Gap Year charity re-opens volunteering abroad

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Repatriating 230 volunteers out of 18 countries was no mean feat for Coll’s Gap Year charity Project Trust.

Some of the trickiest missions to safely bring volunteers back to the UK included chartering a helicopter in the Solomon Islands and hiring a local security firm in Honduras.

Most were home in just two weeks.


Project Trust volunteers arriving on Coll.


Project Trust in the classroom.
Many Project Trust volunteers go abroad to teach English.
Project Trust brings international volunteering opportunities as a Gap Year alternative.

Project Trust’s HR manager Jil McMeekin told The Oban Times: ‘We repatriated our first volunteers back from China in 2020 and had planned to re-deploy them to other countries but then it became a pandemic, not just a local virus.

‘In mid-march 2020, we began repatriation of all 230 volunteers from 18 different countries.

‘We were able to get the majority of volunteers home within a fortnight, but it was a tense time with travel disruptions and cancelled flights.’

To get four of its volunteers away from the Solomon Islands, the charity had to charter a helicopter to lift two of them off a small island to a bigger one so they could catch a flight back to the UK via Australia. ‘They just made it because the borders were closing. We couldn’t have waited any longer to get them out,’ said Jil.

Honduras was another country where repatriation was nerve-jangling. ‘Honduras closed its borders to international travel almost immediately. It took us another couple of weeks to get 20 of our volunteers out. They were all in pairs but were spread all over the country. A couple of lads were on an island and that was a complicated exit to get them to one place then out to Mexico. The charity also helped get students from St Andrew’s university out.

‘It was a real task. We had to throw everything at it and use all the connections we had. We had to explore all our options and they had to sit tight. We used a local security firm to get them out safely in the end.’

Only two volunteers had to wait longer to get home – one man who had lost his passport in India and another who was in hospital in Japan getting treatment after a snowboarding accident.

The pandemic meant charity staff could no longer go into schools to give talks and presentations to rally future volunteers and fundraise but staff adapted and responded to the challenge by developing online alternatives and real-time sessions they could still deliver across the country.

Lockdown seems to have stirred up even more of a sense of adventure among young people, keen to find out more about the opportunities of volunteering abroad, says Jil.

She added: ‘We have been able to re-open our international programme. We have volunteers back in Ghana and Senegal and earlier this month we had young people visiting us here on Coll for a training course. A lot will go and teach English but there are other subjects and other areas of interest for volunteers to help with. Honduras, Thailand and Malawi will be seeing volunteers arrive in the New Year.

‘It has been very, very hard during the pandemic. Our main source of income is volunteer fundraising and losing that was a huge blow to us.

‘We made some swift cost-saving measures including, sadly, redundancies but we are now re-building our staff team. We’ve recently taken on one new person to work on our international support team.

‘We’ve done a lot of fundraising ourselves and re-engaged with our 8,000 past volunteers, many of whom have helped us in our time of need so that we can continue to offer other young people the opportunities they had themselves. We have been going for more than 50 years now.’

Among volunteers heading abroad later in the New Year will be Oban High School (OHS) student Evie MacGillivray from Mull. The 16-year-old is fundraising £7,000 for her trip to India at Her fundraising plans for 2022 include climbing Ben Mor, the only Munro on Mull, with a group of family and friends in March.

Evie’s friend Maisie Van den Groendaal from Coll, also a OHS student, will be going out to Honduras.