Globe, Multiculture, Our People, United Kingdom

“My biggest fear is people will feel we’ve forgotten them”

More than 40 international VSO volunteers are now ‘working remotely’, giving online support to vital projects around the world, despite having had to return home due to COVID-19.


Before: Nicola Whybrow, 38, smiling in a blue top is pictured at a team building event for Big Sisters.

 Deborah Torr


James Russell, 35, and Nicola Whybrow, 38, are both volunteers on the Sisters for Sisters’ Education project in Surkhet, Nepal.

Through this project, they are helping to make education more inclusive and improve educational outcomes for adolescent girls.

“While we were on placement, James and I were watching what was happening in the UK. We saw the school closures, and then the Nepali government called for a lockdown,” says Nicola. This decision has left more than six million children out of school in Nepal, and learning from home is a massive challenge, when only 24% of households have daily access the internet.

“My biggest fear is people will feel we’ve forgotten them. We are doing our best to stay in contact with communities. The real challenge is supporting leaders to plan for a rapid response – when schools closed the general feeling was that they would ride out the closure and then it would be back to business as usual.”

“For the first couple of weeks, James and I were constantly on the phone, talking through ideas on how we could continue to support remotely. We were both keen for something to be in place to support children as soon as possible.”

After: Nicola working from home offering remote support as an e-volunteer.

“I am grateful to be busy; it feels like we are working on response plans and documents that will have an impact.”

Now, James and Nicola are developing a contingency strategy and seeing what distance learning options are available in the Nepali context.

One plan is to create a radio programme that will address psychosocial issues and how children can keep themselves safe.

In the future, this will be expanded, adapting content taken from the national curriculum.

James, from Dorset, UK, would normally be running teacher training sessions, observing lessons and giving coaching and feedback across 12 Nepali schools. Now, his focus has completely shifted.

“The big impact I can have is supporting colleagues finding a way through this and negotiating a changed landscape. As a volunteer, of course you offer your expertise but it’s more than that, it’s motivation for teachers and other volunteers across the project to keep going,” says James.

James running a feedback session with a Big Sister, Nirmaya Badii, on the Sisters for Sisters’ mentoring programme, prior to lockdown.

James hopes that lockdown will disrupt the lecture-style teaching methods imposed by many schools. “I can see a huge opportunity out of this disaster. Most Nepali classrooms are set up so that teachers talk at children.”

“There’s an opportunity to use built-in infrastructure of TV and radio in the future to run distance learning sessions, with more engaging task-based activities.”

“Since the crisis, there’s been pressure from the Nepali government for telecoms companies to provide cheap Internet access.”

(Text and photos VSO)

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