MPW Birmingham Gap Year Report: Roxanne Sweeney in South America

MPW Birmingham Gap Year Report: Roxanne Sweeney in South America

After completing her A level studies at MPW Birmingham and securing grades A*AA, Roxanne decided to take a year out before embarking on studying at university. Her plans took her around the world and gave her exposure to some fantastic experiences, some of which she shares with us here:

Best Moments as a volunteer:

1. Brazil: When I arrived at a summer camp for children from the surrounding favelas, I was introduced to a 6 year old girl called Julia, who was proving to be very difficult to manage in group situations. Nobody really wanted to work with her, but I’d seen a softer side to her so offered to take up the task. Over the coming weeks we had many bad days including her hitting me with a chair, bending my fingers back and threatening me with a plastic knife, but I carried on giving her a hug every morning and a hug goodbye at the end of each day. After a while in the morning she would come in and sit on my lap, or give me a hug or show me what she had done that day. Eventually I began to see that Julia was difficult in the group because she wasn’t very good at most of the activities and the other children teased her. We couldn’t speak the same language so she couldn’t just tell me what was wrong, and she wasn’t very talkative anyway. She responded well to the amount of attention I gave her, and after finding out she didn’t have a mother, I began to think she was just naughty because she felt so unloved and unnoticed. By the end of my time there, Julia and I were very close and she would only respond to me and no other volunteers. I taught her how to skip so she could join in with the others and the first time she did it by herself she almost cried with happiness and all the other girls clapped for her. This was a really wonderful moment, probably my best memory of volunteering.

2. Mexico: During my time in Mexico, I had the pleasure of working in an orphanage that was run by nuns with children aged 3 months-2 years. All the children there were my favourites, but there were two I was particularly fond of; Santi, a tiny baby aged four months who was permanently smiling and happy, and Kimber who was just over a year old and wanted hugs all the time. Other children of a similar age to Kimber were up and walking around but he was still crawling. Fortunately I could be spared for half an hour each day to spend with Kimber to teach him how to walk. First we got him standing by himself, then getting up by himself, then taking a couple of steps until eventually a couple of months later one day he pulled himself up and walked over to me. We were all so delighted but none of us as much as Kimber, He fell just before he got to me but he didn’t cry. He was laughing and clapping as he had seen us do, very pleased with himself for his achievement. It was a great thing to witness and we were all so proud of his progress.

Worst moments as a volunteer:

1. Saying goodbye to all the children I had worked with was heart breaking. My advice to anybody carrying out work of this sort is to be prepared to get upset and take lots of photos!

2. In Ghana I had signed up to a HIV project, which according to the website, was more of an educational programme and nothing to do with the hospital. This suited me fine as I have a fear of needles and dislike having to spend time in the hospital. When I arrived for my first day at the project I was told I’d be spending the next month in the hospital changing IV lines and working in what was effectively the accident and emergency wing. I still had lots of fun with the other volunteers and got a chance to travel around Ghana, but I was sad I didn’t get to do the volunteering I had signed up for as I was really looking forward to the project. What I learnt from this is that when booking projects online, it is best to call up and double check every detail, even the most obvious because you can’t be totally sure of what you’re booking.

Advice for Planning a Gap Year

1. Research your location thoroughly including any potential risks, the availability of public transport, any local emergency numbers and climate differences.
2. Always take a guide book with you. They can be very helpful in giving you ideas of places to visit and recommending good, cheap accommodation.
3. When thinking of visiting a country or region do check the website for the foreign office to know the status of the country you are visiting, for example I spent some time in Rio de Janeiro and not long after riots broke out. It is important to know how stable a country is before arriving.
4. Make yourself aware of any key culture differences, for example in South Korea it is not the done thing to eat on the streets in public.
5. If it is your first time travelling alone I recommend doing the first couple of weeks or more with a volunteer company or gap year company, it is a great way to meet people and get used to travelling before going completely solo. It also has the added advantage of putting parents more at ease as most companies offer good support systems.
6. If travelling with a company, make sure you have the same aims as the company, for example if you wish to volunteer and really contribute to the place you are visiting, then choose a non-profit company, and not one with high prices as it is likely that they are not 100% focussed on helping others.
7. Have an idea of what you want to get out of your gap year; this makes it much easier to decide what to do and what to book.
8. Make the most of hostels. As a solo traveller hostels are a great way to meet people, are cheaper than most other types of accommodation and often organise tours or trips out to the surrounding area. is a highly regarded website for booking.