Discover why volunteering holidays have the potential to be the trip of your lifetime.
Leonie Vandeven spends her work days sitting behind a desk writing media releases, organising events and talking to journalists. So when the Virgin Blue public relations specialist was planning to take a holiday last year she wanted to do something completely different from her normal routine, and that didn’t mean sitting on a beach in the sun reading a book and sipping a cocktail.
Leonie wanted to spend a couple of weeks of her annual leave doing something that would get her out of her comfort zone, take her to a far-away land, and do something that would help others. So she applied to take part in a trip that would take a handful of Virgin staffers from around the world, all drawn from the different companies Sir Richard Branson operates, and build a crèche in a poor South African village.
“Virgin Unite is (the Virgin group’s) global philanthropic and charitable organisation, and it runs a number of projects around the world,” Leonie explains. “The opportunity came up to go to Africa, and I had never been there, and this was the chance not to do the tourist thing but to get into the community, a chance to meet people and get involved in their village, and not just leave footprints behind but something more tangible.
“I helped construct the local crèche, which was funded by Virgin Unite, and everything about the crèche was eco-friendly – it was built with sandbags, we put in water tanks, there was an eco-friendly toilet, the play equipment was made from recycled bottles and we planted trees. I also helped put in a self-sustaining garden because the idea is not just to educate the kids but to feed them during the day.”
Leonie stayed in the staff quarters at Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, which is one of Branson’s properties and part of the Virgin Limited Edition collection, and travelled 30 minutes to the village each day where she worked a 12-hour shift starting at 7am.
“They were very long days and it was hot, dusty and dirty,” the 36-year-old Brisbane mother says. “I heard about other Virgin Unite staff wake-up trips that had done painting and renovated buildings, but this was the first time constructing a new building. There were no toilets, we had to take our own lunches, and I was digging in the rock-hard African clay, which was like digging concrete, so I got a few blisters. I’m not afraid of breaking a few nails, and I have never been so physically tired in all my life, but it was better than lying on a beach.”
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