We love it when our returned volunteers share their experiences with us! We interviewed Caroline about her amazing experience in the UK as an Outdoor Camp Assistant.
Thank you so much, Caroline! Please tell us a bit about your volunteer placement.
My placement is Blackwell Adventure in England. Blackwell Adventure is an outdoor activity center in the outskirts of Birmingham for scouts, guides, school groups, as well as day groups. The center offers a variety of activities like zipwire, rock climbing, archery, and much, much more. My role on site is group coordinator. As group coordinator, my job is to oversee school groups and help their visits run smoothly from organizing meal times, bringing them to and from activities, and even running campfires (silly songs included).
What were you doing before placement?
I had just graduated from university with a major in Communications. Through my uni back home, I was able to study abroad in Cambridge, England back in 2016. I was there for about four months and I loved every second of it. I knew I wanted to come back to England at some point before I started a job back home and got too tied down. After some searching, I happened upon Lattitude and my epic journey began. I finally was on my way to live my dream of living in England once again.
What made you decide to volunteer?
I knew I wanted to find myself in England again. I figured that after graduation would be the perfect time to do it. I had worked previously with little kids through a program called College Mentors for Kids and I felt like I had a connection with them. My favorite thing was getting enthusiastic about the things they got enthusiastic about. Kids also have so much to say and I loved to listen to them and share in their excitement. I knew I wanted to volunteer with kids and falling upon Blackwell Adventure really was a home run. Going somewhere that I love and being around things that I love sounded like the ideal gap year.
Describe a typical day?
A typical day always depends on what groups are coming in and what day of the week it is. So, I will describe a typical day for me when it was peak season.
The second day of a school group were always the busiest; 8:30am to 8:00pm work day. I would meet the kids for breakfast in their respective accommodations and usually talk to them about the upcoming activities.
Some of the discussions were along the lines of “How high do you think you’ll go on the 3G Swing?”, “Have any of you done archery before?”, or “Are you planning on going upside down on the zipwire?”.
After breakfast, I would get the kids into their groups and they were on their way. Then I would start the preparations for lunchtime. I am always a stickler for presentation, so the organization of crisps, sweets, and sandwiches always had to be perfect. Lunch would come and go and their second round of activities would begin. During this session, I would walk around and watch some of the activities.
These would usually be the Fan Descender or 3G Swing, probably the two hardest things to do on site. Dinner would come around and then it would be the campfire! As group coordinator, one of my responsibilities is running campfire and this includes leading songs and distributing the sacred marshmallows. Campfire was always a nice send off for the groups and I had some of my favorite times around the campfire circle. Each and every day would be different, but these kinds of days happen the most often. The busier, the better.
What are some highlights?
Seeing the kids conquer their fears is always the best feeling. Almost all the activities at Blackwell Adventure involve heights in some way and, plot twist, a lot of kids are afraid of heights. The biggest instances where I’ve seen kids conquering their fears were on the 3G Swing. The face of “I absolutely cannot do this” turns into “THIS IS SO MUCH FUN!” in a blink of an eye. Then comes the wonderful phrase that I hear quite frequently, “I want to go again!”
I never failed to be very stressed out before every campfire I was in charge of. I tried to gauge the kids and decide which songs they would enjoy and which songs would bore them. There was one campfire that sticks out in mind because the school had such a great time. They participated in every song and even started singing some of the songs during breakfast the next morning. If anyone reading this has heard the Llama song, that is my absolute favorite song to do at campfires and singing that has been one of the greatest highlights of working here.
What challenges did you face? How did you overcome?
I have been away from home since the beginning of March. This has been the longest I have been away from home. Missing family and friends was inevitable, but there were a few evenings where I just wanted to have a hug from my parents or have a nice long chat with my best friend.
In this day and age, it is thankfully very easy to get into contact with people far away. I had weekly check-ins with my parents, updating them about anything and everything and telling them about my past week. If I was lucky, I would even get a meow into the phone from one of my cats.
The other gappers have been an absolute blessing as well. Being in constant contact with people who are in the same boat as you helped me realize that I was not alone in my feelings of missing home.
Every type of job brings its own fun challenges that you need to overcome, even jobs that are all about kids having a fun time. I’ve had to deal with kids fighting with each other, crying about their dislike for curry, and missing their own families.
Conflict resolution between eight year olds can be a tough issue to deal with, but I had to realize that if a problem that doesn’t seem like a big one to me, it may be the biggest problem for them. Neutralizing the situation and giving them a new topic to talk about usually fixed the issue. I started using myself as an example, when I talked to the kids about being homesick. The kids always started to feel homesick during a meal, when they weren’t doing one of the activities. My advice was as follows. I’m 23 and I get homesick too. I usually get homesick when I am not doing much either. You know why? Because nothing is occupying my mind except for that. Once I start doing something, I don’t feel homesick anymore. I had to follow my own advice in plenty of situations. It helped.
I usually don’t know I am good at something until someone confirms it by saying that I am. This occurred twice with my time being a group coordinator. A big part of the job is talking in front of the kids and making sure they understand all the instructions you are giving out. I know I have a very loud speaking voice and getting the kids’ attention was never an issue for me. After I gave one of my talks to the kids outside of their accommodation, one of my bosses approached me and said, “You are a very good public speaker.” I knew all those communication classes would come in handy at some point. It really boosted my self esteem, knowing that I was excelling is that aspect of the role.
One thing that happens with every school group is giving the leader of the group the opportunity to fill out a feedback form. This feedback form includes accommodation, food, activities, and any additional information they would like to add. Not to toot my own horn, but I surprisingly got a lot of positive feedback. The leaders liked how I interacted with their group, they said the campfire was the best one they have ever had, and one even said, “Our school has been coming for 10 years and Caroline has been the best group coordinator we’ve had.” Having that being said about me, a person who has never led a group of more than six kids at a time, warmed my heart until it was nearly on fire. That was an accomplishment that really confirmed that I am actually kind of good at working with kids.
Has your outlook of life changed being on placement?
I think the biggest thing that has opened my eyes during this placement is learning about the backgrounds of the other gappers around me. There are people from Australia, New Zealand, South America, Canada, and South Africa. We’re all different ages and all at different stages of life. Some have graduated from college like me, some are currently in college, and some of them haven’t even experienced college yet! I’ve learned that paces of life differ quite drastically than the one that I am used to in the States. The world is so big and so vast that even the people that I have lived with for almost seven months are still so different from me. My lifestyle isn’t the only lifestyle out there.
How do you feel your experience with Lattitude help you in future?
The whole process of working with Lattitude has prepared me for so much that may happen in the future. Applying for a visa, working and communicating with people overseas via email and phone, interacting with all kinds of different people ranging from teachers, parents, and children, and living with different people in such a close proximity are all skills and situations that I found myself in during the past seven months. There were many ups and downs that helped me build a sense of confidence, poise, and mindset for future circumstances to come.
Any advice for people considering Lattitude?
Ask questions! The folks at Lattitude were nothing but helpful with the countless of questions I had for them. I had a few visa issues and Lattitude was in it with me the entire time. Don’t be afraid to email or even call your region mentor. They are there to help.
Dive right in when you get to your placement. I arrived late at Blackwell Adventure and the other gappers were doing a rock climbing training session the evening I arrived. They said I could skip it since I just flew in that day, but I said I would participate. I wanted to throw myself right into the gang and immerse myself with the people I would be living with. I avoided staying in my room and tried to hang out in communal areas to create friendships. I think the strategy worked because now I have good friends from all over the world and I am dreading leaving them when my time at Blackwell Adventure comes to an end.
Don’t pack too much, You will buy stuff at your placement. I am dealing with this devastating mistake right now.
Take advantage of the new place you’re living in and travel to neighboring cities and towns. You will get time off and nothing beats getting on to the train or bus and finding yourself somewhere completely new.
Strap in. This gap year will be one of the best years of your life.