Voluntourism: Make your sabbatical count, explore the path less travelled

Voluntourism: Make your sabbatical count, explore the path less travelled

By MIHIKA JINDAL | | 13 June, 2015
A government middle school in Laido adopted by the 17,000 Ft Foundation.
Mihika Jindal compiles a list of organisations and initiatives that allow adventurous travellers to stop by and contribute to causes ranging from teaching children to turtle conservation; something beyond mere sightseeing and ticking the tourism brochure.

You'll often find disgruntled professionals opting out of their steady corporate workspaces to head out for extended breaks or choosing to take sabbaticals between jobs. That search for a fresh perspective, something more meaningful than a mere paycheque, can lead one on to a path that allows them to give back to society while on the road. Guardian20 lays down five interesting "voluntourism" — volunteer + tourism — options around India.

17,000 Ft Foundation, Leh-Ladakh

Nestled in the much loved sabbatical destination of Leh-Ladakh, which caters to both adventurers and sightseers, 17,000 Ft Foundation tries to enhance the standard of government schools located in the remote corners of the Ladakh district. They provide reassurance to locals that their children can complete at least their primary education in their respective villages.

The foundation has adopted 100 government schools in the region, starting from an altitude of 9,000 feet till about 15,400 feet. They're not directly involved in the teaching process, instead setting up small libraries in schools and holding reading programmes. The members visit every school on a monthly or bi-monthly basis to monitor performances. Based on that, the foundation extends infrastructural support to schools, including playground and classroom equipment, and repair and construction of sanitation facilities.

The 17,000 Ft Foundation also has a paid Be A Voluntourist programme, featuring a 10-day, a 16-day and a month-long module. Volunteers who sign up get to travel and explore the area and spend the rest of their time in schools sharing experiences or taking, for instance, a reading workshop. It's a give-and-take benefitting both the volunteers and the foundation. Volunteers get to travel and make a difference, while the children receive a substantial level of exposure through interacting with the travellers. And since it's a paid programme, it serves as a revenue model that bankrolls the back-end costs of the foundation and reduces its dependence on grants and funding. "We take 150 volunteers a year and currently have a waiting list of 650 people," says Sandeep Sahu, co-founder of the foundation.

The 10-day programme costs Rs 41,000, the 16-day one is priced at Rs 58,000 and the most cost-effective, the month-long internship programme, costs Rs 55,000, inclusive of everything except travel to and from Leh. "One would spend this much anyway for an extended stay. We only ask our volunteers to pay a little extra, and they get their stay and visit managed and also give back to the society," says Sahu.


Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network, Chennai

A straightforward initiative that depends solely on volunteers, Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) has been in operation for the past 26 years with the objective of conserving the Olive Ridley sea turtle, an endangered species found along the Coast of the Adyar River.

The breeding cycle starts in January, which is when SSTCN begins taking volunteers who are expected to walk along the coast between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., looking for turtle nests and collecting their eggs. They require four volunteers each night who have to cover the 14 km stretch in two parts. One set covers eight km on the southern side of the river while the other covers six km on the northern stretch. This exercise continues from January through March. The eggs that are collected are then deposited in a secure makeshift hatchery on the beach to incubate the eggs. Turtle eggs take about 45 days to hatch and the hatchlings are left near the water where they resume their natural habitat. V Arun has been heading the initiative since 1997. He used to have an engineering job at one point, until, one day, he started walking along the coast, and never stopped. He now teaches in a school, runs this group, and also handles other projects around the city.

Volunteers are expected to stick around for a minimum of two weeks. The walks are undertaken only by male volunteers while the women can contribute at the hatchery. "We can't have girls walking alone through the night because of safety concerns and not even with boys because society doesn't approve of it," says V Arun.


Aarohi, Uttarakhand

Aarohi is based in a village called Satoli in the picturesque city of Nanital. This not-for-profit organisation focuses on three issues: education, healthcare and livelihood promotion. They have schools for students from nursery to class eight, and medical facilities in the remote block of Okhalkanda, catering to 135 villages. They offer maternity care and spread pregnancy-related information amongst villagers to raise awareness. In addition, they also have a small production unit in Satoli where they produce oils, soaps and creams from apricot and grow exotic herbs as a part of their Livelihood Promotion Programme, which are marketed in other metropolitan cities and work as a revenue generating mechanism for the organisation.

The volunteers can formally apply for either an internship or as a volunteer. The interns are generally students or researchers who are studying a social discipline and want to work in the social sector. On the other hand, the volunteers can opt to work in any of the three areas and contribute in terms of preparing a curriculum, be a part of the teaching team, work around marketing, media or product designing. The minimum duration for any programme is one month. Lodging is extended on the basis of projects being undertaken and they expect their volunteers to fend for themselves through the stay.


Sadhana Forest, Auroville, Tamil Nadu

In 2003, a few aware enthusiasts began a process of ecological revival and sustainable living by building a community of volunteers to recreate forests in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. The project aims at reforesting 70 acres of massively eroded land with tropical dry evergreen forests, native to southern India but with a negligible survival rate. Alongside reforestation, the group is also involved in water conservation and soil management. The community takes its task seriously by adopting an eco-friendly lifestyle that includes veganism, dependence on solar energy, biodegradable toiletries, recycling, food composting, using bicycles and purchasing organic food whenever possible.

They welcome their guests (volunteers) wholeheartedly with no prior permission or screening process. Their only requirements are that volunteers should be disciplined and possess a willingness to contribute. Smoking, consumption of alcohol or drugs is prohibited in or outside the forest area. Anyone heading southwards between December and March must agree to stay for at least four weeks while those visiting between April and November must stay for at least two weeks. Volunteers can stay for as long as they like and chip in for months if they so please.

Travellers contribute in terms of planting, mulching, watering and taking care of the plantation. The stay is catered for and the volunteers must engage themselves in community services within the premises. The free facility includes a swimming pool, a wi-fi connection, five hours of power to charge electrical appliances, bicycles and access to a library.


Chennai Trekking Club

The Chennai Trekking Club is an appealing option for anyone craving exciting outdoor activities along with learning and researching activities over a short period of time. Started in 2008, CTC has emerged as one of the most active volunteer-based groups that undertakes trekking, photography, environment and conservation drives, workshops and social initiatives. They conduct short weekend trips that encourage in-depth interaction with nature, featuring various constructive exercises such as trek clean-ups and tree plantation efforts. Their other workshops include map-reading, navigation, first aid and survival techniques in wilderness. The volunteers also engage in cleaning a 15 km stretch on the Chennai coast as an annual event.


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