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Travellers of the tech generation

08 January 2016

‘Gappers’ tell Paul Wilkinson about their experience of trips doing voluntary work with organisations engaged in mission

On the spot: Ruth Cracknell went to Bolivia with Tearfund, where she worked with the children of female offenders. She tells her story below

On the spot: Ruth Cracknell went to Bolivia with Tearfund, where she worked with the children of female offenders. She tells her story below

GAP years took a bit of a hit when the Government turned student grants into loans, and school-leavers had to decide between funding overseas trips or paying for university courses.

But today they are even more popular; organisers are offering trips that are more varied and tailored to individual ambitions. Indeed, “gap year” is becoming a misnomer, as many people are opting for cheaper options of six or three months, or sometimes just a few weeks.

The social-media-savvy “gapper” is also getting round the cash crisis with a bit of pre-departure fund-raising among contacts at school and church, besides web-searching for grants and bursaries from a variety of organisations.

While the bank of Mum and Dad still plays a vital part, popular sources of cash include: the International Citizen Service programme, funded by the Government’s Department for International Development; and the European Voluntary Service, and Erasmus+, both EC-financed programmes.


THE desire for shorter placements, however, was not just about money, the vocational recruitment manager with the Church Mission Society, Susann Haehnel, said. “People live life at a faster pace these days, and being committed to something for a whole year seems a very long time for someone who is only 19 or 20, and has just left school.”

But the change in funding has led to a change in attitude among potential gappers. “The money thing has taken out the people who were less serious, and we are left with those who really want to put their money where their mouth is,” Liz Diskin says. She is co-ordinator of Latin Link’s Step programme, which annually sends between 20 and 30 young people to Central and South America, and to Spain.

“Previously,” she went on, “people thought: ‘My parents think it is a good idea if I take a gap year, and they will put up the cash,’ but now there are not so many of those. The people who do come tend to feel called: they want to do something specific. They see it as much more a mission project than just some time out before university.

“But also it’s a bit more of a consumerist approach to mission than it used to be. Ten years ago, people liked the mystery of not knowing what was going to happen; now, they want to know exactly what they are doing every single day.”

Anna Abram, who is Sending Programme Coordinator with Time for God, agrees that young people are not only motivated by high ideals: “People today perhaps focus a little bit more than before on what’s in it for them,” she said. “They see it as not only an opportunity to grow in faith, but also to get to know themselves better and get a bit more independence. They have a desire to serve but also want to know what they can gain.”

The head of the Integral Mission Initiative at Tearfund, Sarah Buys, says that this is because social media have changed young people’s expectations. “With Facebook, Twitter, etc., there is a much greater sense that they are living in a global world,” she said.

“There is a higher level of connection to issues and needs, and a greater level of understanding. Because of that, they have an increased passion towards particular issues; so you see a strong desire to engage in volunteering for things that have caught their attention. There is more desire for choice, as they are a lot more clued up.

“The younger generation have a strong theology of social justice. It’s not hard to convince them that part of the gospel is about reaching out to those in need. A lot of the purpose of our volunteer programme has been to help individuals connect the dots between their faith and restoring a broken world. We are putting faces and names to people; so it isn’t just an abstract idea.

“The desire for us is that when they come home, they will live in a way that impacts their local community, and honours their global community. They will think about stewardship of the planet because they have met people for whom climate change is drastically affecting their lives and so they will live differently when they are home.”


BEING able to obtain much of what you want at the click of a button has produced a generation that wants to see immediate results — but that is not always possible, Miss Buys says.

“We have to work harder at the message that development impact happens over a long period. Volunteer satisfaction can feel harder to gain when they want to see an immediate difference and come home feeling satisfied.”

The Revd Clive Doubleday, the CEO and founder of Smile International, which, over the past decade, has sent 100 volunteers to help its support network for children in Uganda and Zimbabwe, says that social media are also the research tool of choice for today’s gappers.

“They do quite a bit of research, lining up all the areas they want, to tick the boxes, and also consider what bits of the country they want to look at,” he said. “It is much wider open now than in the early days, because there are grants available if people are willing to put the work in and search for them.” One of his gappers spent a year scouring the net from Orkney seeking funding, before leaving Scotland for the first time in his life for an interview in London. He now works in Africa for another charity.

“Probably all our gappers would also say it has made them more patient. When the power goes off — and it frequently does — what do you do? You can’t go online; so you learn to fit into day and night.

“They come back so much more confident and in tune with God, because they have been rubbing shoulders with inspirational young African Christians who are praying for their food each day: if it doesn’t come, they starve. They learn a lot from that, and see a way of living completely different to theirs.”

Ms Abram believes that today’s gappers sometimes need to have their expectations managed. “It’s easy to get used to things like using a smartphone or the internet, or just having clean water,” she said. “We do training with them, and support them throughout their experience; so they are told about living simply.”


Bethany Lyttle, Operation Mobilisation

BETHANY LYTTLE, who is 20, and from Oswestry, in Shropshire, spent six months in the education-sponsorship department of Operation Mobilisation’s headquarters, and then went to the Chilean capital, Santiago, for mission-discipleship training. She is now reading international development and politics at Durham University.

“First, I went on a ten-day preparation conference in the Netherlands, which was really cool because people come from all over the world. Next, I worked at the head office, organising sponsorship for children at the bottom of the Indian caste system so they could go to school.

“Then I went to Chile for five-and a-half months. Each week, we had training for several days, and spent three days a week and some evenings working in a day centre or with the homeless. We didn’t hand out food, as that was provided by the government. What they needed was Jesus and friendship.

“At first, they were quite hostile; but, by the end, we were doing an Alpha course. Nine people became Christians, and 24 renewed their faith. It was incredible. Many were drug addicts; one woman had been raped at 13, and become pregnant and was thrown out of her home.

“We were able to love these people and share Jesus with them. We also did a ‘Love dinner’ each month on Saturday nights, where we served a full dinner and there would be music and a talk. The idea was to give them worth and love and to share with them.

“On Wednesdays we did creative evangelism, going out to talk to people on the street. It was amazing how they were open to conversations, and they became Christians right there.

“During the time I was there, we read the whole Bible. We had to do nine chapters a day, which was quite intense. We also had to read a Christian book a month. All the teaching was to help us in our spiritual growth, especially if we were looking to do mission long-term.

“Ever since I was young, I knew that I wanted to go on a gap year. I wanted to step outside my comfort zone. I chose to go to Chile because they didn’t speak English; so I had to depend on God more. The first two months were quite difficult, as I had to do a ten-day cultural experience living with a Spanish family who didn’t speak English.

“OM were great, though; we were fed, we had money to buy stuff for ourselves, and we always had a team lunch together. They really look after you.

“I raised £6000 for my whole year, including flights; and I had to raise £600 a month while I was in Chile, some of which went to the churches we helped. People at home put cash into my account each month, and one-off gifts paid for the flights.”



Grace Claydon, Smile International

“HOW can this happen? How is this fair?” were questions that Grace Claydon, aged 20, from Rochford, Essex, asked herself when she spent nine months working in Uganda.

“I worked two days a week, teaching at a primary school; two days in a slum community; and Fridays at a children’s club. I also did a community outreach programme visiting families in the slums, building relationships, and praying with them.

“Occasionally, we also gave out aid — children’s shoes, clothes, and blankets — and did hospital visiting, talking, and praying with the patients. I also helped build a church, and planted maize on a farm. We got involved in pretty much anything that needed to be done. It was pretty exhausting, but it was all worth it.

“We lived among the community; we travelled on the local bus, walked everywhere, bought food in the market; we immersed ourselves in the local culture, and I loved experiencing that first-hand.

“It was very challenging, at times, to see such poverty and deprivation. Once you make friends who can’t afford three meals a day, it really makes it personal. . . it becomes something you cannot ignore.

“It helped me to question my faith, but in a good way. . . I just felt so helpless. I thought: ‘I have taught these children over nine months, but now I am just going to leave them. How am I going to make sure they are OK?’ I just had to have faith in God to provide for them.

“Before I went, I was thinking of becoming a midwife, or doing a teaching degree; now, I can’t imagine doing anything but working in the developing world. It’s something I want to commit my life to.

“The total cost, including flights, was around £5000. All our accommodation, travel, and food was covered. I did a lot of fund-raising before I went. People at school and in my church were very generous, and I secured some grants. I certainly got value for money.”

Grace is now studying international development at the University of East Anglia.



Rachel Preston, Latin Link

“IT WAS the most amazing thing I have done,” Rachel Preston, from Telford, in Shropshire, says. She spent four months in Colombia on Latin Link’s Step programme, working in a school for the deaf in the capital, Bogata, and with a slum community in the city of Santa Marta. “It has changed my outlook on everything. And the people were infinitely warmer and more loving than I ever could have expected.

“The work was different to what we expected, as in the deaf school we were intending to do building work, but we ended up teaching, which turned out to be what the school really needed.

“At the end, we had a street party, and all the children stood up to say how we had helped them. One said: ‘Because I am deaf, and have special needs, I never thought I would get a job, and [thought that] no one would ever value my work. But you did baking classes with us, and I realised I am really good at baking, and I want to train to be a chef.’”

“We did face some unexpected challenges: the heat in Santa Marta was 45ºC — way more than I had expected, but I did manage to adjust. I didn’t expect to have to face spiritual attack: lots of little things came together, team disagreements, health issues, building-site accidents, issues in the local community.

“It was quite tough at times; but, knowing all of that, I would definitely go back and do it again. It’s through the tough times you learn more about yourself, and about God and your reliance on him. And Latin Link helped us resolve problems rather than treating us like children.

“It cost me £3000. The flights are the most expensive part — Latin Link has has no control over that. But the amount of training you get makes it well worth the money. I did fund-raising: sponsored walks, a sponsored three-course meal for 80 in my church; and there are loads of bursaries if you look around.”

Rachel, who is 20, is now reading law at Cambridge.



Judy Nicholas, Time for God

JUDY NICHOLAS spent a year working as a youth-and-families worker in a parish in Essex. Time for God began 50 years ago as a UK-only hosting organisation, but it is now expanding into Hong Kong and Europe. It hopes to increase numbers gradually from the ten or so currently placed. Placements in some European countries are free, thanks to support from the EC-funded European Voluntary Service. Others cost around £1,750, which includes pocket money, accommodation, food, travel, insurance and training.

Judy, who is 22, comes from Canterbury. “When I applied,” she says, “I specified that I wanted to work with children, preferably in a church. They went through their placements, and matched me up with St Leonard’s, in Colchester. It was pretty full-on for most of the time: I ran the junior church, all-age services, and helped out with the Cubs and Beavers. I also helped with a toddler group and a junior choir.

“At first, I wasn’t entirely sure about what specifically I was supposed to do. I was being asked to do extra jobs, like helping with coffee mornings, and I found myself having to deal with too much. Learning to say ‘No’ was something I found out the hard way.

“I lived with a host family whose children had moved out. Going into someone’s home was not the easiest thing to begin with, but they took me under their wing, and I enjoyed it. I met the priest each week, and she would see how I was doing, which was very helpful.

“I did feel a bit isolated at times, as I was the only person of my age there; but I believe the church enjoyed having someone of my age there, and they accepted me as an equal. It helped them relate to younger people in the community.”

“I definitely grew in my faith more than I expected, teaching familiar Bible stories that I grew up with, but looking at them in a different way from the children’s perspective and seeing what they got out of it. It was great working with different age groups. ”

“After university, I had thought I would go into primary-school teaching, and had started applying, but I enjoyed my year so much that I felt that it was something I wanted to do full time. Now I am the children-and-family worker at my home church, St Andrew’s URC, in Canterbury.

“The placement cost £1600 — which my parents paid for, and I am paying them back — but St Leonard’s gave the cash back to me as monthly pocket money. The church funded things like accommodation and meals.”



Ruth Cracknell, Tearfund

RUTH CRACKNELL travelled to Bolivia with the help of the International Citizen Service (ICS), which is funded by the Government. It offers 18-to-25-year-olds the opportunity to spend ten to 12 weeks volunteering alongside young in-country volunteers on development projects. No cash, skills, or qualifications are required. Placements depart throughout 2016 in spring, summer, and autumn, but you must apply at least two months before departure ensure you get a place.

Ruth, who is 22, and from Gloucestershire, spent ten weeks in Bolivia with Tearfund’s partner charity Oeser. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “Ten weeks wasn’t really long enough. We had a lot of structure, and a weekly routine. There was a lot of training both before going out, and at the beginning of the visit. It definitely was not a holiday. I lived with a local family, who sometimes took us out to see the mountains.

“The days were long. I worked in the nursery, and also went out selling the nutrition bars they produce to make the project more sustainable. About 15 children, aged between two and five, came each day to the nursery from the jail where they lived with their mothers who were prisoners.

“Otherwise I was mainly doing youth work, especially keeping the young people safe and off the streets in the evenings. It was pretty hands on, and it was difficult, as my Spanish wasn’t very good. It’s better now.

“My team was made up of six Bolivians, and five British volunteers. The Bolivians obviously knew the culture and the language; so it helped build relationships.

“The benefit for the locals is that ICS runs a rolling programme, sending out several groups through the year; so someone is always there, carrying on the project.

“It opened my eyes to the scale of poverty, but the project helped me focus on one person at a time, and seeing one life changed rather than being overwhelmed and thinking ‘There is nothing I can do.’ It was just 15 lives we impacted, but that’s massive. It’s given me more hope that I can do something. Since coming back we learned that the project’s funding had been cut; so we are fund-raising here to help.”

Ruth is now studying theology at Spurgeon’s College, in London, and is working for her church.



Lizzie Simpson, Church Mission Society

LIZZIE SIMPSON worked in Waitrose to raise the money to go to Petropolis, in Brazil, where she worked for six months as a youth leader at an Anglican school.

“It was so beneficial; I learned so much. I lived with a Brazilian family who didn’t speak any English; so, if nothing else, I speak Portuguese now, and I didn’t when I went.

“The lady I lived with was the English teacher, but she didn’t really have much English. A lot of wealthy people have villas in the hills, where they go to escape the heat of Rio in summer, but this has impacted the locals; the cost of living has increased massively, as the shops target the weekend clientele. So it wasn’t a typical Rio slum, but it was a poor area.

“It was a bit strange, as the school had no real Anglican input. I helped out with RS and English lessons, and did one-on-one English coaching. I also helped with an Evangelical musical group, even though I can’t sing or play an instrument. The children were aged from two to 18.

“I went on my own, as it seemed a greater challenge. If I had gone with a bigger team, I would not have formed such a relationship with the Brazilians as I did. But I also had Mark and Jess, who are based in Brazil for the CMS, as my mission partners and supervisors, and I saw them most weekends.

“The family I lived with were not Christians; so I struggled in the week, not having any Christian support. I was lonely and isolated in my views, and, about halfway through, I was feeling depressed, and so I got in contact with the local Catholic priest, and started going along to services just to have some time in a church and to pray. I found a lovely sense of community there among other young people.

“But I was never expecting it to be easy. If you go on your own, you can’t expect a walk in the park. And it meant I felt a lot more prepared and confident to go to university, which can be very daunting.

“The total cost was around £2500, but I was not worried about paying that on top of uni fees, because I knew I would have a student loan.”

Lizzie, who is 19, and from Ashtead, in Surrey, is now reading English at Exeter University.


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