Monday, May 7, 2012

John’s Gap Year Leads to a Life of Purpose

Madventurer is at the leading edge of ‘voluntourism’, cleverly combining volunteering and travelling in developing countries for a cross-cultural win-win. All trips help fund vital projects supported by the Make A Difference (MAD) Foundation.

The charity’s achievements over 14 years in 14 countries are phenomenal.  MAD volunteers have funded and physically contributed to more than 300 community projects, including the building of 128 classrooms, 80 toilet blocks and pit latrines, 12 pre-schools, one HIV clinic, one green house, one kitchen with a bread oven, 100 sinks and wash stations, one technical school block, eight permanent family houses and 20 fishing boats (destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami), 13 water tanks for schools, eight playgrounds, five bridges, five storm drains, two bakeries, one fish farm, planted over 25,000 trees, dug and laid 25 miles of water pipeline, taught 85,000 lessons, coached 63,000 sports sessions, renovated six orphanages and a home for street kids.

And it all started with the accidental gap year of one gutsy young man.

Too much partying, not enough studying. That was the stern verdict.  John Lawler, at 22, was lost when he was kicked out of his engineering course at Newcastle University in 1998.

A mate suggested volunteering abroad. Keen to do something meaningful, he endured a mundane job to raise the cash for a trip to Ghana to teach English.

It was this forced gap year that changed the direction of John’s life and infused him with passion and purpose and launched a thriving charity that has transformed countless lives.

But the story was not without twists and turns, literally. The night John arrived in the pitch dark in the capital, Accra he fell down a storm drain and broke his ankle. He had to wait in excruciating pain until morning to have his shattered bone set in a caste.

This fateful accident left him hobbling around on crutches and unable to stand in a classroom. His volunteering was over before it began.

Now 37, John recalls in our interview in a rare burst of sunshine in London, sitting amongst the tourist throng at Tower Hill, how he moped around the Accra hostel, feeling dejected and useless. “I was so frustrated. I had saved all this money to volunteer but wasn’t making a difference to anyone at all.”

Some of his fellow travellers had discovered the tiny remote village of Shia in the Volta Region in desperate need of teachers in their dilapidated classrooms.

“I remember hopping into the village on crutches and saying proudly to the chief ‘I’ve come here to help you’ and seeing him chuckle with a wry expression that said ‘I think you’re the one who needs help, my boy!”

Eventually John, the eager wounded healer, started volunteering when his caste was taken off.

“I had a great time, helping the head master, teaching science and maths to secondary school kids. Being a small start-up private school, the village received no government money so it was left up to the villagers to run the school themselves.

“I wasn’t a trained teacher, just interested in doing something worthwhile. I spent about four months in the village and went back to Accra on the weekends and persuaded four of the other volunteers to leave their posts at wealthy city schools to come and help at Shia.

“Time flew by. We made a bigger impact by volunteering in the village. We became part of the community and spent weekends exploring the beautiful countryside. There’s a lot to see in Ghana.”

He decided to go backpacking around Africa to explore the spectacular continent. “It was the perfect balanced experience, he recalls. I had worked hard for four months now I was playing hard for four months.”

“In my early 20s I wanted to have the best travel experience combined with giving back. So that was my moral compass. I got to satisfy my travel bug ethically by combining sightseeing with volunteering.

The seeds of ‘voluntourism’ started to germinate in his fertile imagination. “No organisation at the time was offering good charity work with organised adventures. The volunteers agreed they wanted both.”

Launching MAD

John’s character was cultivated through mentoring sessions with village elders. “I was privileged to meet great elders such as Justus who taught me a lot on those starry nights with no electricity when we would sit chatting together on the porch.”

“I was forming strong relationships and this was the start of a long-term commitment to the development of the village.”

The elders were so impressed by John’s genuineness, they asked him to join their council as Chief of Development with the grand title Chief Torgbui Mottey I. ‘Mottey’ means ‘pioneering pathfinder through the forest.’

“They created this name for me and gave me a ceremonial hand-crafted stool and I was trained into the village traditions. It was a great honour and very humbling experience. I wasn’t born there. I didn’t live there. I am witnessing their poverty but I at any point I could walk away from it. I’m not caught in that poverty trap. Yet they trusted me to join their community.”

When John returned to Newcastle University clearly ‘a changed man’, his tutor let him finish his Degree. He redeemed himself with a rigorous thesis on the effects of gold mining on Ghana and graduated with Honours in Environmental and Ecological Engineering.

“The experience in Ghana made me appreciate education more. And during my final year of study early in 1999 I was mulling over how I could help the village.”

He flew back to Shia with his mum and two sisters for a ceremony to induct him as chief. Dressed in full traditional regalia, he remembers shaking with nerves as he gave a speech to accept his new role.”

“The elders knew I would be more useful back in the UK but they asked me to promise to come back once a year and do something, no matter how small, to keep engaged with the village.

“As a young lad I was given some responsibility. A wee village in the middle of nowhere asked me to do something, which made me feel of importance to them. That motivated me.”

Back at Newcastle University, armed with his expertise in organising Fresher activities, John decided to work with the Student Union to create overseas experiences for students. He set up the MAD Society. Initially the acronym stood for ‘Mottey African Development’.

He recruited 17 energetic young people, including his housemates, to fundraise and go to Shia over the summer of 1999 to help renovate the derelict school building.

What these young volunteers achieved was beyond all expectations. Working alongside skilled men from the surrounding clans, not only did they fix up the old school, they built several new classrooms. In fact, they improved the school to a standard that qualified for government funding.

 And between labouring stints, the volunteers did some valuable teaching and sports coaching, taking delight in the exuberant kids. The trip culminated with a joyous celebration and fiercely contested football match, which the talented Ghanaian team won!

On the flight home, elated by making such a tangible difference, the volunteers were keen for more trips and quickly spread their enthusiasm for volunteering around campus.

Now 14 years later, Madventurer and the MAD Foundation have funded community projects and provided scholarships, workshops and placements in Ghana, Togo, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Peru, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Tonga, Trinidad, Fji and Sri Lanka.

Along the way John found love. He fell head over heels for vivacious Irish barmaid, Elaine Cupples, an actor and writer, and they married in 2006, with two weddings, one in the Newcastle and the other, a traditional Catholic ceremony in Shia. Elaine was made an honorary Queen with the title of Mama Ama Wisika meaning ‘People are more precious than gold’ and she joined her new husband in working for the MAD cause.

Having helped the little village of Shia to become a flourishing community, Madventuer went global. And it is not just for students.

John points out that the desire to Make A Difference grabs people of all ages. ‘Career Breakers’ take time out to volunteer abroad, ‘Empty Nesters’ want to share their nurturing skills further afield and idealistic families, school groups and corporate teams all want to go MAD!

There’s a new trend for parents of gap year students and adventurous Baby Boomers over 50 to spread their wings into volunteering abroad.

MAD co-ordinates around 600 volunteers in 50 trips from March to September every year. Groups of 12 are led by experienced team leaders.

Volunteers pay £190 for a two-week stay (covering basic accommodation and meals) and a further £500 donation to the project. They cover their own airfares and additional sightseeing costs. Madventurer partners with the Intrepid Travel and Absolute Africa to arrange outstanding tours at discount rates.

The Value of Volunteering

John says: “Volunteering is immensely rewarding. Ideally volunteers will go away raving about the experience. It is an introduction to getting to know a culture and a place. It is a soft landing to get into the real issues. 
“I know a lot of volunteers with Madventurer who were like me in the beginning, quite naïve, not knowing what to expect. But they have developed and created their own knowledge base.

“Gemma would spend the week days volunteering then go the beach and out partying but those days slowly changed her and a few years later she returned to Madventurer to lead a project. Volunteering affected her without her realising it. And now she is Deputy Head of Mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres

“Ben started off as MAD volunteer, then crewed several projects for us, then worked at MAD HQ before setting up the ethical travel operation Tribe Wanted.

“Mark volunteered for us in Kenya and was inspired by his experience so much that he eventually went on to work as Head of International Marketing and Communications at Bono's RED to eliminate AIDS.”

“Hilary, who volunteered with us as a student in Ghana, is now Policy Officer at the Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels.

“Another girl, Sarah eventually got into international development and is now Heading up environmental projects in Rwanda. Other MAD volunteers have gone on to work for Raleigh International and VSO 

John believes that the practical work, the global friendships and the injection of funds make a massive difference to struggling communities. “Any money you inject leads to education, health and infrastructure.

“Short-term volunteering gives people an insight into what’s going on and encouragement to return to their own ‘tribe’ at home to raise awareness and funds and continue on-going support of their new friends in other countries.”

And if supporters are not inclined to travel they can still make a difference through the MAD Ambassador scheme. Clubs, pubs, businesses, companies, schools and families can Adopt a Project and fundraise for small or large items, from a kit of sports equipment to a new school. The group can send a member to visit the project and report back.

Donations also employ teachers and put nurses through college on scholarships. The Something About Mary Campaign currently has its first young woman, Mary (Maria Wambui Kariuki) sponsored to train as a Nurse in the Rift Valley in Kenya.

“It is only because of where Mary was born, in the small community of Karunga, that she was unable to raise the funds to pursue her career of helping people in Kenya. She is now studying at St Luke’s Registered Community Health Nursing School in North Kinangop.

“It costs around £1100 for a full year’s school fees to enable women like Mary to complete such courses. We have been supporting Mary since 2010 and her course will finish at the end of 2013.

“She’s achieved outstanding grades and worked incredibly hard to fulfill her potential. Others like Mary have amazing potential to excel in such professions but lack opportunities and the funds needed for training”.

The MAD Foundation aims to sponsor more nurses and teachers across Kenya and Ghana.

The MAD Philosophy

The innovative charity grew organically without a business plan, solving problems and learning along the way. MAD currently has a core staff of three including Rebecca Fisher and Lorna Bonnington, and a mixture of UK and local crew leaders in each country. It keeps overheads low while maximising results.

John explains: “We have focused on construction, education and sport. Our main destination is Ghana because of our history. Half of our volunteers go there. My personal passion is the whole of Africa. I’d like to do a lot more in other troubled countries such as Rwanda.”

 “Once a village has basic infrastructure the focus shifts to generating income and stimulating the local industry.”

He adds: “All the projects are community led. The locals know what they need and how to go about it.. Each project has a co-investment approach where each community provides whatever volunteer support and materials it can and MAD helps towards the rest, including paying for skilled local labour.

“For every international volunteer one local person is employed on the project. ‘Developing together’ is our ethos”.

MAD has at times partnered with other NGOs with specific expertise. For example they worked with Water Aid to sink wells and help with sanitation in Ghana. 

Sanitation means empowerment. “When you build a toilet block at a school it encourages more girls to attend. Getting an education changes their lives.”

John’s current pet project is a cocoa plantation and chocolate factory in Shia. It aims to build a sustainable livelihood for the farmers through constructing a cocoa production factory and staff headquarters and promoting fair trade, organic farming. 

“We are assisting with the farming of the cocoa from plantation through to production. Volunteers learn about fair trade by working alongside farmers, which leads to increased income generation for the farmers and whole community.”

John’s enthusiasm hasn’t wavered. He leads three volunteering trips a year, including hosting tours for celebrity patrons such as the Spanish model Elen Rivas, actor and presenter Polly Parsons, and several former Big Brother contestants that include Zach ‘Ziggy’ Lichman, Liam McGough and Anthony Hutton.

And he somehow finds time to tackle extreme challenges such as trekking in Antarctica, driving a land rover across West Africa, climbing Kilimanjaro, sky diving and learning to fly!

“I find life incredibly exhilarating and fulfilling. It is a great buzz, always thinking about what to do next. Every project is different. It’s impossible to get bored!”

He’s a member of the Work Abroad Association, the British Educational Travel Association and the Year Out Group.

“I am playing an inter-connected role now with a range of charities but Madventurer will always be my baby!” And he is proud that many ex-MAD volunteers have set up their own small charities, which are growing all over the world.

People Power

John is fired up about the power of ordinary individuals to drive international development. “To witness poverty and work to alleviate suffering is always a positive thing.

“Volunteering abroad brings cultures together, it helps combat racism, it brings people together to work on a common goal. It is a winning formula.

“Volunteers come back and create their own networks. There are lots of spin-off projects and good stuff happening that flows from people making that first step into a different environment.

“On the travel side, everybody goes through a stage where they need to explore exotic lands and survive in the wilderness. We all need to take the ‘Journey’ for personal growth.”

And part of personal growth is discovering generosity, connection and compassion. “When people are coined up, they’ve got lots of distractions and are more materialistic. However with financial restructuring, people have become more focused on the important things in life. Ironically when people are less well off, they tend to give more.

“With current job insecurity, British people are being forced out of their comfort zones. We are becoming less selfish and more community and globally aware.”

Some cynics might ask: Why should we in the UK worry about people in other countries when we have enough domestic problems to worry about?’

John has a sobering answer. “Out of seven billion people in the world, 1.4 billion live in extreme poverty, that’s less that $1.25 a day, two bowls of rice and a little bit of veg. This is a major imbalance. The goal is to try to eradicate poverty.

“Some people think this can’t happen. But the Global Poverty Project is trying to mobilise people to do their bit and Madventurer is just one organisation working alongside many others to achieve this ambitious goal.

“We are all connected as a global family and although it might take a bit longer to get there, the people in other countries are our neighbours. It’s only right to help our neighbours. Once we visit and get to know them, they become our friends.”

John Lawler is a modest, quiet achiever whose satisfaction comes from empowering people in poor communities. He doesn’t blow his own trumpet or seek publicity. In 2004 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for outstanding achievements in the International Volunteering Sector. He is an inspirational man who is truly Making A Difference.

1 comment:

  1. Really inspiring story. We are called to a bigger mission and to contribute and John and his team have done just this and your story does them justice.