During my time volunteering with Lasallian I was lucky enough to complete four projects between the summers of 2015 and 2018. The first of these projects took me to Nyeri town in the central highlands of Kenya, where we worked to construct teachers’ accommodation at St Mary’s Boys’ Secondary School and child rescue centre. As my first time travelling to a country so far from home both in distance and in culture, this experience was one that I approached with very little idea what to expect, which helped me to embrace every element of the project as it came, learning a great deal about the local culture, Lasallian traditions, and the people with whom I shared the experience.

Any concerns I might have had regarding the actual building work were soon put to rest, as I came to realise that effort and enthusiasm are far more important traits of any volunteer than physical fitness or expertise. After all, the local builders lacked neither knowledge nor strength, and the biggest way we could help was simply to be there as colleagues, friends and equals, to dissolve the anonymity of charity work and bridge the gap between Lasallian and the communities it affects.

My second project was in Biiso, a small village in western Uganda where we built a block of classrooms for a future primary school. While the building work itself forms the backbone of a building project, the traditions and values of the charity passed on from year to year are its heart and soul. In Biiso, a key part of this was integrating ourselves within the community, making time to play with the local kids, meet their families, and visit their houses. Often these were little more than mud-huts arranged in small clusters on the side of the path that led up to the school, however the families that lived in them showed nothing but happiness and gratitude for the lives that they had, and the kids embraced every day with an attitude and pureness of spirit that never failed to make us smile.

In addition to settling into the local community, the core traditions of a Lasallian project range from the serious to the not so serious; with the group engaging in deeply connecting and heartfelt “reflections” throughout the project to share and discuss their experiences, and in contrast celebrating “Lasallian Christmas” on the 25th of July, exchanging a wild variety of Secret Santa gifts purchased at the local markets and listening to Christmas songs all day. At the end of the project, each member of the group writes a letter for each other member, to be opened and read when you return to the UK, giving an opportunity to reflect back on your most cherished experiences in such a way that you can keep the written memories forever.

In 2017, I led a new project in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, where we constructed a classroom/assembly hall for a school in Morepatty. While all of my projects were primarily about building, in this case we also had the opportunity to teach at the school, devising interactive lessons in English and music, which provided a refreshing new layer to our experience. Since every project is as remarkably unique as the countries they are based in, each one brings both new challenges and exciting new opportunities. Under the constant heat of the Indian sun the building work was a lot more difficult than it had been in Africa, and it took some time to adjust to the climate. On the other hand, after working Monday through to Friday, the weekends were always a welcome reward for our work.

With the group budget allowing for several excursions to explore a little more of the country, we were able to coordinate with the other two India-based projects and meet up for many exciting journeys. To name a few, we visited the nearby city of Madurai and the famous Reaching The Unreached (RTU) project, and went on a boat trip around beautiful canals in Alappuzha. As well as offering exciting opportunities to do something a little different over the weekends, these trips provide fascinating insights into the natural, religious and cultural diversity of the country which deeply enhance the project experience.

My final project in 2018 was based in Kaleo, a village in the Upper West Region of Ghana. Our work continued on the same building site as the previous two groups, constructing teacher’s accommodation for a small primary school. As the oldest and longest-running Lasallian Project (ours was the 28th group to go to Kaleo), I felt this was the perfect way to finish my Lasallian journey. The crucial significance and impact of the relationship between the charity and the local community was immediately evident in the infrastructural development of the school. The local assistant to the project coordinator, Vincent, became a close friend to the group, and made no delay in taking us on a tour of Kaleo to see the countless buildings Lasallian has constructed over the years, allowing us to witness firsthand the true long term impact of the work we were there to continue. Even the building we stayed in for the duration of our project, Gregory House, was constructed by one of the first Lasallian projects in 1989.

In Ghana more than anywhere else, the friendliness and hospitality of the local people transformed the entire project, as countless individuals within the community went out of their way to make us feel welcome and appreciated. Even now, more than a year after returning home, I speak very regularly to Vincent and his family, as well as several other individuals we met during our stay in Kaleo. Their connection with Lasallian, developed and nurtured over all these years, is a testament to the true value and purpose of the charity’s work.

It goes without saying, of course, that the groups I have shared each of my projects with have also become friends that I hope to keep for the rest of my life. Perhaps the most unique quality of Lasallian from a volunteer perspective is its sense of community, as meetings and fundraising events throughout the year bring all the different groups together to share stories and experiences, not only allowing you to catch up with your own groups, but get to know all the others as well. In fact, many of the friends I have made through the charity are people I have never actually been on project with, but rather met during events within the UK. Typically the biggest event throughout the year is the annual Lasallian Ceilidh fundraiser taking place in November, which I am currently working as part of the committee to organise now that my years of doing projects are finished.

Every year the charity is looking to recruit new volunteers, and the only advice I would give to anyone planning to apply is to approach it with an open heart and the desire to do something good, as there is nothing more important to bring to Lasallian than the right attitude as a volunteer. In truth, the effects my Lasallian experiences have had on me personally are difficult to summarise, but I do not doubt that it has developed much of who I am today. It is a rare and beautiful thing to go away for five weeks with a group of strangers and return home as the closest of friends, and while everyone takes their own lessons away from their experiences, this for me has been the most important thing.