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Projects Abroad volunteers celebrate the company's 30th birthday

30 Years of Impact: Our Story

Reflecting on Our Volunteers’ Incredible Impact

By Thom Brown | 16th August, 2022

11th of August, 1992: the day it all began. Projects Abroad was founded and started planning those very first trips abroad. 30 years later, the appetite for meaningful travel has only increased, which is why we’re still here, offering the very best ethical travel experiences.

We realise that not everyone knows the story behind Projects Abroad, what we’ve achieved, or what our future plans are. As we pass 30, now is the perfect time to offer clarity on who we are and what drives us.

To celebrate this milestone, we spoke with founder, Peter Slowe:

How It All Began

As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, new worlds opened up for Western Europeans. A continent once divided by an Iron Curtain was now ready for cultural exchange. The students of Dr Peter Slowe, a geography professor at the University of Chichester, raised the question of how they could visit former Soviet countries.

Peter sensed an opportunity and got in touch with colleagues in Eastern European universities. Together, they arranged cultural trips and Projects Abroad was born. The first of more than 129,000 volunteers set off to Romania to teach in local schools.

From those very first trips, it was obvious that Peter had discovered something special. Volunteers are so much more than tourists: more open to cultural exchange, more committed to responsible travel, more able to leave a positive impact, and more available for personal development.

Peter, with the help of overseas colleagues and keen students, had changed travel. 30 years later, we’re still committed to the same mission of making a positive impact.

How We Grew and Changed

Volunteers painting in Argentina

After the success of our projects in Romania, we branched out to Ghana. Peter used his connections in the country to expand beyond Europe into new continents. From there, we’ve entered countries all over the world, giving volunteers like you the chance to tick off your bucket list of destinations.

From the lush savannah of Kenya to the rugged mountains of Nepal; from the twisted jungle of Peru to the shimmering blue ocean of Fiji: there’s hardly a corner of this planet where we haven’t left an impact.

Our projects have also expanded in scope over the years. It’s not just teaching anymore. Volunteers are given a wide choice based on their preferences and career goals. From Animal Conservation and Childcare to Medicine and Micro-finance: we’ve got it all.

This growth came with the creation of a distinct mission and set of values. As our team grew to over 500, we set out to create trips that were safe, hassle-free, and impactful. As other companies began offering similar trips, these values helped set us apart. We began cultivating a reputation for responsible travel and a strong code of ethics.

The Pandemic

We almost didn’t make it to 30. Like all travel companies, 2020 hit us hard, with COVID-19 travel restrictions making it impossible to send people abroad. Much of the industry shifted to offering online alternatives, but we’ve always known the value of visiting communities in person.

Only by getting hands-on and looking locals in the eye can you make a real impact. That’s also the best way for volunteers to achieve personal growth.

We cut back and were forced to put some projects on hold. But we knew it wasn’t the end. It was just a break; a period of reflection to reassess our goals. We developed a COVID-19 policy to protect against this kind of event in the future.

As we celebrate turning 30, our workforce is growing again and we’ve been blown away by the numbers of new volunteers who have come on board. There’s a renewed appetite to travel and this time, people want to make sure they have a meaningful and memorable experience.

Our Impact on Communities

Children in Philippines smiling at each other

The best thing about turning 30 is knowing that we - or more importantly, you - have left three decades’ worth of impact on local communities. You’ve given generations of children a better start in life, laid thousands of bricks, and provided protection for countless animals.

Since that very first trip to Romania, we’ve sent more than 129,000 volunteers abroad. The numbers in our impact reports provide confirmation that this long and sometimes difficult journey has been worth it.

We can’t provide full stats for the last 30 years. We simply weren’t able to collect the data in the beginning. However, here are a few numbers from 2018 that show the amazing impact volunteers were able to achieve before the pandemic:

  • 24,250 medical checks completed
  • 57,700 trees and 37,600 mangroves planted
  • 100,000 sea turtle hatchlings released
  • 14,000 children educated
  • 974 legal cases opened
  • Fiji’s first carbon-neutral beach resort founded

That’s just a one-year snapshot from our incredible 30-year history. Many volunteers worry that they can’t make a difference on their own. We want to reassure all past, present, and future volunteers that you’re part of a monumental effort to leave a positive impact on the planet.

Alumni Stories

Peter Slowe celebrates Projects Abroad turning 30

From Peter’s initial idea to the incredible team working at Projects Abroad today, there’s always been one constant: our volunteers. People just like you have been crucial to the 30-year success of this organisation. Our alumni represent our values: an open-mindedness about other cultures, a desire to make a difference, and a willingness to get stuck in.

The stories our alumni tell are funny, heartwarming, and inspiring. They offer the motivation to continue doing what we do. The stories range from silly moments to life-changing experiences. There are 129,000 unique stories to tell; here are some of our favourites.

Success Stories

Many of our volunteers have had truly life-changing trips abroad, using it as inspiration to do something amazing. Trude completed a Childcare Project in Tanzania and was humbled to see how much difference a simple pair of shoes can make.

Being an older volunteer, Trude thanks Projects Abroad for giving her the courage and support to go to such a distant country. On returning home, Trude was inspired to set up her own charity, which continues to support children in Tanzania.

Another volunteer, Lisa, completed a Shark Conservation Project in Fiji and discovered her passion. During her trip, she went skydiving and learned to dive with bull sharks. The project enabled her to gain a PADI Diving Certification, which changed her life.

After the project, she returned home and quit her job to become a scuba instructor. Find out more about Lisa’s work here. It just goes to show how these trips don’t end when you return home - their lessons continue to inspire many years later.

Funny Fails

While we try to plan everything carefully, it’s sometimes the unexpected moments that make a trip memorable. Take Dawn, for example, who found herself being chased by a chicken within 30 minutes of arriving at her Galapagos Conservation placement.

It was a funny welcome to a culture entirely different from what she was used to. These are the moments that show volunteering isn’t all hard work; it can also be a time of joy and laughter. As, Stephanie, a volunteer in South Africa, put it: “Every day was a day full of fun.”

Memorable Moments

It can raise a smile when things go wrong, but of course, there have been plenty of profound moments over the last 30 years. For Ghana-based Medical intern, Mercy, it was the simple pleasure of cooking the local dish, Red Red. For Nepal volunteer, Laurie, the best moment was taking in the view from the World Peace temple.

Lola, a Childcare volunteer in Ghana, remembered the children fondly, particularly one who lived with Downs Syndrome. She also appreciated the locals calling her a princess. For Rebecca, nothing beats seeing the happiness in children’s eyes, while surfing volunteer, Stephanie, will never forget the feeling of watching someone take their first wave.

Projects Abroad staff in Ghana celebrating 30 years

Life Lessons

Volunteers who explore new cultures and challenge themselves tend to pick up nuggets of wisdom. Vincent’s trips to Ghana, South Africa, and Peru taught him that “Money isn't everything, friendship and connections are.”

Rebecca came to similar conclusions during her travels, realising that “You don't need much to be happy.” Stephanie agrees, discovering that “You make your own happiness, even if you don’t have a lot”.

Others learned all about the inherent similarity of humans, despite our surface-level differences. Laurie believes that “everyone is different but the same” while Micro-finance in Cambodia intern, Cindy, wisely notes that “There are 1,000 ways to live a good life.” Lisa, who did Shark Conservation in Fiji, agrees, asserting that “we can all share the same values and ideals, no matter where we come from.”

Alumni Advice

Through the funny times, the touching moments, and the lessons learned, our alumni are fountains of useful advice. If you’re considering volunteering but haven’t taken the plunge yet, this is for you. Here are the best words of wisdom from our former volunteers:

  • “Enjoy every moment!” - Cindy, Micro-finance in Cambodia.
  • “Look up country customs.” - Gwynfor, six-time volunteer in Nepal, Philippines, Tanzania, Ghana, and Kenya.
  • “Look for a good fit and go for it.” - Liza, Conservation in the Galapagos.
  • “Try to make the best out of it. Look for opportunities. Don't wait to be motivated.” - Barbara, Medical projects in Peru, Tanzania, and Mexico.
  • “Go with an open heart and mind. You will experience the best the world has to offer.” - Laurie, volunteer in Nepal.
  • “Get as much information as possible about your internship. Keep a journal. Live in the moment.” - Mercy, Medical Internship, Ghana.
  • “Research your destination. Ask lots of questions and don't be afraid to say you’re struggling. Remember you’re in a different environment - your body needs to adapt.” - Dawn, Conservation in the Galapagos.

Looking Ahead

Peter Slowe on volunteer placement in Nepal

As proud as we are of these past 30 years, we’re not stuck in the past. It’s time to look forward and think about how we can make the greatest impact in this rapidly-changing world. We’ve already launched a series of new adventures that we hope will appeal to more people looking for meaningful and impactful trips.

This year, the first travellers went on Ethical Consumerism trips, including Ethical Fashion in Cambodia and Plastic Education in Sri Lanka. Immediate feedback confirms that these are worthwhile and fulfilling trips. We’re also planning to offer a greater range of Food Tours, Discovery Tours, Wellness trips, and Cultural Immersion programmes.

We understand that every traveller has unique goals. By offering bespoke and flexible projects, we cater to as many people as possible. As we move into the future of meaningful travel, we also want to cement our place as experts in Group Trips, offering tailor-made adventures for schools, universities, corporations, and other groups.

Like all ethical companies, we’re becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the environment. We know that sending thousands of people overseas is doing a lot of good for the world, but we also recognise that it can damage the environment. We’ve been carbon offsetting for a number of years, but we’re upping our efforts to become a climate-positive company.

In line with our commitment to the environment, we also plan to become a B Corp very soon. This would offer verification that we meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.

The last 30 years have been an incredible ride, but we couldn’t have done it without you. The positive attitude of all our volunteers has helped us come this far and it’ll keep us operating long into the future. Long may we continue to offer the highest standard of ethical, meaningful, and impactful trips abroad.

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