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Filling the mission-shaped gap

10 January 2014

Are mission-shaped gap years still popular, asks Jemima Thackray, and what are the choices of where to go?

Team dynamics: Tearfund gap year adventurers

Team dynamics: Tearfund gap year adventurers

DESPITE the recession, and the rising cost of university, many organisations that offer gap years are still attracting plenty of applicants.

Tearfund, for example, has just reported a record-breaking year, and the Church Mission Society (CMS) says that "more people than ever" are applying for its programmes.

Others, however, are seeing a drop in demand. The gap-year programme manager for Us. (formerly USPG), Habib Nader, says: "Young people are so concerned about the cost of university now. Things have changed since the boom time in the '80s. Numbers have halved since then, but there are signs that the market is picking up again."

In response to the challenges, the Church Army's Xplore programme-leader, Neville Barnes, says: "We've been thinking about how we can make evangelism training for young adults more accessible, bearing in mind the financial difficulties that many of them face, whether it's because of student fees or unemployment.

"We came up with the idea of a 'year in' as an alternative to the traditional gap year, where you remain in your community and shape your evangelism around your own context."

Other organisations are speaking of a change in applicant demographics. "Previously, we had a lot of applications from people wanting a gap year before university. Now, we mostly hear from people who've been to university already," the director of the Christian theatre company Oddments, Barry Boyton, says.

Us., meanwhile, has noticed that the age-range of applicants for its gap year is widening: the oldest person currently on its gap-year programme is 74. Jeremy Weightman, of Latin Link, says that there are now "far fewer young men applying".

Owing, perhaps, to the increased pressure on finances, those making the commitment display a greater level of engagement. Lucy Pieterse, of Tearfund, says: "We've been encouraged to see just how many more volunteers are returning from their placements with a new awareness that starts to shape their everyday decisions."

But Jeremy Woodham, of CMS, says: "We have noticed that the young people coming forward today are much more theologically switched on. They understand that mission has changed; that it's not so much about going to 'help' people as to learn from them."

This focus on personal learning and development, however, as opposed to "helping others", could be interpreted differently. "We see an increasing number of applicants who, understandably, are looking for 'What's in it for me?'" the director of Time For God, Paul Webster, says.

"Many people see a period of volunteering as an invaluable inclusion on their CV, which is very true and important. However, as a Christian organisation, we also want to promote a mindset of service, instead of the sense of entitlement which our Western educational system can sometimes instill."

LATIN LINK works in partnership with churches to send and receive individuals, families, and teams to or from Latin American countries.

Its "Step" programme lasts up to 16 weeks, and, typically, involves community-based projects such as construction, evangelism, and youth work.

"Stride" placements are six months to two years long, and focus on developing the person's skills in response to local needs, providing an opportunity to test an individual's calling to mission work. Stride projects range from teaching literacy to working with prisoners and ex-offenders.


Step 17+, Stride 18+


Step: March-July (apply by November), or July-August (apply by April). Stride: start January/February or September, apply six months before departure.


Step: £1875-£3300 including flights. Stride: £2000 and approx. £500 per month living expenses.


0118 957 7100; latinlink.org.uk

CHURCH ARMY offers two gap-year programmes. The "Xplore Year In" enables volunteers to shape evangelism around where they live, and receive weekly online training and support. There are also regular residential weekends, as well as opportunities to take part in mis-sion placements in Romania and Ireland.

The "Xplore Year Out" is run in partnership with Summer Madness, the Christian festival in Northern Ireland, and involves practical mission-placements in Northern Ireland and Romania, as well as regular Bible teaching and training.


18-25-year-olds with a passion for evangelism


September 2014 to July 2015. Apply by 1 August 2014.


Xplore Year In: free, apart from an optional week in Romania, £350; and two training weekends, £100 each. Xplore Year Out: £2000 excluding accommodation.


0844 585 3575; xplore.org.uk

THE mission and development charity Us. (formerly USPG) works in partnership with Anglican Churches around the world. Over the past 50-odd years, it has sent more than 600 people on its short-term mission programmes, now called "Journey With Us", including many clergy and ordinands.

Its self-funding volunteer scheme offers the opportunity to experience the life and mission of the Church in another culture for up to 12 months - in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean. The emphasis is on participation and shared learning, and, as guests of a host church, participants are offered fellowship and pastoral care.


18+, including clergy on sabbaticals and study breaks.


to suit each individual.


depends on location and length, but for a 12-month placement, approx. £4000. A small grant is available from Us.


020 7921 2215; weareus.org.uk

CROSSLINKS recruits committed Christians for its SMILE gap-year programme, which combines service, evangelism, and discipleship work in a cross-cultural setting.

In 2015, there will be Gap teams of ten people sent to the Gambia, Ethiopia, and Thailand, for placements lasting four months. Project work includes helping in local schools and churches, as well as teaching and leading Bible studies.

Teams are given time to study the Bible themselves, too, to equip them for a lifetime of ministry.


18+ (leaders must be over 21)


January-May 2015; apply by 16 March 2014.


approx. £3500.


020 8691 6111; crosslinks.org/smile/opportunities

THIS Christian theatre company seeks to take thought-provoking drama to schools, prisons, churches, and festivals across southern England. Gap-year volunteers have the opportunity to use theirperforming-arts gifts on placements lasting between seven and ten months.

Volunteers also get involved in the day-to-day running of the company, including organising events, general administration, and other stage-management tasks, gaining valuable insight into how a theatre company operates.


18-35-year-olds with a performing-arts qualification or good experience at an amateur level.


mid-September to August, or January to August. Apply by 31 May 2014.


seven months, £1500; ten months, £2000.



THIS development, disaster-relief, and advocacy charity offers two short-term mission schemes.

Those with ten weeks to spare can sign up to the new government-funded ICS (International Citizen Service) through Tearfund, to South Africa, Bolivia, or Rwanda, which involves volunteering alongside other in-country volunteers.

For those with more time, Tearfund's "Gap Year Adventure" offers six months in South Africa, Cambodia, Malawi, or Peru, and involves a wide range of development projects, such as improving access to water and sanitation, supporting people with HIV/AIDS, and youth work.


ICS 18-25-year olds (leaders must be over 23). Gap Year Adventures are open to anyone aged 18+, with no upper age limit.


ICS: depart in January, April, July or September. Apply three months before. Gap Year Adventure: 1 February-mid July 2015. Apply by 28 September 2014.


ICS: funded but with £800 fundraising target. Gap Year Adventure: £4000.


020 8943 7777; tearfund.org/go

TIME FOR GOD has been connecting volunteers with opportunities for service and personal growth overseas for more than 45 years.

Each volunteer is given on- arrival, mid-service, and year-end training, and is allocated a "field officer" to mentor him or her on a "growth journey".

Projects can include workingwith churches, the YMCA, activity centres, residential care homes,drug and alcohol rehabilitation programmes, or homeless projects. Opportunities for next year involve ten-to-12-month placements in Hong Kong and the United States.


all adults, although typically 18-25-year-olds.


start August/September or January.


£1750 (some limited grant-funded options available).


01423 536248; timeforgod.org/

THE Church Mission Society offers placements, lasting four months to two years, to anyone who feels called to overseas mission in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

The projects involve working alongside CMS partners -individuals and organisations - and can range from caring for children in an orphanage in Argentina to working with disabled people in Ecuador, youth work in Uganda, or teaching English in Egypt.

CMS seeks to make use of the skills and interests of each applicant to create individually tailored placements, and the opportunities are open to everyone, from young people taking a pre-university gap year to those seeking a career break.




organised to suit the individual. Pre-travel training weeks are held in January or July.


£4000-8000, depending on destination.


01865 787415; cms-uk.org

THIS Christian development charity, Smile International, has centres in Kosova, India, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, and accepts volunteers for placements lasting from three to nine months.

Outreach activities include building work, teaching English and IT, sports coaching, performing-arts projects, youth and children's work, running holiday clubs, evangelism, and working with people affected by HIV/AIDS.

There is particular emphasis on candidates' developing cross-cultural understanding, and forging relationships with local people.




start April or October.


voluntary donation ofapprox. £3350 to £4995 depending on destination. Flights and visa extra.


01689 883322; www.smileinternational.org/

CHRISTIAN AID works through partner organisations aroundthe world to help communitiesin developing countries tolift themselves out of poverty.

The "Christian Aid Collective" - a movement of young people seeking to inspire their generation to act on injustice - offers a ten-month internship scheme, which begins with a two-week trip to see the work of Christian Aid partners overseas.

Interns are then based at the central offices in London, or at regional offices around the UK, running workshops for youth groups and schools, preaching in churches, and hosting events.




runs mid-August to June. Apply early in 2014.


free. Christian Aid covers all expenses, including rent and bills, plus a weekly allowance.


020 7523 2165; www.christianaidcollective.org/christian-aid-collective-internship.


Twenty-two-year-old Hannah Silcock's seven months in South Africa with Us. have led to postgraduate study

HANNAH SILCOCK's "Journey with Us." gap year, in 2012, had such an impact on her that she decided to study for a Masters in Global Ethics and Human Values. "It completely opened my eyes, and gave me a different perspective on life," she says.

The programme started with a week's training, which, Hannah felt, prepared her for any potential culture shock. "We talked a lot about keeping safe, and about engaging with people who are different to you. [But] I found coming home the hardest part: I had reverse culture-shock."

Us. participants are placed within a host-church context. Hannah's placement was a reasonably affluent white-majority church, which ran an outreach programme to a nearby township. Most of her time was spent working with children.

"I volunteered in the school, taking able children out of the classroom so the teacher could focus attention on the struggling ones, and I set up a girls' club, doing activities like sports and cookery.

"A lot of effort also went into organising a holiday club, which happened at the very end of my trip. We had 100 kids turn up for a three-week programme."

Gap-year students are housed individually, with church families or in church accommodation. "A journey with Us. is different from some other programmes, because you're sent completely on your own; there's no British team around you. It was a total-immersion experience, and I had to make friends with local people. This was pretty scary, but 100 per cent worth it in the end."

Hannah feels that any potential loneliness she felt initially was compensated for by the fact that the programme was tailor-made for her. "Us. looked at me personally, and put me in a setting that I felt really comfortable in. As a result, I felt I was in exactly the right place for me."

Did this mean that the experience was more about Hannah than about the people she was there to help? "As only one person, you're always going to take away more than you can give. But the ethos of the charity is that it's a two-way thing. That's what attracted me: it's a view of mission that isn't about saving the world, but coming alongside people."


Kate Coulter, aged 22, embarked on a Tearfund gap year before going on to university

KATE COULTER's gap year with Tearfund placed her in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, working with a non-governmental organi­sation, COBAP (Community Based AIDS Programme).

"They were a local organisation which mainly provided counselling and support for individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS. They ran several projects, including an income-generating scheme for mothers with HIV, and a drug-rehabilitation and skills-develop­ment centre. They also did a lot of schools work, and kids' clubs, focusing on HIV awareness and prevention."

Kate was part of a group of ten young women, all of pre-university age, who lived together in the same house and volunteered as a team. As part of such a large team, she says, it was at first hard to feel useful at any of the projects.

"I think we went with a Western mindset of: 'I'm going to save the world and get loads done,' but it was more about encouraging the people we met, in the work that's already happening. It's important not to under­estimate the value of simply bringing energy and enthusiasm to boost the confidence of those already doing good work."

A big part of her personal development was learning to be flexible when working as part of a team. "You're literally with your group the entire time; this was a really maturing experience, which shaped me as a person. But it wasn't just with my British team; the way Tearfund works is to partner you with a local organisation. After that, they have a fairly hands-off approach. It meant I had to really invest in these relation­ships, and be resourceful."

Kate stayed in Uganda for several months after the place­ment had finished, and she would recommend that others do the same. "I found the Tearfund project to be a great foundation, like a springboard into other mission work. Don't just come back and go straight to uni, but stay out there and build on the relationships you've started."

A number of her team members have also continued to fund-raise for COBAP, as testament to the lasting impact that the project has had on their lives.


Hannah Wilkinson, aged 30, has been volunteering with Latin Link for more than a decade

BEFORE starting university, Hannah Wilkinson went to Brazil on the short-term "Step" pro­gramme. The project involved several months working in a street-boys' home, where she would help with homework classes and running other youth activities.

"It was tough at times. I was only 18, and hearing the boys' stories broke my heart. But it opened my eyes to the reality of poverty."

After graduating from uni­versity, Hannah embarked on a second "Step" programme, to Argentina. "The team's main task was building work. We were based with a local church, which ran a Bible college, but their teaching facility was so small that the students had to sleep on the kitchen floor at night. So, our task was to help build a second storey, to create proper bedrooms."

A few years later, after several years working as a teacher, she decided to join up with Latin Link again, but this time she felt ready for its longer-term "Stride" programme. She has just returned from a two-year placement in Peru, working with the Christian environmental charity A Rocha.

"I was helping with a re­­foresta­tion pro­gram­­­me, planting trees but also working with com­­­­­­munities living [near] where the re­­forestation was happening. I led a nature club for kids, doing acti­vities that were all about taking care of creation."

The experience of being on her own rather than part of a team, as on previous trips, was one of the greatest challenges. "It was just me and the Peruvian workers. Even though I'd done a four-month intensive lan­guage school, there was inevitably still a language barrier, not to mention the cross-cultural chal­lenges: it's sometimes hard to always see eye-to-eye when people have such different ways of doing things."

Latin Links' support structures helped her to work through the initial difficulties. "Everyone who travels with Latin Link has a mentor whom they see once a week - someone you know you can always go to. It's this support that makes Latin Link worth the money."

Although she did not realise it at the time, looking back, Hannah believes that going to Peru was mostly about testing the water for future mission. "I'm now at Redcliffe Bible College, studying cross-cultural mission. So the trip has completely changed my life."



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