BaseCamp Volunteer Centers and the Volunteer Abroad Program began in 1998 when three university students recruited a group from their rock climbing club to join an environmental expedition on Mt. Everest in Nepal. The original idea was that the expedition would be bringing waste down from the mountain and they needed volunteers to help sort and remove this waste. However, once the team arrived at Everest Basecamp, they quickly realized that there was very little need for their assistance.The group having each paid over $5,000 USD to the expedition plus all travel expenses, felt like their project was mainly, a "fundraiser for the expedition" and there was little genuine need for their assistance at Everest basecamp.
The three coordinators, disappointed by the amount of work required at basecamp, left the expedition and began the 10 day walk back to the airstrip at Lukla. Along the way, they met with several villagers and found that these tiny settlements on the mountain faced all sorts of challenges where basic labor could help. In a village called Namche Bazaar, they met with a tiny non-governmental organization called the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee. In that meeting the idea was created to recruit young people from the west to work with this tiny and poorly funded organization to take part in clean-up projects, to help build landfills and toilets and to conduct basic environmental education units in the Sir Edmund Hillary schools throughout the region.
At that time we knew of no short term volunteer abroad programs offering this type of experience. Volunteer programs were generally thought to be much more like the Peace Corp where a volunteer needed to commit one or two years before they could become eligible for any volunteer abroad programs. The short term international volunteering programs that did exist were really leadership programs where the emphasis was on cultural exchange instead of meaningful volunteer work. So, when the three founders held their first slide show, hundreds of students and members of their community came out to learn how they could get involved.
The group formed a student-run club and brought several groups to the Everest area to work on projects. They realized that similar problems to what they encountered in Nepal existed in many developing nations and they began to develop volunteer abroad projects in Peru and Tanzania as well.
By 2000, all of the founders had graduated and it no longer made sense to run the volunteer abroad program as a student club. They were considering stopping the program when they were approached by the Canadian Federation of Students through the Canadian University Travel Service to develop a national volunteer abroad program for Canadian youth. Several development objectives were established for the future of the program and two of the three founders spent the better part of the following four years overseas building a volunteer abroad program structure that could effectively achieve these goals.
Early during this phase, the founders realized that western-centric volunteer abroad program models could lead to some pretty horrific results on the ground. Several examples of projects gone wrong had the same theme, a group of foreigners who periodically came to a country with their own ideas of what the country needed and imposed their project on the community or group. Almost universally, these projects lacked the genuine support or basic needs of the community, and they often did more harm than good.
Instead, Volunteer Abroad chose to focus on learning about the challenges that small community groups and organizations based in the country and run by people from the community regularly faced. By speaking with many organizations in several countries, patterns emerged of simple challenges that organizations continually needed assistance with, but could not afford to hire staff to manage. This lead our founders to create our system for promoting specific jobs for volunteering abroad with organizations and recruiting volunteers with suitable backgrounds and skills to be able to help in these positions.
There was a great deal to learn about how to handle the logistics and training for a volunteer abroad program. Early on, most of our volunteers stayed with homestay families as soon as they arrived. However, there were so many challenges volunteers brought forward that seemed to stem from feeling inadequately prepared to live with a family where the volunteer knew very little about the culture and customs of the people and had little, if any language skills. The discomfort identified by so many of our early volunteers lead to the creation of our Volunteer Abroad 7-day orientation and training program.
We have found that if volunteers spend their first week overseas living with other international volunteers going through an intensive cultural and logistical orientation that outlines proper etiquette, political history, basic language skills, a review of the role of local religions in family life, bargaining and the market, local transportation, health, safety and emergency procedures, volunteers can make the transition to living with a local family more smoothly without interfering with the work that they have come to do.
While the development of our Volunteer Abroad 7-day orientation program radically improved our ability to comfortably place volunteers in homestays, we found that a number of volunteers wanted the comfort and security of living with other foreign volunteers in a community setting rather than living alone with a homestay family. This lead to the creation of our BaseCamp Volunteer Centers.
Our BaseCamp Centers are cultural training centers where volunteers can live in dormitory accommodation while they prepare to make the transition to living with a homestay or where they can choose to live for the entire duration of their volunteer abroad placement. These centers provide a local meal plan that is designed to expose volunteers to a selection of meals from around the country. Our staff encourage volunteers in the center to practice the local language and observe traditional practices around the dinner table and in their daily interactions with our staff and other volunteers.
These centers have helped our volunteers to create relationships with other international volunteers and our team of staff in-country so that when they are working in a remote community, they have a place to come back to on weekends or evenings where they can decompress and share their volunteer abroad experiences with others going through a similar experience. For others who find the idea of living with a homestay family daunting, BaseCamp provides a home that still allows volunteers to experience the people and culture of the country with the comfort and amenities that may not be found in a homestay environment.
Today, it is our extensive volunteer abroad orientation and training program, coupled with our investment in establishing our own dedicated centers and team of full time staff in each country that sets us apart from almost any other volunteer abroad programs out there. It is this structure that has now allowed us to grow from Canada's largest short-term volunteer programs to one of the world's leading providers of exceptionally well managed and affordable short-term volunteer abroad placements.