Welcome to UCSU Volunteering’s blog

This is the official University of Cumbria Students Union – UCSU -Volunteering blog where you’ll find regular reports, photos and maybe even video (eventually!) from all the projects you’re involved in.

If you want to know more about how to give some of your valuable time to a range of great projects join the UCSU volunteering facebook group for regular mailings and updates on what we’re doing, where and when we’re doing it and who we’re doing it with.


or email Kati Brown at kati.brown@cumbria.ac.uk or Emma Egglestone at emma.egglestone@cumbria.ac.uk

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VESA (volunteer eco students abroad) South East Asia – Kristen Pearson

During the Summer 2016 I was lucky enough to travel to Laos for two weeks with VESA (volunteer eco students abroad). This particular project was based around a remote elephant sanctuary and the surrounding community. It meant that I was able to spend time getting to know the people who live there and spend time working alongside and looking after their gentle giants!

Once I had booked my place, I had a lot of preparation ahead of me. I researched where I was going and made a list of essentials e.g. vaccinations, equipment, flights and appropriate clothing. It felt like a big hurdle going to the airport alone as I did not know anybody else on the trip and my first step that day was to find others on my trip and introduce myself.

After what felt like days of travelling we arrived in Vientiane and it was so hot I felt like I couldn’t breathe. We were met by the VESA staff members here and taken to a nearby hostel where we would spend our first night. The next day we travelled by mini bus for 8 hours to the middle of the jungle with our final destination being Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre. During our week here we had four main activities.

  1. Conservation of the local school. There were a number of different projects here and those that I was involved in was ensuring the ground was ready for cementing in the new classrooms built by previous volunteers and knocking down ceilings ready for the renovation of old classrooms, along with bits of painting, inside and out.




  1. One of the VESA group leaders was a qualified teacher back home in Canada and therefore took on the role of teacher at a local school during their summer time. She was assisted by a native speaking teacher whom translated when needed. Our roles took that of a teaching assistant by which we sat with the children and helped them with their work, gave explanations and became members of their teams in class games.


  1. Meeting elephants. We were introduced to all of the elephants and their Mahouts on the conservation. We watched the elephants in their natural environments from afar, observed their bath time, hand fed them, watched how those who work there look after their health with regular checks at the elephant hospital and even go to hug them.
  1. Conservation of camp. Each group completed different stages of construction, our group were involved with the last steps in preparing the ground work for a water tank. This included transporting bricks from the road to the construction area, sawing wood panels, laying bricks and cementing.


During the second week, we travelled to Luang Prabang where we visited temples, traditional rice plantations, exotic waterfalls and local markets. We took a scenic bike ride through the countryside and Kayaked down the Mekong river. We then travelled to Vang Vieng, our final destination. Whilst here we climbed to Pou Kham Cave where we went zip lining amongst the trees and went swimming in the blue lagoon. We also visited two of the caves, however due to the weather we did not stay long or compete the tubing.

How you feel you benefited from your experience

As I began this journey without knowing anyone, I was extremely nervous introducing myself and meeting so many new people. However, as I was not the only one travelling either alone or in a couple, everyone was extremely friendly and we had organised to meet up at the airport before our initial flight through our Facebook group. This experience has helped me with my confidence tremendously as well as helping me gain friends for life.

How the people you worked with benefited

During our time on the elephant conservation camp we worked closely with the locals and those who work on the camp. Our presence their helps keep the elephant sanctuary going by providing safer working environments and continuous renovations. Not only are we helping with the re-building of the camp and local school, we learnt a great deal about the struggles and discrimination Asian elephants face. We all left Laos knowing how important it is to educate others about all of the harmful things elephants are exposed to e.g. being used as modes of transport, logging activities, or a tourism attraction (elephant rides, zoos circuses). The Elephant Conservation Centre currently have saved and prevented this happening to many elephants however they currently have two elephants in danger of being bought and taken back into a life time of suffering as their mahouts, after 30 years of caring for the mother and child, can do so no longer and in order to keep the elephants the centre must raise $60,000. Our time here spent with the mahouts and carers for the animals in this centre means that we now have the opportunity to help spread the word, educate others and share their plea for help. I have included a link below for more information.


The difference in cultures and how you adapted to your new environment

The major difference in cultures is that Laos predominant religion is Buddhism. This did not affect us to a great deal apart from how we dressed. When visiting temples, we were asked to cover our shoulders and knees as a sign of respect as well as when working with the mahouts and during teaching times.

What you enjoyed and any challenges you faced

I thoroughly enjoyed all of time spent in Laos. I enjoyed making friends, meeting the locals, spending time with elephants, assisting with teaching, visiting local temples, going to the night markets, relaxing at pool parties and even the longs journeys spent with new friends singing along to George Ezra!!
The main challenge I faced was adapting to a different way of life in the jungle. It was extremely hot with tropical storms hindering our work some days. Our work days started with breakfast at 7am, returning to camp between 4 and 5. The work we were undertaking was extremely physically and sometimes emotionally demanding.

I would like to take this time to thank the Eleanor Peel Funding for contributing a great deal towards this life enhancing experience. By this time next year I will hopefully be in my first job as a Primary Teacher and I have now been fortunate enough to work alongside children in three continents – Africa, (World Challenge Trip), Europe and Asia and these experiences have boosted my confidence to engage children in a wide variety of learning opportunities, wherever I meet them.

Kristen Pearson.

Volunteering in South Africa by Abbey Joyce: 6 weeks (15/07/16 – 28/08/16)

This summer I travelled to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, where I volunteered in two junior schools and a crèche. My purpose was to support children academically and to care for the younger children. To say the experience was an eye opener is an understatement. I noticed that segregation is still very apparent in the area where I was working. A stark contrast was the shacks on the same road as substantially built houses. The shacks where most of the school children lived had no running water or lavatories. To work with such underprivileged children made me realise what opportunities there are within England. The company I was with strived to scout outstanding sports abilities and academic excellence. Those children are then funded and attend former model C schools which are formally all white schools. It was humbling to give back to a community exposed to such impoverished situations. It taught me a lot about myself, becoming extremely valuable life experience. The children taught me to appreciate the chances I have, at times taken for granted. On a personal level, I was also able to fulfil once in a lifetime activities such as shark cage diving and going on safari. 

How the people you worked with benefited?

The children I worked with always had a smile on their faces, despite their personal circumstances. Some children only had one meal a day which was provided by the school or crèche. Others were orphans living with their extended family be it aunts, uncles, cousins etc. Even at the more privileged schools children had miles to walk back to their homes. It was interesting to see their intrigue at white people being amongst them, yet they accepted us with open arms. Some of the children could not communicate in English, in this case we improvised. Either through play or singing, as young as 2 the children in the crèche learnt numbers 1-50 and songs such as twinkle twinkle little star. The lady who ran the crèche lived next to the shack where the children were cared for, she wanted to make a difference in her community for these children where parents would succumb to drug and alcohol abuse and the children sometimes left overnight or at risk of sexual abuse (As suggested by the owner of the crèche). This lady was remarkable, she had a local lady working for her and whilst looking after her grandchildren, she extended her home to others. She was so grateful for the help we offered in enriching the children’s lives.

The difference in cultures and how you adapted to your new environment?

Although it was daunting travelling solo to a different country, I couldn’t have felt more welcome. The company I stayed with was called United through Sport (UTS), the majority of volunteers were sports coaches. I focused on childcare and teaching working in two schools and a crèche. I was able to explore new cultures and meet new people from a variety of backgrounds. There were 43 volunteers in total living in the same vicinity for 5 weeks but we became a family with everyone playing a role. Most of the volunteers were British or European however we worked alongside many South African people. It was great to live and work amongst such a diverse group of people. Whilst volunteering and travelling, I visited townships which were deprived communities. We were always with a guide or local to ensure our safety and to communicate with people if they didn’t speak English. I tried many new things in South Africa including local food such as chicken feet and Kudu.

What you learnt?

This was a trip that allowed me to expand my knowledge of the country, the many languages that were spoken and their traditions. I learnt how there were 9 states, 5 different species of tiger and 11 languages. Two languages that I learnt words and phrases from were Xhosa and Afrikaans. This was helpful with those younger children who couldn’t communicate in English. In one particular school the children had scarce resources, therefore they sang and played clapping games in their beak time. We as volunteers were included and I showed them high-low jack-a-low. I also learnt a lot about myself as a person, for instance what I can achieve. I was proud to be a part of making a difference to the lives of others. It seemed that all the children really wanted was for someone to spend time with them. I was lucky enough to travel during my time in South Africa including educational trips such as Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars.

What you enjoyed and any challenges you faced?

As much as I enjoyed my trip it wasn’t without its challenges, although I was able to overcome those I did encounter. In one particular school the children were left without a teacher for numerous hours thus impacting on their academic levels and ultimately their futures. There were times when we would play games with classes if they were scheduled to learn Afrikaans. Unfortunately both schools I volunteered at were underfunded and understaffed. We were also warned that schools used severe punishment in comparison to our home countries.  I didn’t witness this until my last week where it was apparent that children were being hit with a long stick. This occurred in both schools and it came as quite a shock. It was difficult to witness this but I ended my time in a positive way, giving the children stickers, chocolate, stationary and toys. Another challenge was living with 42 other volunteers as there was no downtime to yourself. There was a large drinking culture and complaining about meals amongst my group, they had to occasionally be reminded why they were there. I am extremely grateful for this experience and feel it has enriched not only the lives of others but my own.








Volunteering with Restless Development in India. by Chloe Maitland

Eleanor Peel Trust

The £200 donated by Eleanor Peel Trust helped ensure my place with Restless Development, a charity within ICS. The £800 I was requested to raise before I enrolled on the programme went into the charity to help ensure future volunteers places, 10% of the actual cost of sending a volunteer over sees. The £800 also helps ensure volunteers placements abroad as for every international volunteer there is a national volunteer taken on placement also.

By sending Volunteers overseas, in this case me, we are able to link cultures, encouraging acceptance and understanding. I was trained in the Indian city of Chennai for 2 weeks where both national and international volunteers met for the first time. We had group sessions with over 70 of us in a room where we learnt about the Indian culture, their language and social stigmas which needed addressed with a new perspective. Social stigmas included: Girls periods, women’s empowerment, waste management and the cast system.


Once training was finished we moved to our host homes where we stayed for the rest of our placement. Living within an Indian household allowed me to become deeply submersed in the culture.  Our Amma (our host mum) is a beautician and Tailor and had learnt her tailoring skills through Restless Development on a course set up in the area. Our Appa (our host dad) is a Tuk-tuk driver and our host sister Sushma training to be a doctor. Naveen their son volunteered with Restless Development a few years back, first as a volunteer then as a team leader. He learnt to speak English while volunteering with Restless Development and was able to teach his family increasing their job prospects. Naveen now works in an international gym as well as helping out with Restless Development where he can.

We worked at our Youth Resource Centre Monday to Friday a team of 14 of us both national and international. The work was split into 2 categories, Health and Livelihoods. I was on the livelihoods team working on topics such as Employability, Team-building, Leadership, Confidence, Empowerment and English. We worked from scratch making all of our resources and planning our sessions. Having a language barrier made this all the more challenging. We had to work with attention and patience to make sure everyone was heard and felt included. We had 5 sessions between us each week, 4 in the schools and 1 where the trainee Doctors on our team visited a local hospital to raise awareness on periods, tobacco, as well as hygiene management. We would visit Dombosco Community Centre on an evening also to deliver sessions on English and Employability.
Our Youth Resource Centre was opened to the community Monday to Friday so anyone could come in while we were working to use the computers and socialize. We were located within a primary school so every break the school children would visit us, some we got to know very well over the months we were there.
We organized community events such as our Youth Resource Centre opening, a World Environment Day event and our sports day at Dombosco Community centre.

The experience challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone. Living and working with people I had only just met gave me confidence in travelling and connecting to the world. We trusted each other with our feelings when we were missing home and loved ones and we supported each other without question. Confronting fears of public speaking, taking responsibility to ensure work was being done on time and communicating with national volunteers were all challenges I felt I’d overcame by the end of my placement.

I’ve gained an understanding and awareness of India that I would never have been able to gain any other way. I’ve helped take part in transforming people’s views on social stigmas and I’ve discovered that I can make a difference .To be given an opportunity to become so deeply submersed in a culture and help in some way is something I’ll always be grateful for.

I have attended my action at home training weekend in August where we were encouraged to keep on being active citizens.

Make a Difference Day, Rickerby Park Carlisle; October 26th 2013 Being a new student at The University of Cumbria I am keen to try and get involved with everything, when the Sabbatical Officers – Matt Tennant, Matthew Hayhurst and Amie Godward – told us in one of our first lectures about the volunteering opportunities available […]

Elective Midwifery Placement West Pokot, Kenya July 2016 By Chantel Cumpsty

Chantel Cumpsty


From left to right: Emma Haldon (2nd year midwifery student –University of Cumbria – UoC), Everlyne Cheyech 3rd year Ortum nurse/midwifery student, me, Izzy Needham 2nd year UoC midwifery student).

In July this year myself and two fellow second year midwifery students embarked on an elective second year midwifery placement to West Pokot, North West Kenya. We were fortunate to accompany registered midwife and founder of the charity Beyond FGM, Cath Holland.

Beyond FGM is a grass roots charity working with the inspirational group Kepsteno Rotwa (meaning ‘Abandon the knife’) which works tirelessly to eradicate FGM (female genital mutilation) in the localised area of West Pokot. Many of the communities in which the charity operates, are highly impoverished, isolated, marginalised and often unaware of the tragic consequences of performing FGM or that the practice is now illegal. Girls who suffer FGM are sold into childhood marriage for dowries, they become property with no human rights and a lifetime of struggle, abuse and are deprived of education. Sensitisation to FGM for these communities is therefore a vital activity. Abandonment of FGM and facilitating girls to attend school, are key elements to ensuring girls are able to make their own choices and live in freedom.

During our elective we were able to observe and participate in the activities of the FGM group. We travelled to a remote tribal community (Takywa) two hours from where we were staying in Ortum. We were driven through rivers and bush to get there. We went on market day to ensure we had maximum numbers to undertake FGM sensitisation talks with the local community. Whilst there we witnessed girls present who should have been at school. Instead they donned beads in their hair, a symbol that they had undergone or were about to undergo FGM. There was such poverty in this community. They welcomed us, and were attentive to what we/the group had to say. The community were keen to reform their FGM practice and with the group’s help could promote the benefits of getting their girls into education.


Meeting the community for FGM sensitisation talks in Takywa)

We also met and spent time with the girls who have been rescued by the FGM group and who are now in education in Ortum Girls Boarding School, West Pokot. Some of the girls had escaped from FGM had run from their homes and their families, others had been cut but had run to escape becoming child brides, others had been defiled. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories.

The charity is raising funds for a refuge dormitory to accommodate the girls over school holidays to avoid the need to for them to return home and face the risk of FGM. It is possible to donate a brick towards the build here.

We also had the opportunity to observe practices and facilities in the local Ortum Mission Hospital.  The hospital is primarily run by students, resources and facilities are very poor and therefore, perinatal and maternal mortality is not uncommon and is often expected. During one of the deliveries a baby required resuscitation. There was little equipment available, the baby was being solely cared for by students and many midwifery and resuscitation skills were lacking, no one seemed to fully know what to do. Myself and another student assisted in the resuscitation due to asphyxia. Fortunately the baby survived and was discharged a few days later with his mother who had lost her first child to asphyxia which the mother told me but sadly none of the staff caring for her was aware of her history. The way we cared for the baby was observed by the students, it was an opportunity whereby they learnt from us and visa versa. I was able to ask numerous questions which prompted personal reflection on practice and facilitated discussion and reflection about the care of the baby.

cm 2

Labour Ward Ortum Mission Hospital

In the larger government hospital in Kapenguria, the conditions were also poor, crowded and unsanitary despite which women were travelling great distances to this hospital as treatment was supposedly free (this was not the case in reality). In both Kapenguria and Ortum hospitals the labour wards were very small consisting of two delivery beds which women were located to when in the second stage of labour, prior to which they would share a communal and relatively public bay. Women are deprived of privacy and dignity and are expected to deliver alongside one another.  There was no room for birthing partners due to size of the rooms and the sheer volume of staff and students who crammed into them. Consent is a virtually a non-existent concept, however myself and my fellow students ensured we consistently gained consent and were respectful to the women and families we had contact with. Although this may have seemed a foreign concept in the environment we were in, I would hope this added value to the care we provided and facilitated an opportunity for the staff and students we worked with to witness a different way of practicing.

Homebirth is common whereby women are attended to by traditional birth attendants (TBAs) who perform routine episiotomy or ‘home episiotomy’ (bilateral episiotomy) in the presence of FGM. This is carried out with unsterilized items and no pain relief. The risk of bleeding following the practice is high and can be fatal for women who are unable to access medical care in a timely way due to living considerable distances away or cannot afford treatment which they are charged for. We witnessed a case such as this and were able to talk to the woman about her experience after the event once she was well enough, thankfully she and her baby were well when they were discharged.

In Kenya, students are trained in nursing, community health and midwifery inclusively. I was able to spend some time with staff and students assisting in the vaccination of babies. They received many of our routine vaccinations with the addition of Hep B, yellow fever and anti-diarrhoea immunisations on clinic day. Clinic day also included antenatal clinic. Women are offered a maximum of four antenatal appointments, many women do not attend any and are cared for solely by tradition birth attendants in their communities who have no formal maternity training. Scans in pregnancy are not routine, gestation based on last menstrual cycle is not usually known, the girls and women themselves may not even know their own exact age. Using the number of moons since missed menstrual cycle is commonly used to estimate due date in communities by TBAs. In clinic gestation is therefore frequently determined from palpation and height of the fundus which can be problematic if a baby is simply small or large for gestation. This was a good opportunity to use basic midwifery skills in palpation, there was no scan to confirm breech of which there were several diagnosed, no sonicade to auscultate fetal heart only pinards. All women were offered HIV tests, this is the one time I witnessed informed consent practiced. Alcoholism appeared to be a real problem amongst the women however there is nowhere to refer them to unlike the support and services we offer in the UK. A large proportion of women in the Pokot community have undergone FGM, it is rare for them not to have been cut. Despite traditional birth attendants often the circumcisers being away of the complications, fatality, morbidity and risks during childbirth, the practice continues regardless and women therefore who have undergone FGM and are approaching childbirth are described has ‘having one foot in the grave’. Therefore although there has been lots of success in eradicating FGM, there is still much work to be done, by addressing the issue worldwide, we can truly prevent the practice in the UK also.

My time in Kenya was eye opening and this report only briefly touches on some of our experiences. It was challenging living and working with such basic resources, however, the fact that we had electricity and access to water most of the time, four walls and a roof to live in was far more than most had, the poverty was crippling. It was a struggle to witness the impersonal nature of maternity care, the lack of dignity, respect and informed consent as well as the brutal abusive practice of FGM. However, glimmers of hope were seen in the success of the group on FGM, the strength of the women and girls, the generosity of the communities despite having so little and seeing girls in school growing into confident women. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to share knowledge and gain knowledge.  We were welcomed into the community which enabled our immersion into the culture, language and behaviours and this facilitated acquisition of invaluable insight into maternity practices. This experience has had a positive impact on underpinning my midwifery practice as well as my knowledge around FGM which is especially pertinent at a time when FGM in the UK is a growing concern. I include a recent ITV news report here  regarding FGM. The news report in fact shows an alternative right of passage ceremony which the FGM group introduced and which has been very successful in the Pokot community as a celebration and safe alternative to FGM.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the Eleanor Peel Trust for the funding towards this life changing experience, I am forever grateful.


Chantel Cumpsty

2nd Year Midwifery Student

University of Cumbria