GoAbroad Interview

Jill Walker - Assistant Director of Programs

Jill Walker - Assistant Director of Programs

Jill Walker oversees all of GVI’s projects in Laos, Nepal, Thailand, Australia, and parts of Africa even. She understands the ins and outs of not only developing projects but training staff and ensuring that programs are successful for volunteers, locals, and GVI. Armed with a Masters in Environmental Education, it is no wonder Jill has continued to devote herself to GVI’s mission and earn the position of Assistant Director of Programs.

a mahout and an elephant in Thailand
The mahout and his baby elephant. Photo by Carter Brown

What inspired you to come to Asia for the first time?

I had finished college and I was doing side-jobs and things like that. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, and I had a friend that was living in Taiwan teaching who would visit Thailand every year for a Chinese New Year holiday. So she just asked if I wanted to be here for a couple of weeks, so I said sure. I figured, I didn’t have much money, so I was going to save up the money and stay there for a while and just wander around and do some volunteering and see what happens and then I never ended up leaving. I didn’t plan for that!

How did you make it work? What did you do before getting involved with GVI?

Yes, definitely. I bought a one way ticket, it was like $600 at the time, and I had $1000 cash that lasted me 3 or 4 months. Which, at the time, it seemed like so much money 10 years ago but now I think I would blow through that pretty quickly. So after about 3 or 4 months I started to run out of money so I got a job teaching English in a town a couple hours south of Bangkok. My background was in English but I had never taught English before and I wasn’t really interested in it. It was something that I could do to make money for a while, but I ended up doing it for 4 years and really enjoyed the challenges of it all. So that is what I did before getting involved with GVI.

You have your Master’s degree, did you obtain that before heading to Asia?

I did distance learning through a University in Florida, I’m from Florida. They had a distance program specifically for teachers that were working to get their Master’s in environmental education associated to the teaching that they were already doing. I was doing my program while teaching.

Describe your role with GVI.

When I first started with GVI, it was literally just to start a TEFL program in the south of Thailand but they took me on as the country director, because there wasn’t really anything else in Thailand. After developing programs in the south for a few years then I was invited to be the regional director of SE Asia. That encompassed overseeing those projects but then also overseeing all of the Asian projects. So India, Nepal, Laos, and the two hubs in Thailand.

We also had some partner projects at the time, so other organizations were running the ground operations but GVI was promoting their projects. We do that a little bit less but we still work with one in Australia so that aspect of Australia is under my territory as well. I don’t get to those projects very often, like tonight I will be going to Laos, and I will go there once a year for a few days but I have regular contact with the project managers or the country directors.

We have weekly meetings, provide them with support, training, if I get any feedback or complaints, dealing with that. Regularly monitoring the programs and offering support - making sure the health and safety is up to speed, and the staff are trained properly, and that they have all of the resources needed.

How many volunteers do you see coming to SE Asia a month?

Per month? Well, SE Asia is pretty much just Laos and Thailand. So we’ve got our projects down in the south, projects up here in the north . . . maybe 30-50 per month. Sometimes less, sometimes more. July and August are definitely our peek months and then the rest of the year kind of comes and goes in terms of numbers.

How much interaction, if any at all, do you have with volunteers?

I used to be involved daily with the projects, so for four years daily I was working with volunteers and managing them. So I can relate to that whole thing. Now, with Dee as they new country director, I’m trying to pull away from the Thailand projects and let her take over that. For the past year though I’ve been going out to our Chiang Mai project once or twice a month training the staff and working with the volunteers. Right now, every month, I’m seeing volunteers and spending a couple of days with them.

When you’re not in Thailand, what is your favorite country to visit that you oversee?

Well Laos is the one that I’ve been to the most times just because it’s so accessible, it takes an hour to fly there from Chiang Mai. That’s a great location. I just visited Nepal projects earlier this year and that’s a really amazing location. I would say out of the two maybe Nepal, just because there is something very attractive about the projects. Very grassroots, street kids, rural schools . . . it’s pretty neat. I haven’t been to the India projects yet and I’ve recently, in the past year or so, taken over the Kenya projects as well, and I’ll be going there next month so I’m really looking forward to going there. Those projects have been around for 10 years, maybe a little bit less, but really great foundations, very grassroots programs that are doing some really neat things.

Monk walking in Chiang mai

A monk wandering on the street of Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Who is a typical volunteer for GVI Thailand?

Okay, so, we get a pretty big mix. I would say the majority are the gap-years. The 18-22, 23, either about to go to college or in the midst of it, or just finished. That is definitely the majority but we do get anywhere from 30, 40, 50, 60, even 70 year old volunteers that will come out particularly with our TEFL program in the south where volunteers can come, get a TEFL certificate, further supported teaching experience, and if they do an internship they can get a placement as well at the hub or in a different location. We can place them in a school. So that actually attracts a lot of people that are maybe looking for a career change. We get people who are in their 40’s that have been laid off and are looking for something new, a new skill to have in their back pocket. With a TEFL certificate you can teach anywhere in the world.

Where do the majority of your volunteers hail from?

Definitely a lot from the UK because GVI is a UK company, but the US is very close behind, we get some Canadians, and we are starting to see a lot more Australians, Kiwis. We’ve started over the past five years working a lot more booking partners, so we have a lot of agents basically - Europe is huge, were seeing a lot of Swedish volunteers, Germans, Belgium. We’re actually starting to see a lot more Mexican volunteers as well, which is interesting. Even way over here in Thailand. It’s this whole globalization, everyone is going everywhere. We don’t have a lot from the Asian market though.

What is one thing you want people to bring with them to any GVI project?

An open mind is the best thing. Putting expectations aside, getting rid of that picture in your head. 

What is one thing, physically, that you would want to volunteers to bring with them?

Gosh, there’s not much that you really need. A good book maybe. Ha! A good pair of shoes definitely.

Conversely, what is one thing people are bringing that they don’t need?

Nowadays, everyone has their electronic devices. I think that is can be good in some ways, they can be accessible, but I think it’s a mistake for volunteers to be too accessible. When you have everyone on a communal base that is on their Facebook telling everyone back home what a great time they are having. If they would just put all of that down and enjoy the experience, I think that is the hardest thing right now, getting people off of their iPods, iPads, to just enjoy the experience and take that with them rather than reporting everything all the time.

With traveling there is always the risk of illness and accidents. What does GVI do to ensure the safety of volunteers?

We have pretty strict health and safety standards. So whenever we start a new project in a new location, we first start with a risk assessment. Looking at every potential thing that could cause injury, illness, or harm to our reputation which we still consider still health and safety. Then we figure out how we can manage those risks.

Sometimes that involves something that volunteers cannot do - so things like drugs. If volunteers are caught doing drugs, that could harm our reputation across the community, so across the board, if someone is found to be doing drugs, even if it’s on their weekend off, we dismiss them from the project. We cannot have any connection with any of that.

We are constantly assessing things. If we do have an event where someone is injured or some kind of behavioral issue, we have a process for writing up incident reports that we always review each time there is an incident and every quarter we review any incidents that have came up and decide if we need to change anything, our rules, our risk assessment, that kind of thing.

Thailand is an incredibly popular volunteer destination. Why do student’s choose GVI over other programs out there?

Some of the things that stand out for GVI: we’re long standing, 15 years running, we have a pretty good reputation, and then also, one of the unique things with GVI is that we do our own ground operations. A lot of organizations are recruitment organizations and then they send volunteers to maybe an orphanage, or a local organization that runs something in-country. So that company isn’t actually overseeing their own ground operations whereas GVI oversees the experience from start to finish so we can really maintain a high level of quality. We know exactly what type of training our staff have, we know exactly when they meet with our partners and how they work with them, and what kind of health and safety standards are, so we can maintain a high level of quality.

And then also, we have long running staff project managers and field staff that are on the ground that are working in the community everyday. Even if you have somebody that comes into a project for a week or two, there are people on the ground making sure that week or two weeks, they are making sure that they are contributing to something bigger.

We provide presentations about where the project started, how far we have come, and what are the long-term objectives. So even someone coming out for a week or two can feel like they have contributed to that even if it is a small amount. We are very focused that the work is done through our local partners. So we have local partners in each location that we work with and meet with regularly, and make sure that we are helping them to meet their objective through having the volunteers there.

Aside from the actual experience itself, what do you hope volunteers take home with them upon completion of a GVI program?

I hope that volunteers feel like they have contributed to the long-term objective and I hope that they can say what those long-term objectives are. Sometimes we hear from feedback they volunteers did not understand what the long-term objective was and that means that we failed them if that is not something they are leaving with. Knowing what the long-term objectives are, to be able to verbalized that, and know that they contributed to that is the most important part.

Knowing very little about the Karen people, what should a new volunteer know about them being that staying in one of their homes?

Karen, they are considered one of the many hill tribes in the area, they have traditionally migrated over from Burma, but this community has been in the area for nearly 400 years to our understanding. This village that we work with is Buddhist where a lot of other Karen communities have been converted to Christianity. Traditionally they are animistic, so they still have a lot of history with spirits.

In terms of culture, you can follow a lot of the Thai guidelines: always take your shoes off before entering a home, being very careful with your feet. Your feel are considered dirty being close to the ground whereas the head is high and clean, so you don’t go and tap someone on the head. If there is a family sitting around eating, you walk around the group rather than through them and be sure to kind of bend down to be closer to their level a bit more. Just little things like that. They speak Karen, which is different from Thai. The younger generation speaks Thai well though.

Out of all the programs offered through GVI here in Thailand, what one would you say is the most unique?

The elephant project is pretty unique - it’s very different from a lot of the programs that work with elephants that I’ve seen because we don’t buy the elephants.

Sustainability seems to hold a high regard on GVI’s agenda. Can you touch on some of the sustainability measured that GVI takes?

What we are always trying to work for, although it is a very long road working with grassroots communities, is for us to be able to step away completely and that the community will be able to do what we were working to do all on their own. Some communities really need a push, and we really want the drive to come from the community. Most of our projects are driven by the community themselves and it creates a sense of domestic tourism which is really encouraging.

If you could sum up Thailand in one word, what would it be?

Oh gosh. Maybe that’s it, oh gosh. Laid back maybe. Easy! I find it easy. If you go with the flow and do it their way, its such an easy place to live. Food is very easy to find. You just see people living their lives living life so simply and not needing much of anything.

How did you learn Thai? Did you take any courses?

I didn’t take any courses. I put myself in places where people couldn’t speak English, I tried to put myself in remote locations, not big touristy places, and then I would just meet people and chat with random people. Just listen and try to say the words and then at night when I would go back to my guesthouse I would write down the words that I had heard, look up words, and just try to match things up, putting them together just bit by bit. I like things like that, crossword puzzles and logic puzzles. For me it’s like a game and it’s quite fun.

How has knowing the language affected your time here?

It makes it so much easier, you can get the information that you want or need. You can ask people what they are doing, or what they are eating, Understanding the way the language is pieced together, the linguistics, helps you understand the culture so much more. It makes everything so much more accessible, it makes it all make more sense in terms of why they do the things they do and why they might think a particular way. It helps you understand their culture.

What is a favorite place that you have visited?

Ah, favorite location . . . so hard. I would say one of the most beautiful places is Cape Town. I was there last year and I will be there in a few months because that is where GVI’s head office is now. Really stunning scenery. The blue oceans, and then the mountains, really very beautiful. Ah, I hate this question. I love the north here in Thailand. My family, we have made a decision to settle up here in Chiang Rai. There is something about the mountains and the hills, such a serene feeling.