Jui Damle talks to Richard Lees about his unique organisation Volunteering Goa that brings volunteers from the UK to work with children in need in Goa
‘Where there is a will, there is a way’. This must have been Richard Lees’ mother’s motto when he was growing up. Richard Lees, a young Englishman in his mid-thirties, runs a not-for-profit organisation called ‘Volunteering Goa’. The organisation acts as a bridge between eager and enthusiastic volunteers and a couple of NGOs in Goa working with children from the underprivileged strata of society.
Growing up in a small village called Bathford, about 200 kilometres from London, Richard was blissfully unaware of Goa or India. He grew up in this village, and went on to study Chemistry at the University of York and trained to be a teacher. During his student years, the wander lust brought him to India. And even then Goa was not on his radar, the flight just happened to be via Goa. After spending just a couple of days in Goa, he embarked on his teenage backpacking tour through India and landed up in Kerala. It was in Kerala that he got acquainted with the social sector in India. He then came to Goa and was further introduced to some organisations working with children. “There was no a-ha moment,” says Richard. “I realised during these interactions with the NGOs that funding was not a challenge for these organisations but finding the right people was. They lacked the people with skills and education to help and work with the children”.
Initially, Richard started out with friends or acquaintances accompanying him on his annual trips to Goa and volunteering in different homes for underprivileged children. The India trips had turned to Goa by then and with the success of these volunteers, he was encouraged to set up ‘Volunteering Goa’. The organisation now brings at least 6 – 10 volunteers from the UK to Goa to work for 2 to 3 months at a stretch. Volunteering Goa primarily works with two organisations – Konkan Development Society and the Bethesda Life Centre. In both the organisations, the volunteers work with children of HIV patients or orphans or those from families in need.
How does that work with children who have had little or no exposure to English and the British volunteers? “It works quite well,” says Richard. “We conduct some orientation prior to the volunteer actually going to the home and working with the children”. But he has found that in most cases, the volunteering is a success. Richard’s home in Porvorim is open to the volunteers to come back over the weekends and take a break. Richard has even encouraged the organisations to help accommodate the volunteers near the homes, so that they are available to the children in the early morning or late evenings, which is when the children are not at school. And there are always bitter sweet moments. Richard loves to narrate this case of a shy boy of 6 who had lost his parents and was clearly depressed and wasn’t able to communicate with other kids due to language issues. The interactions with one of the older volunteers helped him boost his confidence. After she left for the UK, Richard encountered the boy again and he came up to him confidently and cheekily and said, “Tell Madam that I was naughty!”
Initially, Richard had thought students would be more interested in the volunteering program. But over the last 5-6 years since the inception of Volunteering Goa, there are now older people coming forth as volunteers. The oldest is arguably an 83 year old priest. Some are regulars, who have been volunteering for several years now, but most are fresh volunteers who come for this unique experience. The organisation raises funds through church groups, charities and individuals in the UK. Richard also continues to tutor and teach Chemistry in the UK, when he returns during the summer months to help fund the needs of the organisation. The volunteers pay for themselves but if they can’t, then the organisation provides the funds.
There are several teachers with years of experience working as volunteers. A common theme emerges – “We came here to teach but are returning after learning a lot.” This is perhaps the biggest reward for Richard and Volunteering Goa.