'Volunteering abroad was her first big adventure – she thought she’d be looked after'

时间:2019-08-22  作者:卫铌  来源:兴发平台  浏览:79次  评论:92条

In September last year, Alice Barnett, a 19-year-old from Hertfordshire, and Summer Robertson, two years older and from Shrewsbury, flew to to volunteer in a township, both hugely excited at seeing the world while also getting the chance to help deprived families.

The young volunteers project they were joining was funded by the Department for International Development (DfID) and run by , a charity with 40 years of experience which boasts of its expertise in keeping young charges safe and fulfilled.

“Lattitude was financed by the government,” said Summer’s father, John, 51. “As far as we’re concerned that meant it couldn’t be any safer.”

Alice and Summer did not previously know each other but soon bonded amid the instant camaraderie of the 18-strong volunteer pool, working hard and living with host families in Walmer, a poor and disadvantaged district in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.

Soon after the 10-week project began two of the 18 had gone: a young man stabbed in the stomach by a gang after a night out and a female volunteer left deeply traumatised after she was forced to patch up his injuries, with no ambulance willing to enter the township after dark.

Alice and Summer loved their work and told their families they wanted to stay. It was a one-off incident, they believed, and Lattitude would take care of them.

But in December, two days before they were due to fly home, Alice and Summer were dead, drowned in a fierce rip current as they waded in the Indian Ocean during a end-of-scheme visit Lattitude organised to a nearby coastal resort. Two other volunteers and the charity’s local manager were also swept away and almost died.

In the months since, the families say, they have faced not just an all-consuming grief, but also anger over what they see as obfuscation and confusion from Lattitude and its official backers over what happened.

Sceptical at Lattitude’s assurances that all proper safety policies had been followed, Alice’s parents, Suzie Barnett and Pete Gallagher, began to ask questions, talking to the charity and other volunteers on the scheme, and also contacting Summer’s family. They became increasingly alarmed.

Volunteers told the parents they did not know of any other schemes basing volunteers overnight in Walmer, which has a high crime rate. Last month, six people from a subsequent group of Lattitude volunteers in the township left the scheme early after being threatened by a man waving a machete.

The parents also learned that the resort where the young women drowned, Woody Cape, just east of Port Elizabeth, is well known for rip tides.

It emerged that Lattitude’s safety policies warned against bathing at unsupervised beaches. However, surviving volunteers said they had been told nothing of this. “No, nothing at all,” said 19-year-old Patrick Jasper from Essex, who spent two hours in the water after being caught in the rip current. Lattitude’s country local manager had joined them in the ocean, Jasper added: “He didn’t seem to know about any warnings.”

As the months went on, the families say, they struggled to get coherent answers from the charity. In February they met Joanne Smithson, Lattitude’s chief executive. “We felt she came with nothing at all,” said Barnett, 48. “She couldn’t answer any of our questions, kept saying: ‘I don’t know, I’ll look into it.’ We were saying: ‘But you’re the CEO, you should know. Where’s the paperwork? Where’s the risk assessments? We’ve been asking for about two months and you’ve come to this meeting with nothing to show us.’”

As they probed further, both sets of parents felt Lattitude became evasive, eventually refusing to answer emails. “We felt they shut the door on us,” said John Robertson. “It made me feel as if they had something to hide.”

Smithson denied that the charity had sidelined the families: “This has been a terribly difficult and emotional time for the parents and relatives of Summer and Alice, and throughout this process we have tried to be as supportive and helpful as possible. We have tried to maintain an open and transparent relationship, sharing information where we are able, whilst at the same time ensuring that the changes to practices and procedures [are made], and our responsibility to our staff and volunteers on other projects is maintained.”

At inquest in June the Shropshire coroner, John Ellery, used legal powers to write to Smithson, expressing concern at Lattitude’s “generic” risk assessments and its apparent lack of knowledge about the rip current. “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken,” he told her.

, the charity which oversees the Lattitude scheme for DfID, said it assessed volunteer scheme partners every three months and was satisfied Lattitude carried out sufficiently robust risk assessments. While the coroner’s recommendations were being treated very seriously, it did not believe Latttitude was to blame, it added.

Barnett said she found this view “slightly shocking”. She said: “We have been ignored. We have been forced to do months of painstaking research ourselves when we are grieving the loss of our children. Lattitude were satisfied that it was a ‘giant wave’ and a ‘freak accident’. If we hadn’t questioned this none of the evidence we have found would have come to light.”

Alice and Summer, their parents stress, were a far cry from the media stereotype of privileged, reckless gap year funseekers. Both spent months working and fundraising to earn the £800 needed for the scheme, and were intelligent and sensible.

“If Summer had been told she shouldn’t go into the sea because it was unsafe there’s no way she’d have been there,” said her mother, Sarah, a 48-year-old history teacher. “This was her first big adventure – she thought she’d be looked after properly.”

In a statement Lattitude said all volunteers received training before leaving the UK, which included warnings about swimming. The company “robustly implemented” health and safety training, it added. The charity said it had since strengthened safety training, including more specific advice about water safety.

Volunteers were similarly briefed about personal safety when staying in places like Walmer, Lattitude said. However, after the end of August no more volunteers would be placed there, it added, saying the project was now completed.

For their part, the parents remain adamant they only wanted to cooperate with Lattitude to improve future volunteers’ safety.

“The more they have shut down, the more difficult it has been for us,” said Barnett. “It has made the grieving more difficult. We said from the start that if we felt they were putting the safety of volunteers first we would happily work with them. We asked if they would stop sending volunteers to Walmer before the inquest findings but they said no.

“My biggest fear is that this could happen to someone else. What if someone else dies and I have a phone call from a mother saying, ‘Why didn’t anyone warn us?’”

Voluntary work overseas: a big business

The practice of young people on gap years taking volunteer placements abroad, often known as “voluntourism”, is now big business. In the UK alone 85 organisations place 50,000 volunteers overseas every year. The majority of these groups, unlike Lattitude, are not charities but for-profit agencies, sometimes charging their young client base high fees.

But some NGO experts are warning about the risks of sending people as young as 18 to teach in schools, work in orphanages and hospitals, or construct buildings, without training or adequate support. They also query whether such sums of money could be used more effectively elsewhere.

One organisation, Projects Abroad, for two weeks’ teaching in Cambodia, not including flights or visas. This would be enough to pay a local teacher for more than a year. The organisation says fees are fully accounted for by overheads, administration and operating costs.

Unskilled teachers can have an actively detrimental effect on children’s education, according to Sarah Pycroft, a teacher who set up a course for volunteer teachers via the charity after seeing such schemes in action.

“The children being taught by these 18-year-olds were getting more and more confused,” she said. “I know from having taught in the UK that that’s the absolute worst thing you can do, because the perception that the children get of themselves as learners is that ‘I’m no good.’”

Other volunteer work could prove counterproductive, according to Frederikke Lindholm from , a charity helping young people in Vietnam. “I know of school trips where local builders were working during the night to straighten the walls of a house built by foreign student volunteers the previous day,” she said.

“I’ve also had HR managers quiz us over our ingratitude when we say we are unable to organise hotels with enough stars in the middle of the jungle, or serve anything but street-food.”

In 2013, a number of leading children’s NGOs – including Unicef, Save the Children, and Friends International – came together for an international study on the impacts of foreign volunteers on children’s care. The focused on Ghana, Cambodia, Nepal and Guatemala, and included, among some positive outcomes, testimony from one child protection specialist who warned that volunteers often ask children questions that could remind them of traumatic events, adding to the children’s attachment problems.

Currently there is no mandatory regulation for the volunteer industry to carry out criminal background checks on people who hope to work with children overseas. In contrast, anyone seeking to volunteer in the social care sector in the UK must give two references, have an interview and undergo training in issues around boundaries and confidentiality, and agree to a criminal records check.

Additional reporting by Daniel Wesangula