For all prospective volunteers and accompanying partners VSO have a mandatory course called Preparing to Volunteer (P2V) which is at the VSO training centre Harborne Hall in the suburbs of Birmingham. For most people (myself included) this happens over a weekend during a Friday evening, full Sat/Sun and Monday morning.
Put simply P2V is like a nitrous-fuelled adrenalin-charged one way roller-coaster trip through the history of development, globalisation, aid, AIDS, volunteering, trade, slavery, poverty and much more besides.
Well perhaps I exadgerate ever so slightly but when I naively thought “a whole weekend??!? as a Guardian reader I will know it all already! they’re bound to just string out some lame old content to fill the time” I was soooooo very very wrong.
There were eighteen of us on the course and three trainers. I shall try not to gush but oh what a genuinely nice and interesting bunch of people they were. As always with VSO there was a massive mix of skills, backgrounds, ages, nationalities and motivations. Suffice to say on these kind of things there is usually always at least one a**e and on this course if there was it must have been me, oh, hang on, it was.
Having been “talked in” and found Harborne Hall in the pitch black (an ex-convent now gifted for the use of VSO and, I maintain, deliberately hidden and obscured, ahem) I managed to check in to my room (had to carry my own bags, no room service or en-suite – only two stars, tut).
A sumptuous dinner was spent meeting fellow P2Vers and, as would become a theme, being told and instantly forgetting their names (not on purpose!). Met up with someone from my assessment day which was great. Everyone very keen and very nice (I’ll stop repeating this now… just assume it implicitly from now on).
The Friday evening session was introductions (more names forgotten) and a schedule of the course etc. The three trainers are all returned volunteers who now work back in the UK and train for VSO now and again. Ground rules established; no physical violence etc. Reminded about “continual assessment”; no physical violence etc.
To the bar and discovery that everyone was at totally different stages of the process, some with placements already confirmed. In bed by 11.30 for an early start.
The core two days of the course consist of a series of topic based sessions on a whole range of subjects from personal issues (how will I cope, what would I do, why am I here) to global development issues (the cycle of aid, globalised trade etc).
Endlessly breaking into small groups we would discuss a topic, position post-its, order laminated cards, write on a flip-chart or even… role play. It was actually a lot of fun.
The only unpleasantness came from the long days and some of the subjects covered. The cycle of poverty, the inbalance of power between the “northern” and “southern” countries (VSO/development terms) and how that power is exploited and the HIV/AIDS pandemic being a few that certainly gave me pause for thought.
When it wasn’t raining (briefly) you could wander through the grounds with the mossy statues of the Saviour and little contemplation gardens. Apparently the summer is the time to be there with outdoor sessions and BBQs in the evening.
On Saturday night I walked up to the town with another participant and then completed and emailed my application for a position in Namibia off (my PAF form in VSO-speak). Sunday night was all about the bar and more forgetting of names.
Monday was a wrap-up and some positive stories, encouragement and a bon-voyage. There were tears (mine).
And off we scattered, to various parts of Europe initially and (hopefully) to various weird and wonderful corners of the globe.
For me this meant a long slow drive back to sunny Lowestoft with Radio 4 for company.
Highlighted Learning Point
We’re all b******ds in our comfy northern world (said eating pizza and drinking Diet Coke)
Not to be featured as a case study for future volunteers; “Dave was barely two weeks into his placement when he was thrown in the local jail over a language misunderstanding and a farmers favourite goat”
The trainers not being drawn into giving stories of volunteers who had been “continually deselected” at these sessions. This did lead us to make up likely scenarios…
- Having Nazi memrobilia in your room or reading a Daily Mail not for “ironic and anger management purposes” (which are the same thing)
- Saying “Sssh love, the men are talking, two sugars, now there’s a pet”
- Fighting during, after, or even before the trade game