GoAbroad Interview

Xavier Everaert - General Manager & Volunteer Coordinator

Xavier Everaert

Born in Belgium, Xavier was inspired by his travels at an early age. From high school in Holland to university in the UK and his MBA in Spain, his interest in other cultures has greatly driven his educational and professional endeavors. Xavier founded International Volunteer Service to give volunteers everywhere the chance to give back to local communities, while also opening their eyes to the diversity of culture that exists in the world. In his multifaceted role at INTVS, Xavier oversees the organization’s more than 30 programs across Southeast Asia and South America.

How have your own international experiences prepared you to create and manage INTVS?

All my volunteer experiences have put me outside of my comfort zone, and each time I learn how to make the new environment another new comfort zone. I apply the same to work; new challenges bring about insecurities, frustrations, and other negative sensations, but international volunteering has taught me that, with patience and perseverance, any new challenge can be overcome.

INTVS volunteers with students in Takeo, Cambodia
Xavier with one of the classes of the English teaching program in Takeo, Cambodia

Describe what an average day at work is like for you. 

When in Barcelona an average day is: arrive to the office at 8:30 a.m., have breakfast, and then start at 9:00 a.m. I spend approximately 30 percent of the day interacting with volunteers and the rest on a multitude of other tasks. I have lunch between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., and then the second stretch of work until 6:00. Some evenings and weekends I also have Skype calls, due to the time difference with potential volunteers. 

When visiting programs, I do the above in the late afternoon or evenings, after documenting the programs.

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

I love to hear the feedback from volunteers. Generally it is very good. Although there have, of course, been occasions when the volunteer didn’t have such a great time. The best is when the volunteer comes back with a whole new look out on life, with renewed energy and a healthier way of looking at life in a far less materialistic manner. 

In your opinion, what is the best part about volunteering abroad?

Overcoming challenges, sharing experiences, experimenting with new foods and cultures, and above all getting to know the locals. I can’t pick just one; I love numerous aspects of volunteering. 

INTVS staff with partner in Hanoi, Vietnam
Xavier with the staff of their partner in Hanoi, Vietnam

What makes volunteering abroad with INTVS unique?

We go out of our way to assure that the volunteer understands as much as possible about the volunteer program prior to arrival. I have volunteered on many occasions and still today am surprised at how little information some volunteers are provided before they arrive.

Knowing that the culture shock can be tremendous, volunteers should know the where, what, when, and how of the programs they will volunteer on. As we visit every program and document every aspect of it and interview dozens of volunteers on each trip, we share all this information with all volunteers through a compulsory Skype call or, if possible, by meeting them personally. But the interaction with the volunteer goes further than that, and we are constantly in touch with them.

If we find a volunteer does not have the right profile for a program, we tell them. Our aim is not to send volunteers just to accumulate numbers, but rather to send volunteers who we find to have the right characteristics for the experience. Too many volunteers get thrown into the wild without knowing what to expect; INTVS has never done, and will never do, that.

What kind of support does INTVS provide volunteers before, during, and after their programs?

Before: Volunteers can find detailed information about our programs on the INTVS website. Once they apply to a specific program, they must have a Skype call prior to departure, in which we discuss the program, schedule, accommodation, and what’s included, showing them pictures, videos, interviews, and more of our personal experiences on the programs and that of past volunteers. They also receive a detailed information booklet covering everything one could possibly need or want to know prior to arrival, such as: the culture, history, demographics, contacts and important numbers, hospitals, recommended vaccinations, information on visas, and much, much more. 

INTVS volunteers in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
Xavier with international volunteers on their turtle preservation program in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

During: Once the volunteer is there our local partner is the main support for the volunteer as they are there with them. The extent of their support differs according to the set up. Some volunteers live with the coordinators in a volunteer house whereby the contact with the volunteer is presential and on a daily basis, and other volunteers may live in a host family, whereby there is less contact with the local volunteer coordinator. All programs include accommodation, orientation, and support, the majority also include food and local transport costs, and some include a city tour, evaluations, and even the chance to take free language courses. Although our local partner is the primary support once the volunteers arrive, INTVS is still in touch with them on a regular basis, mostly via email, though at times also via Skype, depending on the situation. 

After: Upon return, we ask the volunteers to fill in a testimonial, providing us with feedback about their experience. We advise them on how to apply what they learned, add the experience to their CV, LinkedIn profile, and such, stay in touch with international and local new friends, and to keep in touch with their “solidarity side.” 

What is your best piece of advice for participants about to embark on a volunteer program with INTVS?

I always advise volunteers to be ready for three or four days of immensely uncomfortable feelings, finding themselves in a very different environment within a different culture. Volunteers often arrive with great expectations and imagine the experience will be enriching from day one. This is generally not the case and volunteers should be aware that international volunteering also requires the volunteer to make an effort to adapt to this new environment. If volunteers can bite down the first days and make a real effort, they nearly always end up loving it, and then they do have a very enriching experience, but they must be ready for this initial feeling of panic of arriving to the unknown. 

Monks in Nachueak, Thailand
Xavier with some of the local monks at the English teaching program in Nachueak, Thailand

What is one thing you hope volunteers take away with them after completing one of INTVS’s programs?

I hope they share, learn, and grow. That is the slogan of INTVS, and with this I mean that I hope they share their experience with others, referring to the negative and the positive, without exaggerating the positive (we tend to do this AFTER an experience, and then forget about the initial feeling of panic). I want them to learn from it, and this could be learning about the culture, learning some of the language, etc., but above all I hope they learn about themselves.

Finally, I want them to grow from the experience. In today’s ever more globalised society, we will be more and more in touch with people from around the world and so we must know how to deal with different people in different situations in a respectful, constructive manner. International volunteering provides people a crash course in this. If I have to choose just one of these words it would be “GROW.”

INTVS general manager, Xavier, with child in Cambodia
Xavier at the Takeo English teaching program in Cambodia

If you could participate in one of INTVS’s programs, which one would you choose and why?

The English teaching program in the Takeo Province in Cambodia. This English teaching program was set up nearly 100 percent by INTVS. As always we work with a local partner, but this particular partner is specialized in microfinance projects for rural Cambodia. They assist various schools in the Takeo Province, just two hours South of Phnom Penh. Due to the splendid relationship with the NGO, INTVS decided to help them set up an English teaching program for the kids in these schools, as they have far less opportunity to learn English than the city children. The kids are extremely well behaved and so motivated so it is an absolute joy to teach them.

We even invested in changing the accommodation so that the “westernised” volunteers would be more comfortable (they have nice rooms with aircon). To make it more appealing for the volunteers, the children and the teachers, we introduced “English through music” as part of the curriculum for the volunteers. Volunteers, hence, teach in the classic way, but also by teaching songs, following a teaching guideline that INTVS designed. I love the program and have taught there three years in a row, on the last occasion teaching a number of songs, which was incredibly fun!