’s clear to see the impact it has had on volunteers.”

Nick’s initiatives have led to Gambians going into UK schools and teaching children about their culture, faith and food. Gambians also came to the UK for training in a variety of skills such as Early Childhood Education, welding, hotel management and other skills. He also is helping to connect young people with mental health problems and elderly people in both the UK and The Gambia, to help bring people together to share and support one another.

To develop partnerships with communities in other parts of the world, Nick started BUILD – Building Understanding through International Links for Development, in 2002, bringing together politicians, private sector, and the general public.

For Nick, the driving force is a belief that mutual respect and understanding must be the foundation of fighting poverty: “I would argue the more that people can engage with people of other cultures and other faiths and the more they can understand the strengths of those cultures and faiths, the better. The world will become a safer, more just and peaceful place.”


Gladys Muthara & Susan Waruingi: Breaking the silence on youth violence

Gladys, 29, and Susan, 26, met while they were both volunteering with VSO’s ICS youth programme in Nigeria. They bonded over their shared passion for youth empowerment and the fight against gender-based violence.

Gladys Muthara, 29, and Susan Waruingi running a workshops with teens from the Nairobi slums VSO/Jeff DeKock

Gladys and Susan are helping young people open up about violence in their lives

When they returned to their native Kenya they decided they didn’t want to stop there, and began running life skills training for 100 girls in Kajiado County - skills that they’d learnt themselves through ICS.

In one of the sessions, one teenager said something that struck them. She said, “If there’s one thing I really don’t like talking about, it’s violence in the family”.

“It's normal in Kenya to experience violence in families, especially in the rural areas. I’d always struggled to talk about my past,” says Gladys. 

They realised that they needed a device to help create a safe space for young people to open up. And that’s when a friend told them about the One Million Stars project – a global campaign where people weave paper stars to ‘light up the darkness of violence’.

They knew then that they wanted to bring it to the Nairobi slums to help young people support each other in the face of violence.

“We identified places where GBV runs high, and that's where we decided to pilot our project,” explains Susan. “We started off in the slum areas, then expanded to Machakos County, which has the second highest number of recorded cases of GBV in the country.”

“We contributed to something, you know? Even if it was just a drop in the ocean, we did it.”

The Volunteer Impact Awards

The winner of the Impact Beyond Volunteering Award has been chosen by supporters like you, and will be announced at the VSO Volunteer Impact Awards in London on 5 December from 7:15pm. If you can’t join us in person, you can follow the awards online from anywhere in the world via our live stream. Tune in from 7.15pm GMT to catch the action.