Lessons from Madagascar: Taking the Leap

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Make the most of every moment: cherish every incredible sight, LEAP into every crazy opportunity and don’t regret a single second of it!

It sounds cheesy, but the world is a truly remarkable place and we only have a fleeting section of its immense existence to enjoy. Seeing the Madagascans smile their way through life reminded me to appreciate just how lucky I am.

Materially, the locals I met generally had the clothes on their back, the wooden home of their own making, and the money that came in after a hard day’s work to provide food for the family. It’s their ability to value the astounding environment that surrounds them and the companionship of such a close-knit community which brings such light, life and laughter to them.

My friends, family and I live in a materialistic world, and I now think that it only blinds us to the real magic out there… the people, the nature, the cultures, the landscapes.

Madagascar is a one-of- a-kind placce. You may have heard it a lot, but believe it this time. The way to sum up Madagascar in one word: paradise. It really does triumph as the world’s most intense kaleidoscope of nature.

turtle girls
Here are 10 quotes/excerpts from the blog posts and diary I kept in Madagascar where I learned that the simple, natural, stripped back way of life is the best:

1. ‘On my forest walk this morning I was able to witness a myriad of spectacular, endemic wildlife. Of course, the famed lemur, with its quirky and photogenic nature, topped the pile. (Even if it did decide my shoulder seemed a good place for a toilet stop.) However, vibrant frogs, stunning birds and innumerable colourful, camouflaged chameleons also hopped, flapped and crawled through the forest beside me. I love nature!’

2. ‘The truly stunning Nosy Iranja is made up of two jungly islands ringed by utterly pristine white sand beaches and joined by a snaking sandbar around 400m long. Time flew by as we spent it strolling through the tiny idyllic village and market shops, swimming in the crazy warm waters, walking/dancing/running up and down the sandbar, relaxing with a cool drink in hand, and more. Sitting in the middle of the bar as the waves rushed towards us on both sides, watching the sunset, before a delicious candlelit dinner, was the cherry on top of a completely perfect day!’

3. ‘We are all loving how different and exciting every class is. Some students are desperate to learn, seeing English lessons as an opportunity for a better future, and others just there for a little fun, but every class is as rewarding as the next. Being able to see the progress being made and the joy of improvement on the students’ faces is immensely satisfying. It also helps to make the occasional class mango-throwing war less of a stand-out memory! Top tip from Zoe and Amy: don’t forget the stickers in kids’ class or keeping their concentration can be a far more challenging and stressful endeavour.’

4. ‘Tanikely Marine Park: a breath-taking island where crystal clear doesn’t do the water justice and the panoramic view from the lighthouse was totally beautiful. After snorkeling with turtles and a friendly octopus, selfies with a cheeky banana-stealing lemur, sunbathing until we all turned a bright shade of red, and stuffing our faces with a spectacular lunch of crab, shrimp, zebu, fish, lobster and, of course, rice… we departed feeling as though the idyllic Madagascar we had all dreamed of before arriving was nothing compared to the real thing.’

5. ‘Our first stop was Nosy Mamook-rainforest clad and almost completely untouched, aside from one tiny village with a population easily under 50. After an afternoon spent whale and dolphin watching from the boat, we all drifted off to a nice, rocky night’s sleep. The next morning we headed over to Mamook and spent a few hours feeding very hungry lemurs and giant tortoises some bananas, before seeing our first big and truly majestic Baobab tree. By evening, we really were feeling as though we had conquered Madagascar-primary rainforest, lemurs and Baobabs all in one day!’

6. ‘With just a short time left, I’ve been reflecting on how in Madagascar the adventures never ends and the people and places never cease to amaze me. Today a girl of about 8 years old guided me over the rocks to Ampang in high tide after we were embarrassingly thrashed in our volunteer vs. local football tournament. While she knew no English, I felt as though we had known one another for years after our endless giggles and hand-clapping games: communication is about a lot more than words. I think most of us would happily put up with a few more rice and beans meals if it meant we could stay just a little bit longer.’

7. ‘Active turtle surveys have been a success this week with lots of GoPro snaps of our resident Yoshi and his friends filling the turtle logbook. Nudi surveys are also being carried out to assess the health of the reef, and while being very serious and important work, they are also a great chance for some entertainment as we attempt to remain neutrally buoyant while floating upside-down to measure small caterpillar-like creatures in very confined spaces!’

8. ‘It’s been another gratifying, enchanting and relatively “mora mora” week on camp-basically translates as “slowly, slowly” but is generally used to mean calm or chilled out- the perfect way to describe Malagasy culture.’

9. ‘On Nosy Antsoha, the lemur island, the water was mesmerizingly blue and clear, and we all wanted to dive right in. First though, we all gathered our cameras, walking shoes and snorkel gear and headed ashore. It was a steep climb to the top of the island, but thanks to the outstanding panoramic views and countless lemurs descending from the trees to munch on our bananas, I think it was worthwhile! Most excitingly though, as we neared the bottom on the route down, we were surprised by a mini green turtle rescue place! There was about 12 tiny baby turtles, smaller than our palms, and honestly the most adorable things to walk (flap) the earth. Turtles are the most incredible and beautiful species, and I can’t imagine a world without them in it. In fact, I think my dream job may have just changed to turtle saviour!’

10. ‘We all feel that we have learnt even more than we ever expected, both in terms of our environmental and conservational knowledge, and in terms of cultural immersion and experience. Being around locals with so much contentment with the little that they have, and sharing camp with such amazing people, all of whom have fascinating (and often mad) stories to tell, with a shared passion for travel, is something really special.’

Travel Helps Us Find the Path

amelia ocean
Travel broadens the mind and reminds us every day to make what we can of where we are and what we have…

On my trip to Madagascar I learnt that good old Dumbledore was right when he said that, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Often we embark on a Gap Year because of hard times. It might be stress and anxiety, trouble at home, exhaustion after that long 14 year non-stop ride on the education train, or even just difficulty in deciding on your future. Whatever it is, go with an open mind and travel will get you back on the right path.

ameliaAmelia Green is a 19 year old student with a deep love for travelling thanks to her military father. She was even lucky enough to live abroad in Oman for 3 years and attend an international school, enabling me to
make friends from across the globe. Her trip to Madagascar was a once-in- a-lifetime experience and now she is an intern with The Leap, which she expects will open up opportunities for her in the future.

Volunteering During your Gap Year: The Refugee Crisis

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Over one million people were forced to flee to Europe in 2015, according to a report from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Ongoing conflict and violence in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world is causing many to risk the perilous journey over the Mediterranean to Europe in their attempts to reach safety. The European Union has struggled to cope with the crisis since April 2015, when the number of deaths at sea rose to record levels and asylum applications increased by more than 80% from the previous year.

Fear and insufficient resources have caused many European countries to greatly restrict the number of refugees and migrants from settling in the continent, with more and more people dying everyday in their attempts to reach safety. As Melissa Fleming from the United Nations Refugee Agency puts it, “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

Living in a world so globalized and connected makes it hard to be unaware of the of the plight and suffering many refugees are currently facing. And while being informed is of utmost importance, there has been little information on what individuals at home, or as Gap Year students traveling, can do.

Become Informed

In order to become involved with, and have a positive impact within the refugee crisis, you first have to understand it. That means more than memorizing a bunch of numbers and dates – it means understanding how you can be involved, and how to create a positive, lasting impact.

The point of any kind of volunteer work – related to the refugee crisis or not, is NOT to soothe our conscience. It is NOT to make us fall asleep better at night, knowing that we “changed a life.”

The point of volunteering; whether it be volunteering your time, money or voice, is to create lasting, positive change. While your heart may be in the right place, positive change cannot be made by paying $75 to be driven out to a refugee camp where you can hand out food and supplies to the poor family of your choice. As Daniela Papi states in her article for the Huffington Post, “It’s like buying food pellets at the zoo to feed the goats. Except these are people. Not goats.”

As Papi suggests, consider instead donating money to organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency, that can distribute these supplies through local power structures to ensure that high needs are prioritized.

That being said, every little bit counts. The key is asking questions first and taking action second. It’s about understanding how to make a lasting impact that isn’t simply about taking action, regardless of what that action may be. It’s about taking action in the best way possible to ensure that lasting change is made and that you are not simply participating in a “voluntourist” agenda.

Make a Donation

United Nations Refugee Agency – provides items like tents, blankets, cooking sets and other life-saving needs.

American Red Cross – ensures distribution of food, water, hygiene kits, baby supplies across countries all over Europe.

Bootvluchteling (Boat Refugee Founation) – assists the Italian government in ensuring safe crossing of refugees in the waters between Italy and Libya.

Volunteer Your Time

There are numerous way someone can become involved in the refugee crisis, including volunteering your time through an organization or directly through your community. Keep in mind that it’s important to use any specialized skills or experience you may already possess when volunteering.

For example, if you are a writer, you could write a piece on the effects of the refugee crisis you have noticed while traveling. If you are a nurse or have a background in healthcare, you might consider doing hands on work for one of the organizations listed below. If you find an opportunity to volunteer, do something that you know, that you’re qualified at and that you’re passionate about.

Bootvluvhteling (Boat Refugee Foundation) – volunteers needed for Lesbos and Samos, minimum age 21 and availability of at least 14 days.

Mercy Corps – volunteer positions available at headquarters in Portland, OR with the next orientation (required for volunteering) occurring February 27. Please note that volunteering overseas is not an option.

Support Refugees – this organization has compiled a list on countless volunteer opportunities throughout Europe. Also features much “need to know” information about volunteering that is very useful and important to consider.

Becoming involved with the refugee crisis does not require the affiliation of an organization – look for like minded people in your own community that are also interested in doing something positive for the issue. Discuss ways you can directly impact your own community, thinking on a local scale rather than a national or international scale.

In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to live in Germany on my Gap Year and get to know more about the refugee crisis firsthand. I got to know individuals personally that had recently immigrated to Germany from places like Syria and Iraq. I was able to see how individuals had used their time and resources to create change for newcomers to Germany. My own Oma (grandmother) had a group of eight Syrian men over for a traditional German Christmas dinner this past holiday season to welcome them to Germany. An anarchist squat I visited in Berlin called “Rauchhaus” converted old hospital dormitories into classrooms in the building they occupied to teach English to new refugees.

There are so many ways to become directly involved with the current refugee crisis – whether abroad or at home. You can write about the people you have met that have been directly impacted by the refugee crisis, or encourage your friends and family back home to raise money for organizations like the United Nations Refugee Agency. As individuals traveling, Gap Year students are in a unique position to use their experiences and opportunities to raise awareness for, and to directly support, the refugee crisis.


Image credit: Author: A picture taken along the River Spree in Berlin, Mitte this past fall. One of many pieces of graffiti and art that have become a part of the urban landscape that is Berlin. Notice the partially hidden lettering above the “Refugees Welcome!!!” which states “WE ARE PEOPLE.”

What Does Responsible International Volunteering Look Like?

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Women's Emancipation and Development Agency (WOMEDA) Executive Director Juma Massisi (seated, center) facilitates conversation among women and Amizade students in Kayanga, Tanzania, as part of research that supported a successful United States Agency for International Development grant award for WOMEDA.

Women’s Emancipation and Development Agency (WOMEDA) Executive Director Juma Massisi (seated, center) facilitates conversation among women and Amizade students in Kayanga, Tanzania, as part of research that supported a successful United States Agency for International Development grant award for WOMEDA. Photo Credit: Rachel Molenda

Record numbers of students are choosing to study, travel, and serve abroad through Gap Year organizations, alternative break programs, and tour agencies. Voluntourism, volunteering and traveling a foreign country at the same time, has become a popular rite of passage for high school and college-aged students.

As a former study abroad participant and international volunteer, I can vouch for the personal, professional, and academic benefits of these intercultural immersion and exchange programs. These programs supplement classroom lessons through experiential learning opportunities and build student global awareness.

My personal experiences have also made me aware that short-term service trips can create more problems than they solve. While walking through the tourist areas of Nepal, it was impossible not to notice the leaflets posted on busy street corners advertising volunteer opportunities in local orphanages. Messages of “Touch a life…save the world!” accompanied pictures of smiling Westerners surrounded by crowds of Nepalese children. Similarly, during a semester in South Africa, I encountered promotions for “drop-in play time” at a township group home, offering student volunteers a brief chance to interact with marginalized community members. Even an alternative break trip to Mexico included a short afternoon excursion at an orphanage, where hugs and picture taking were encouraged before boarding the bus back home.

Examining Motivations & Costs

Students have a long list of motivations for engaging in international service. They pursue a unique experience to learn about another culture. They look to to develop new skills to build their resumes/CVs. They want to create and share memories while also making a contribution.

Gap Year and alternative break program providers as well as travel agencies tailor their offerings to fit these desires. A quick internet search shows that various kinds of volunteer placements are included in adventure travel itineraries, rather than packaged as a separate experience. As the quantity and variety of international service programs have increased, the “marketplace” of options has turned student experiences into “products”. In this market economy, attention is given primarily to the development of the student, catering to the buyer’s expectations, and fulfilling specific learning objectives. All this comes at a cost to the host community.

Why Orphan Based Tourism is Damaging

The argument here is that equal attention must be given to the local community, particularly when working with vulnerable populations like children. As interest in international service increases, there are more opportunities to volunteer within residential care centers such as orphanages and children’s homes. Over 60 years of research shows that growing up in residential care (also known as “institutionalization”) can have a negative impact on children’s health, development, and life chances. Orphanage volunteering not only promotes the expansion of these facilities, but also makes children vulnerable to abuse when volunteer background checks are not required, creates attachment problems in children who are exposed to short-term visitors, and perpetuates the myth that many of these children are orphans in need of adoption. (1) In reality, it is estimated that more than 2 million children live in institutional care (2) and that four out of five children in institutional care have living parents. (3)

Interest in this type of volunteer experience can create an economic demand for more “orphans” and lead to the active recruitment of children into residential care facilities in order to attract foreign volunteers and financial support. As a result, well-meaning individuals and organizations can be responsible for fueling the separation of children and parents, keeping kids out of school to entertain tourists, and aiding corruption by those who are using these children for financial gain, all in the name of “service.”

Volunteers not only have a direct impact on children in these residential care centers, but also perpetuate a greater, more systemic problem. In staffing and funding such facilities, volunteers sustain overuse of an alternative care model that should only ever be a temporary solution for a child. (4) The lack of understanding about the damaging impact of institutionalizing children and of more positive alternatives means that people do not hesitate to support such institutions.

Engaging in a Responsible Way

The main challenge here is that the general public, which is engaging in these experiences and driving the demand, is overwhelmed with international service program marketing but lacks resources to understand how to engage in a responsible way. This discussion is meant to kick-start a conversation and drive the demand of appropriate volunteer opportunities out of small, academic pockets and into larger circles.

The Importance of Education

First, we need to emphasize the need for appropriate education leading up to the student’s international volunteer experience. If potential volunteers do not consider their options carefully, understand cultural  contexts, and ensure their skills and experiences meet the needs of the host community, volunteering can be wasteful, and at worst, harmful. Students must approach international service opportunities with a “learning before serving” mindset by completing cultural orientation before arriving and engaging in critical reflection throughout their experience. If international service opportunities are compared to an internship in the student’s home country, students should expect to learn before “doing”, instead of the common practice of treating foreign volunteers as experts. Individuals who are not qualified to work in a particular capacity in their home country (ie. providing medical care, aiding in social work, etc.), should not take on this role while in another community.

Responsible preparation also ensures students are globally competent to make ethical and responsible choices. This requires teachers to be informed global citizens who are comfortable globalizing their curriculum. Professional development opportunities, including cultural immersion educational trips, on-site trainings, webinars, online membership networking groups, and ready-made educational materials all help prepare educators to bring discussions about global issues into their classrooms.

Best Practices

Second, adhering to best practices will avoid perpetuating the very disparities and stereotypes international volunteer programs are working to eliminate. If you are a student pursuing an international volunteer opportunity, it is important to be mindful of the red flags to look for when considering a program. Alternatives, such as learning abroad and adventure touring programs, are open to students looking for an international travel experience, while online virtual exchanges link classrooms across the world, allowing students to collaborate on a project addressing a common social issue.

However, the argument is more than simply saying “no” to volunteering abroad. Both individuals and organizations looking to develop appropriate international service opportunities for students can benefit from guidelines of best practices. Standards like Fair Trade Learning offer an alternative global educational partnership exchange that prioritizes reciprocity in relationships through cooperative, cross-cultural participation in learning and service opportunities. Fair Trade Learning programs highlight the goals of economic equity, equal partnership, mutual learning, cooperative and positive social change, transparency, and sustainability. Instead of volunteering in an orphanage, these best practice guidelines promote developing mutually beneficial and sustainable relationships with community organizations that support positive parenting and family-based care systems.

Appropriate Support

Finally, efforts to encourage ethical and responsible volunteering require support. Groups such as Better Volunteering, Better Care, an initiative led by Better Care Network and Save the Children, connect a range of global actors and raise awareness of issues surrounding orphanage volunteering. Individuals or organizations interested in learning more about this initiative, or contributing to its development, are encouraged to contact the Better Volunteering Better Care team at volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org.

This post is part of a month-long spread of articles aimed at raising awareness around the issues of orphanage volunteering #StopOrphanTrips. The campaign ends on June 1st, International Children’s Day, with a call to volunteer travel organisations to remove orphanage trips from their product offerings. Please consider signing the petition. For more information visit www.bettervolunteeringbettercare.org.

  1. Better Volunteering, Better Care. (2014). International Volunteering in Residential Care Centres.
  2. UNICEF. (2009). Child Protection Report Card.
  3. Brown, K. (2009). The Risks of Harm to Young Children in Institutional Care. Better Care Network.
  4. United Nations General Assembly. (2010). Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Photo Credit: Rachel Molenda