Organization to offer overseas volunteer opportunities for Cap Students
// Calvin DeGroot

The Christmas season is one in which many people’s charitable or altruistic impulses are aroused. In this spirit, a group of Capilano students have been working feverishly to provide a home-grown opportunity for Capilano students to volunteer overseas.

The organization providing this opportunity, Capilano Alliance of Students Abroad (CASA), is a federally incorporated non-profit created by five Capilano students in 2010.

Tess Gregory, one of the founders of the organization, says, “The driving values when we first came up with the concept of CASA were to create a program that provided overseas volunteering opportunities for Capilano students, while also providing local opportunities where students can gain practical experience in their field of study.”

The CASA project will send six to ten students will travel to a rural village in southern Uganda, Ibanda and partner with local organizations working on existing projects.

Projects involve building internal library structures such as check-in systems and library cards; teaching computer literacy and internet workshops; developing an income-generating project for a micro-finance group so they can lend money to their members; working with local high school teachers in specific areas of study such as fine arts or science; and documenting and producing website profiles for CASA’s partners.

The cost of the trip is $3695; this includes flights, transportation, orientation, accommodation, meals, insurance, and in-country support. Not included are vaccinations, visa, and spending money. Participants will pay in four installments between December and March.

While all the pieces are in place, the path to becoming a fully operational non-profit was not always smooth. Initially, the group wanted to hold a referendum similar to Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec where students pay a mandatory fee per credit that supports the University’s student volunteer program. The money was never intended to fund the travel of the student volunteers, and would go directly to development work.

However, Gregory says, “the CSU felt like CASA wasn’t a service that would benefit enough students to have everyone pay for it,” and the idea never really took off.

Furthermore, troubles with the CSU continued when CASA applied and was granted club status, but had it taken away from them because of a by-law stating clubs cannot receive external funding. This was a problem because non-profits run on external funding.

Things began to look up when the CSU decided instead to endorse CASA as an external organization. Gregory explains, “Now we have a working partnership, which is awesome.”

However, overseas aidwork may not be as simple as it seems, and for many is a hot-button topic which people feel strongly about on both sides. Such volunteer trips and organizations have, in some cases, been accused of causing more harm than good, and being more for the feel-good benefits the westerners receive, rather than truly aiding the people they purport to help.

Ed Lavalle, professor of Political Studies at Capilano, argues that most of the problems that these organisations aim to address “really, ultimately can only be resolved inside a particular state or country. [Volunteer] trips are great, but we have to understand that it is the people in the area that have to build structures of support that are long-term institutions for care,” he says.

However, he adds that for the volunteers coming from Western countries, these programs “are absolutely transformative.”

Lavalle also warns against creating dependency, noting that this can be very harmful: “It is much better to assist somebody to make their own goods and services than to make them elsewhere and hand them out.”

He also states that bringing about positive change is “extremely complex” and depends on “the cultural, political and social realities of where you are trying to do it.”

He agrees that there are some areas regarding social change that the West can and should offer, and it comes in areas such as capital, women empowerment, and technological advancement. However, when foreigners seek to “interfere with the internal issues, try to shape politics, and change their culture, that is over-stepping your boundary,” he says.

Gregory echoes many of these criticisms, and argues that the worst cases are when Westerners create development projects from their own perspectives and backgrounds, and are disinterested in involving locals, resulting in programs that are not sustainable or beneficial.

“CASA has taken these issues very seriously and designed a program to hopefully prevent them from happening,” she says. “All of our initiatives have been worked on by our community partners, our Ugandan program manager, and professionals who work in the field to ensure they are what the community wants and needs, and also that our community partners will have ownership over the projects”.

Another co-founder of CASA, Jess McElroy, who went on a preparatory trip to Uganda last year, says, “It was an amazing experience; we grew personally, and the organization definitely grew with what we saw.”

Lavalle, speaking from his personal experience in Afghanistan working on gender issues, warns, “If you are going to do it, you better to it right. First so you do not hurt the people, and second so you don’t get yourself killed.” He also adds that participants should recognize the trip will benefit them more than anyone else they serve.

The CASA project will run from May to June of 2012. McElroy adds, “This will be our first group of volunteers [and] they will really be able to contribute to building how the project works.”

// Calvin DeGroot, Writer

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: