GoAbroad Interview

Lindsay Valentin - Placement Advisor

Lindsay Valentin - Placement Advisor

Lindsay holds both a BFA and MFA in Writing from Pratt Institute NYC and Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles. She is dedicated to international altruism as well as to journalism. The convergence of these arenas is where her passion lies, and she hopes to create knowledgeable and culturally aware media in her career. Lindsay has volunteered abroad on Building, Community, and Environmental programs, and has traveled to many places for volunteering and cultural experiences, from Antigua to Greece and Mexico to Egypt. Lindsay is passionate about bringing cultural awareness to others through her work as Placement Advisor for Kaya.

Cave explorations during a trip abroad
Lindsay exploring a cave on one of her many travels!

Your background is in writing, how did you get connected to Kaya’s volunteer programs?

I was completing my MFA and had volunteered abroad before I started my MFA studies. This experience shaped so much of my master’s manuscript, which was dedicated to the international connectedness and wanderings of those seeking to see more in their lives. When I returned to the east coast, I saw a posting for a job with Kaya and felt that their vision and outlook was very special. I have a strong administrative background, and felt I could bring my skills and experience volunteering abroad to the table to help them integrate into the US market and advise students here. It seemed a wonderful thing to me to be able to help inspire others to do something that changed my own life, and that would also bring assistance to those in need worldwide.

What does a typical day look like in your role as Placement Advisor for Kaya?

As a Placement Advisor I regularly speak with clients of all age ranges about their inquiries into our programs. As we offer over 200 programs, this is no small feat. Program knowledge is essential to this job, so one of my tasks is also to help collate information along with the rest of our team. I am specifically dedicated to knowledge of our Latin America programs, and organizing this information in way that is accessible to our other staff.

Potential volunteers have many questions, and often times many fears, about traveling abroad to volunteer. Many times our participants are traveling abroad alone, and this fear can be a lot to overcome. A major part of my job is speaking to students knowledgeably and from experience. I cannot know what every one of our programs is like, but I can certainly speak towards volunteering abroad, traveling alone, traveling in developing nations, vaccines, visas etc. from my own experience. For individual projects, making sure I am vested in project knowledge is also key so I can answer specific questions.

Another wonderful aspect of my job is pairing volunteers with programs – as we have so many offerings often a client will come to us and say something to the effect of “I want to go to Africa and work with kids!” It is my job to draw out more of what they are looking for in order to place them on the project location that may be best for them as quite a few projects fit this description. Do they want to go to any nation in particular? Would they prefer to be in a city, rural, by the ocean? Are there any sights in Africa they’ve always wanted to see that may correspond easily with their project? Is there any other aspect they would like specifically out of the project, such as working with the local community, involving a social work aspect etc? Do they have skills and qualifications they’d like to use?

Other aspects of my job include writing copy for some of our marketing materials, such as destinations documents which provide better insight into the locales where our programs are located in Latin America, and project type or comparison documents for potential clients to help them browse the options with more insight.

As well, I liaise with our in-country coordinators across the 26 nations where we have programs in order to ask specific questions, coordinate program participation, gain programs knowledge and to confirm participants onto programs.

Alongside these tasks I help with invoicing, collection of forms, tracking of U.S. university demographic inquiries and other administrative tasks where needed.

Kaya Responsible Travel runs volunteer programs, language programs, gap years, TEFL programming, and work opportunities. Which of your programs is particularly innovative?

Our Cambodia programs are very innovative in that they place volunteers across a wide variety of NGO’s based on their individual backgrounds and skills. These are not set placements, they are programs that harness the best of each individual and pair them where their skills can be of most benefit. These programs have longer-duration minimums (between four to eight weeks) and a more extensive application process (need to supply CV, two letters of reference, have a telephone interview, additional questions forms etc.) They also usually ask for skilled volunteers as the volunteers themselves help to create the infrastructure of their program. 

Many of our community-based/environmental programs in Ecuador are also very innovative. They place volunteers alongside sustainable community initiatives, such as our Sustainable Community Development program, on which volunteers work within a coop of about 40 families dedicated to sustainable farming. These programs are extremely immersive within the local community.

That said, many of our programs are innovative in approach. From our marine conservation dive programs on which you learn to SCUBA dive and use this skill to do underwater conservation work, to our microfinance programs in Ghana which help bring vocational knowledge to those living in the slums of Accra, there are innovative aspects to the majority of our projects.

What advice would you give those who are interested in applying to a Kaya volunteer program?

Start early so you have time to prepare, to get together the funding needed, to fundraise if you like, to secure availability, and to fully research your program options and to get any necessary visas vaccines etc. Often people come to us just a month in advance and are surprised to find out the visa they need for a program may take a long time to get, or that the program is full already (especially in the summer months.) Giving yourself time to prepare will help you to get more out of the program on the ground and to give more to the program itself.

That said, we are glad to help to pair you with a project that will work if you are someone who likes to fly by the seat of their pants. Some people just are this way and it works for them. But this is not for everyone and can limit your options.

What sets Kaya’s programs apart from other volunteer abroad programs?

We have an incredible breadth to our programs, and we help to pair people with a program that is best for them from a wide variety of options. This means there are not just a few projects a volunteer will try to fit themselves into – if you are majoring in social work, for example, you may be able to work in a shelter for abused women, in an orphanage or in a school counseling program. These are three very different kinds of programs, and one may better fit a volunteer than the rest based on what their skills are, or what they would like to be involved in. We are able to help people apply their skills within our projects, and also offer programs that are a bit more basic.

Another thing that sets Kaya apart is that all its staff have volunteered abroad before themselves, and all our advisors have traveled a great deal internationally. From this, we each bring to the table an individual set of knowledge of the areas of the world we have traveled in, travel tips for those areas, and an in-depth and on the ground understanding of what travel and volunteering in certain areas of the world is like.

Kaya Responsible Travel’s programming aims to respect, empower, and overall benefit the local communities in which the programs exist. How does Kaya go about making sure programs are ethical and sustainable?

Site visits are certainly one major aspect of this. Our Director, Heilwig Jones, is an amazing woman that has been to the majority of our locations and project sites to assess the programs. We also have other staff who have conducted site visits over the years as we add new programs, most recently my colleague Tom Gore spent time at our new project location in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal where you can get involved in an agricultural initiative that empowers women by providing them a space to live and farm. As gender inequality and domestic abuse are rampant in Nepal, this concept is fairly revolutionary, and is changing the lives of the women who live and work there.

On site visits, there is also assessment of the benefit to the community, as well as the sustainability of a program.

As well, in our pre-departure materials and discussions with volunteers we stress the importance of cultural exchange and awareness, responsible purchases (for example, if you are going to buy a souvenir to be aware of what it is are made of, how it is made, etc. so as not to foster poaching, child labor etc), development and its challenges, child protection etc.

One aspect of our programs that is also very important is that they all work with locals from the community. Within development it is very important that those from the community have a say in the setup, function, sustainability and/or impacts of programs. This also helps volunteers to see the realities that lead to the reasons the programs are in place from an interior perspective, and fosters cultural interchange. The goal of our programs is not just for our volunteers to go overseas and help others, but to also benefit from their experience and become more globally aware themselves; it should be a mutually beneficial scenario and this can only fully function when volunteers interact with those who are from the nation and community they are volunteering within.

What’s the best part of working for Kaya?

Learning about so many issues around the globe, their causes, socioeconomic relations, and what is being done to help. It is inspiring to see how many people care, even if they don’t know how to apply that. However, the absolute best part of working for Kaya is seeing a volunteer or participant go abroad knowing that you helped them to apply themselves, or to live a dream, and seeing the results of that. When we hear back from an in-country coordinator saying that a volunteer has helped them so greatly it is a wonderful feeling. When we get feedback from volunteers saying they are forever impacted it is a familiar feeling and one which, as an advisor, you are proud to have been a part of on behalf of that participant. For our work programs such as TESOL or Paid Work Australia it is also fantastic to see participants become global citizens and make living abroad a reality.

If you were to get on a plane tomorrow to go volunteer abroad, which of Kaya’s programs would you choose?

This is by far the hardest question for me. As I have a dedication to journalism and media, I would certainly want to do our Media program in the Philippines or Journalism program in Thailand.

However, our Wildlife programs have also long fascinated me and ever since I was a small child I have wanted to go to Zimbabwe, so our Bulawayo Rescue Sanctuary project is also on my bucket list. As women’s empowerment is also a powerful subject for me, our Nepalese Agricultural Initiative is also one I would love to do. I’m sorry, I can’t choose just one!