GoAbroad Interview

Erin Sparks - Placement Manager

Erin Sparks

Erin has been Placement Manager at Pod Volunteer for five years, and in that time she has organized placements for almost 800 volunteers and been involved in the creation of Pod Volunteers’ responsible travel and volunteering policies. Erin’s main expertise lies within animal and wildlife conservation projects. She has volunteered in South Africa, India, Namibia, Belize, and Thailand, and even led a group expedition to Thailand last year.

You volunteered with Pod Volunteer in Thailand at the Wildlife Rescue project, how did you move from young volunteer to staff member?

I volunteered at the Wildlife Rescue project in Thailand between my first and second year at university, when I was studying to become a speech and language therapist. I wanted to use my long university holidays to do something which utilised my passion for wildlife, and the Wildlife Rescue project was a great way to do that.

After I finished university, I decided that I was going to travel and volunteer again, this time to Africa to get the “travel bug” out of my system before finding a job. This plan backfired somewhat (but in the best way possible) when I ended up staying in South Africa in the role of volunteer coordinator at the Cheetah Reintroduction project.

Volunteer with a cheetah in South Africa

Erin at the Cheetah Reintroduction Project in South Africa

In 2010, I returned to the UK and began the dreaded job hunt. But, I quickly realized that my passion did not lie in speech therapy. I wanted to still be involved in volunteering, international development, and conservation, which is when I found the job with Pod Volunteer, and five years later I’m still here and still involved in the projects that I really care about. I’m living vicariously through the volunteers that I send overseas, and enjoy visiting the projects that I manage to volunteer there and see the developments first hand.

What was the thing you valued most from local staff when you volunteered abroad in Thailand with Pod Volunteer?

Their patience! When you’ve just arrived in a new country and you’re trying to get used to your new environment, climate, and time zone, it can take some time to adjust and get into the swing of things. The staff at the center are very friendly, have a good sense of humor, and are knowledgeable about the animals they work with, so you can learn a lot from them whilst volunteering.

Your role as Placement Manager focuses on Pod Volunteer programs in South Africa and Belize, what does your day-to-day schedule look like?

It’s great as no two days are ever completely the same. I deal with inquiries and applications first thing in the morning, making sure that all volunteers’ questions are answered and sending new applicants information about their chosen project. I then work through emails from volunteers and project staff overseas. The day may include interviewing volunteers for their chosen project, organizing their visa and police check, and organizing their airport pick ups, etc. Whenever we get time, we always try to share some photos and stories with the Pod Volunteer community through our facebook page.

You were the in-country volunteer coordinator for one of the projects in South Africa, how does this experience help you match volunteers with the Cheetah Reintroduction project there?

I think this experience has helped me in two main ways; firstly as you mention, it has helped me to be able to match volunteers to this project as I have seen volunteers on placement (as well as having been a volunteer there myself), and so I understand the requirements and challenges of the project more than most. We always like to be very open and honest about the challenges of each placement with our volunteers, as we want them to be fully aware of these and committed to the role before joining.

It has also allowed me to gain a greater understanding of being on the “other side”, and therefore what support projects like to have and how to create a really good working relationship between a volunteer “sending” organization and the project “receiving” organization. 

Holding a vulture in South Africa

With a vulture at a rehabilitation centre in South Africa - Photo Courtesy of Pod Volunteer

As Partner Manager, you also work to build partnerships with other organizations, how many affiliates do you currently have? In what areas are you looking to grow?

We work in partnership with a number of referral sites (such as GoAbroad) to help to recruit volunteers for our projects. I manage the partnerships that we have with our recommended flights and tours provider Journeys are Made, and our recommended insurance provider, Banner. We have partnerships with other organizations who can offer discounted rates for volunteers who are joining a Pod Volunteer project for TEFL courses and pre paid currency cards.

We also have partnerships with organizations who have approved our projects, such as Responsible Travel, Tourism Concern, The Year Out Group, Right Tourism, and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, to name but a few.

You’ve visited several of Pod Volunteer’s projects in various regions, if you were to go check out a new one, which one would you choose?

I have been very lucky during my time at Pod Volunteer to be able to visit so many of the countries we work in and our projects there. That’s a very tricky question but I think I would really enjoy our Amazon Conservation project in Peru. I’ve spent a lot of time in the African bush and savanna areas, and I think the rainforest would make a great contrast to this. The research work that they carry out is fascinating; it’s something I would love to contribute to one day. 

Volunteer with children in South Africa

Erin at the Children’s Day Care project in South Africa

You have extensive experience in Africa, South Africa particularly, what makes this country such a superb location for volunteers?

I completely fell in love with South Africa after my first visit there aged 18. It has a huge amount to offer volunteers and travelers alike. Although there are 11 official languages spoken in South Africa, English is the main language used so it’s very easy to communicate with locals. There is a rich and varied culture to learn about, including the history about the struggles faced during apartheid and how the country has developed since that time. If it is an area that interests you, then a trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned is a must.

The wildlife in South Africa is also a huge draw with 299 mammal species including the Big Five (leopard, lion, buffalo, elephant, and rhino), and 858 bird species. There are a number of parks which offer great game viewing opportunities, the most famous one being Kruger National Park, which I’ve visited around 10 times. This is why South Africa makes such a great choice for people looking for a volunteering opportunity with wildlife.

One of the other great things about South Africa is its diversity, there really is somewhere for everyone for your time off, or if you choose to travel before or after volunteering. Whether you’re looking for shopping in the thriving cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, seeing wildlife in the desert areas of the Karoo and the lowveld savannas in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo regions, or relaxing or surfing on the beautiful coastlines along the Garden Route, South Africa has an area which will suit you and a great climate all year round.

You lead Pod Volunteer’s Under 18 Elephant Care and Wildlife Rescue trip in Thailand, what advice would you give to young people who are interested in this program?

This project is great for 16 and 17-year-olds who are looking to gain some experience with wildlife, either because they’re looking to join an animal, conservation, or veterinary-related course in the future or just because they have a passion for animal welfare. The program is definitely not a holiday, it is hard work and the days are quite long and tiring. Not all the jobs are glamourous, so it’s important to come with an open mind and a good attitude towards the work that you’re doing.

Although it can be challenging, it is so rewarding to know you are doing it for animals that have had been abused, neglected, injured, or mistreated in the past, and to know you are helping to give them a better life. I would definitely recommend that they read the previous volunteers’ reviews, which also contain reviews from their parents so it’s also a great resource for parents too.

Scubadiver in Belize

At the Reef Conservation project in Belize

You’ve been with Pod Volunteer for almost five years, what has been your most memorable moment with the organization?

It’s so hard to pick just one! If I had to though, I would say leading the Under 18 Elephant Care and Wildlife Rescue trip in Thailand. It was such a privilege to travel with 16 and 17-year-olds who were so open to learning about animals and their care, new cultures, and who were so passionate and hard-working. One of my favorite evenings was when we had a discussion after watching some very difficult footage of the types of abuse that some of the animals had faced before being rescued by the center. I had so many other volunteers (who were over 18 and at the project at the same time) coming up to me and praising the group, I was very proud of them.

What is the most exciting part of working for Pod Volunteer?

I love working for Pod Volunteer, for me one of the most exciting parts is getting to visit our fantastic projects and see them develop and achieve their goals through the dedication and the hard work of the volunteers. It’s always great hearing from volunteers who have just returned and shared their experiences through their feedback, photos, and videos. I also really enjoy it when we’re able to make donations to the projects in order to help them with their great work through the Pod Charity.