Volunteering Abroad: A left-at-home Mum’s Perspective

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Are you in this predicament right now? Is your son or daughter about to embark on the trip of a lifetime? Are you putting on a brave face whilst actually quaking inside at the very thought of your offspring setting off without you?

If so then STOP! Stop it right now. Everything will be fine, truly, those fabulous people at African Impact will make sure it is. Don’t believe me, then read on. Here’s mine and Rachel’s story.

Oh my goodness, she’s really doing this – help!

Just after her 19th birthday, after a little deliberation, Rachel decided she was going to Cape Town to volunteer with African Impact on the Veterinary and Abused Animal Shelter Project at TEARS. Why? Because she wants to work with dogs back home but needed some experience. How did I feel at this point? Super excited for her – absolutely. Terrified at the same time – no shadow of a doubt. Did I try to talk her out of it – no way!

The whole application process was pretty seamless, no questions too silly to ask and the support from the fabulous Volunteer Co-ordinators over in Cape Town was second to none and so very reassuring, both for Rachel and her worry guts mum!

Before we knew it, flights were being booked….’Mum, shall I fly direct or save some money by having a layover in Dubai?’ You can imagine what was going through my head at this point; Rachel had never flown alone before, never flown outside Europe before and certainly never had to catch a connecting flight on her own before. I’m thinking ‘direct flight, direct flight’. But it was her choice. Saving some money so she could do more activities whilst in South Africa won the day and a layoverin Dubai was scheduled. Oh boy, I thought to myself, more worry! She’s going to be delayed, miss her flight, lose her baggage and be stranded in Dubai!! I had to give myself a stern talking to!

Before we knew it, departure day had arrived. Jabs had been jabbed, suitcase had been packed, unpacked, repacked, weighed, unpacked again then finally repacked once more! Tickets – check, passport – check, money – check. Now, one of the moments I had been dreading. Rachel saying farewell to her best friend, our very old, faithful, family dog. Here came the tears. ‘What if he’s not here when I get back Mum?’ Somehow I held it together…..just.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

The trip to London was fine and after an overnight stay with the grandparents, it was finally time for mother and daughter to depart for the airport. Her nerves kicked in. ‘I don’t want to do this any more, can’t we just go back home to my puppy?’ DON’T CAVE I told myself, and I am telling you, it is hard but DON’T DO IT!

The drive to the airport revealed a mixture of emotions from Rachel, tears, laughter, until, that is, I decided to get us lost en route, a useful distraction as Rachel had to go into SatNav mode and get us there in one piece.

Baggage checked, there’s time for a coffee before she has to go through security. We’re calm but quiet, until Dad gives her a call. Oh boy! Thanks Dad, you’ve set her off now. How the hell am I going to hold it together now?!!! Somehow I managed, goodness knows how, especially when she tells me dad was getting emotional down the phone too!

Time to go through security, this was it. Must stay strong, must stay positive, I kept repeating over and over again in my head. Big hugs and she’s gone. She’s saying she doesn’t want to go, but you know she must. As a mum, every fibre of your being is yelling at you to protect her and keep her with you but you have to fight through this and do whatever it takes to get them through that gate and onto that plane. You will kick yourself if you don’t, and so will they – hard!

I watched her go through security successfully, very proud of myself for not turning into a snotty, snivelling wreck. But as I took one more look back, there seemed to be a problem. She was standing there in the distance with her back to me looking down at something. Then my phone rang. ‘Mum, my backpack’s broken, the zip’s gone and I can’t do it back up’ says an obviously very unhappy Rachel. How I prevented myself from leapfrogging over security to get to her to help I really do not know. Not only that, this was when I had the sudden realisation that she now was truly on her own and had to sort herself out without any help from me, now that was hard, I won’t lie. Calmly, I dug deep and told her to go and buy a new bag airside, regardless of the cost, I would pay. Less than 5 minutes later I got another call from Rachel to discuss the new backpack options open to her, obviously much happier, to my relief (well she was shopping, her 2nd favourite pastime, after dogs of course). Now she was truly on her way.

She’s arrived!

The build-up, the farewells and the departure were hard, I am not going to lie, but as the hours passed and the number of excited messages flooded in about all different elements of the journey and then finally the message I had been waiting for, that she had arrived safely and been met in Cape Town, it was all more than worth it, without a shadow of a doubt.

Yes, the first few days saw a few slightly homesick text messages, but after sleep was caught up with, and friends were made, there was no looking back. ‘Mum I’m going abseiling’, ‘Mum I’m doing a skydive’, ‘Mum, I’m doing a bungee jump’. ‘Mum’ was very excited that Rachel was experiencing everything she possibly could, but ‘Mum’ was also very relieved to receive a text after each activity, saying ‘I’m alive’.

Of course when the volunteering actually started, Rachel was the happiest girl in the world. Totally in her element. To see the sheer joy in her face in the many photos she sent me from TEARS of her working with the dogs, sent away any remaining doubts I may have had about her being so far away from home. Relaxed, contented and without a care in the world. Who could ask more for their child? I looked forward to receiving the little updates about the dogs in her care most evenings and was relieved that she could keep in touch so easily.

After a tearful farewell to her canine friends after 3 weeks volunteering, Rachel had a week on the Garden Route, again soaking up new experiences, meeting new people and making the most of her time in South Africa.

On her return to Cape Town, there was time to pack in a few more days exploring and of course one more trip to TEARS, before beginning her long journey home.

What have we taken away from the experience?

During her whole time away, Rachel felt looked after, she felt safe, she felt valued. Most of all, from a Mum’s point of view, she has grown in confidence, she has surprised me with her determination and resolve to try new things from eating ostrich to jumping out of an aeroplane, and she has come home with more of a direction on where she wants life to take her…… back to Cape Town being one of those goals. A true love affair with the place has begun, I think.

Finally, a word of warning to anyone whose son/daughter is about to volunteer on the same project as Rachel. Don’t be surprised if they don’t come back alone. Rachel has decided to adopt one of the TEARS dogs. A very special boy, who she worked tirelessly with during her volunteering, in order to bring on his confidence and trust to the point that from being a very scared dog hiding away in his kennel, he is now learning to play again and is learning that life can be fun. Looking forward to meeting you soon Thomas!

Oh and yes, the very old, faithful friend was still here and was very pleased to have her back!

Thank you African Impact – and watch out, she’ll be back!

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