For 60 years, a York-based charity has been sending volunteers abroad to work with impoverished, dispossessed and disenfranchised people. Tomorrow, International Service will be throwing its 60th birthday party in the Guildhall. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

THE “what are we doing here?” moment for Vanda and Adam Hurn came after they had been in Bolivia for two months. It was 1981. They and their two young daughters – Alice, five, and one-year-old Daisy – had arrived in the village of Charagua a few weeks earlier, by donkey cart.

That didn’t faze them; neither did living in little more than a shed, with no running water or electricity. “You quickly adapt,” says Vanda.

But then they were asked to go to the Bolivian capital La Paz to meet other volunteers working in Bolivia with UNAIS – the United Nations Association International Service.

At almost 12,000 feet above sea level, it is the highest capital city in the world. And while the family were there, Daisy became desperately ill.

“We nearly lost her,” Vanda says. “That was the moment when we thought: what on earth are we doing here?”

A local doctor diagnosed Daisy as having epilepsy. But Adam, a vet, knew better. “He knew it was the effect of altitude,” Vanda says.

The family returned to Charagua, Daisy recovered – and the Hurns spent the next four years living and working amongst the Guarani Indians, who eked out a living in impoverished villages clustered around Charagua, the local market town.

Back then, the Guarani and other indigenous groups in Bolivia were virtually disenfranchised, Vanda says. “The Guarani lived a very poor life, very basic.”

It was essentially subsistence farming, with each family having one hectare of land to feed and support itself.

But it was worse than that. Many of the men of the villages had been tempted away to work for sugar companies, cutting sugar cane. It was a road to nowhere. “They would be paid in alcohol, or build up debts that they couldn’t pay,” Vanda says.

As a vet, Adam’s job was to help encourage local men to return to farming. He taught them how to rear cattle, pigs and chickens, and feed them on local crops such as soya and maize. He ran courses in animal management, and at the end of the course gave farmers six piglets to go away and rear.

The beauty of it, Vanda says, was that he wasn’t simply giving the piglets away. “They would pay them back with six more piglets when they had reared them and produced piglets of their own.”

Vanda, meanwhile, was teaching local women’s groups about health and nutrition, showing them that soya wasn’t only a cash crop, but could be used to feed their own families.

The Hurn children loved their life in Bolivia. The family soon moved into an adobe house with avocado trees in the garden. The children went to local schools, learned to speak Spanish like natives, and played with the other children in and around Charagua.

“They could be away all day. They had complete freedom,” Vanda says. “I’d be asking everybody I met ‘who has seen Daisy’?”

After four years, the family returned to the UK. For many years, Vanda taught English and Drama in Wensleydale, while Adam ran a veterinary practice there.

But earlier this year, the couple – along with a now grown-up Daisy and her new husband – returned to Charagua. UNAIS, the organisation which sent them there more than 30 years ago, had by now changed its name to International Service, a charity with its headquarters in York which still sends volunteers to work overseas.

Vanda and Adam had been back to Charagua briefly a couple of times already, but this was their longest stay yet.

They were delighted by the changes that had taken place, Vanda says.

The country’s indigenous groups, including the Guarani, have been encouraged to become much more autonomous. There are schools, running water, electricity – and a realisation that the big sugar companies can be exploitative. Education is seen as the future. “And there is a real sense of pride that they have in being Guarani.”

International Service, which has its headquarters in Rougier Street, is still sending volunteers to Bolivia, 30 years after the Hurns were there. But the emphasis of its work has shifted. There have been huge improvements in the country’s economy since the 1990s, says George Truckenbrod, International Service’s country director for Bolivia. “But there are still inequalities,” he says.

Often those inequalities are in the areas of human rights. International Service volunteers working in the country today tend to have IT, marketing and communications skills. And they work alongside local people and organisations to try help them improve the rights of women and people with disabilities.

Mr Truckenbrod gives some concrete examples. Volunteers have helped local people with visual disabilities set up eight local businesses in Bolivia, he says. They include two taxi companies, two shops, a greenhouse business, a bakery and a travel agent.

These businesses help visually impaired people earn a decent living. And more than that, they help change the way people with disabilities are seen.

“If people see someone with a disability baking bread, earning a living, it changes the mindset of people,” Mr Truckenbrod says.

International Service volunteers in Burkina Faso, a French-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa, are doing similar work.

There, people with disabilities are often viewed only as fit to beg, says Eleanore Couldiaty, International Service’s country director.

She is from Burkina Faso herself – and before coming to work for International Service, even she shared some of those attitudes, she admits. It is an attitude that helps condemn countless disabled people to lives of grinding destitution. Around the world, it is estimated that ten per cent of people are living with some kind of disability, says Martin Keat, International Service’s international programme director. “And in Burkina Faso, 80 per cent of people with disabilities are living in severe poverty.”

International Service volunteers are trying to help change that.

Dorothy Kirk, a former Park Grove and Millthorpe School pupil, spent three months in the country as a volunteer last year, teaching IT and marketing skills to a women’s collective known as Djigui-Espoir. She was part of a small team of six volunteers teaching the women how to use computers, how to design and print-marketing brochures, and how to draw up strategies to promote their local businesses.

“There are big misconceptions about disabled women,” she says. “But I hope things are changing.”

The learning process went both ways, she adds. She learned as much, if not more, from the women she worked with as they did from her.

“I learned a huge amount: how much you can achieve with nothing, and about the importance of community. Communities there are really strong. There are good neighbours, very supportive and caring. They were wonderful to us.”

She made some great friends, too – friends she has kept in touch with on the internet.

“We encouraged them to get on the internet, and some of them are on Facebook,” she says.

Now there’s progress.


"Our volunteers are brilliant"

International Service will be celebrating its 60th anniversary tomorrow at York’s Guildhall. Volunteers past and present will be coming, to meet up, and share stories and memories.

Jo Baker, who took over as the charity’s director in December, admits the ethos has changed since 1953, when the first volunteers with what was to become International Service went over to Holland to help people their rebuild their homes following devastating floods.

It was the year of the Queen’s Coronation and of the first colour TVs. Churchill was still Prime Minister, and development work then was mainly about post-war redevelopment. Volunteers with the United Nations Association International Service, as the charity was then known, worked in Holland, and at a wartime refugee camp in Ireland.

Since then, International Service has worked in dozens of countries around the world.

Today, it has more than 100 volunteers in place in four countries – Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Palestine. Volunteers were pulled out of Mali 18 months or so ago following a coup, though the charity hopes to return there soon.

A project in Brazil has just been completed, but the charity hopes to work with Brazilian organisations to use the opportunity of the 2016 Brazil Paralympics to promote disability sports in the other countries in which it is involved.

The emphasis today tends to be working to improve the lives and human rights of women, people with disabilities, and others who suffer from discrimination.

And the volunteers’ involvement with the charity tends to carry on long after they return to the UK, admits Jo.

When the two-strong Burkina Faso Paralympic team arrived in London for the Paralympics last year, they knew no one.

So who did they call? Returned International Service volunteer Liam Conlon.

“Liam got a phone call from the airport saying, ‘We don’t know what to do’,” Jo says.

He went straight to pick them up, hosted them and rang around to arrange accommodation.

“Our volunteers are brilliant,” Jo says.


Fact file

International service runs two main volunteering schemes. Younger people aged 18 to 25 are offered placements of a few months on the International Citizens Service scheme.

Older volunteers, and those with professional skills, are offered longer-term placements.

To find out more about the charity, or to make a donation or apply to be a volunteer, visit The charity is looking for 60 people to take part in the York 10k fun run on August 4 – one runner for every year of the charity’s existence.

You don’t have to be a volunteer or have a connection with the charity: just want to raise money for a good cause.

If you’re interested, email fundraising director Julie Harrington at