The idea of international volunteering, or “voluntourism”, is nothing new to young people in Hong Kong. Yet for 35-year-old Karen Wan Mo-Tung, a random conversation during a chance encounter in Nepal eight years ago opened the doorway to what has now become her passion and her work.
On a trip with her friends, Wan came across a fellow Hong Kong traveller, Michael Tang King-Hei, while they were renting bikes in Lhasa. Tang, who later went on to found the charity Light On, introduced Wan to the concept of work camps.
Work camps originated after the end of the first world war, when French and German youths worked together to rebuild a war-damaged area in France. Their actions encouraged more people to work for peace across boundaries. Over the years, the idea has spread from Europe to all over the world.
Through Tang, she met another traveller who asked her: “Have you tried to travel alone? It’s a must in life, you must try it once!”
Wan hesitated at first but followed through on her new friend’s suggestion, making a solo trip to Zhangjiajie in Hunan province.
“It was amazing and it was like a breath of freedom. There will be many uncertainties in a solo trip but it also means there are unlimited possibilities. Breaking through the normal routine in Hong Kong, the world suddenly got much bigger.”
After a few more solo trips, Wan was no longer satisfied with being a tourist. “No matter how great the trip is, there is no way for me to really mix with the locals,” she says. “The tourists are the guests and the locals are the hosts.”
She says tourists can barely be in touch with people at the grassroots because they do not have the ability to be hosts. She recognised that doing voluntary work is a better way to interact with locals and to experience their lives. That was when she remembered work camps.
In 2008, Wan volunteered for three weeks at a remote orphanage in Uganda, an experience she has described as “life-changing”. As there was no work-camp organisation in Hong Kong, Wan and her friends set up VolTra in 2009. The name could not be more straightforward – a combination of travel and volunteering.
In December 2009, VolTra organised its first camp at the Baptist Rainbow Primary School. Wan brought around 15 volunteers from Japan, Korea, France, Russia and Taiwan to Hong Kong. The volunteers made artworks and performed at some elderly homes with the students, many of whom were from low-income families.
The primary school’s then principal Fung Yiu-Cheung accepted VolTra’s invitation as he wanted to “bring the world” to the students because they rarely get a chance to travel.
This empowerment is what Wan wants to achieve through work camps. She had a difficult childhood – her family lived on welfare payments because her father had suffered an industrial injury and her mother struggled with post-natal depression. She understands that grassroots children need more than material support.
“Money is not what they need, but vision and the chance to get connected with the world,” she says.
She highlights that work camp is a form of informal teaching. Wan thinks everyone should have three human qualities – empathy, curiosity and a willingness to accept changes.
These are the values Wan thinks cannot be taught in classrooms. She believes people can only understand these qualities through experiencing them. “We always think that education is about someone teaching. However, education does not necessarily require the presence of teachers,” she adds.
Wan thinks the work camp is the ideal type of voluntary work since it adopts a bottom-up and needs-based approach. It is local groups who initiate work camps and volunteers are then recruited internationally.
Sometimes Wan sees overseas service trips initiated and planned by Hong Kong people. She disagrees with these because she believes it is impossible for foreigners to truly understand the needs of the local people.
Wan says it is easy for founders to make mistakes as they always think they have the right to decide everything just because they have money.
Sometimes volunteers are even bothering the local people. The community has to prepare supporting facilities solely for the volunteers and they have to provide extra food and accommodation. In some projects, volunteers may actually hinder the work. Wan cites the example of some traditional projects where volunteers helped to build bridges in remote areas but were unused to the type of labour required.
Even when work camps are initiated by local groups and are beneficial to both the people served and those serving, volunteerism is still open to criticism from those who say the volunteers are ‘buying’ voluntary experience.
Wan acknowledges this criticism, especially as most of VolTra’s target customers are new to work camps.
“Long-term volunteers are valuable. Short-term volunteers, to be frank, join to learn something from the experience more than helping others,” she says.
While some are critical of work camps as a bespoke experience for privileged young people from the developed world, others have questioned why volunteers have to pay to serve.
But she adds there are occasions when VolTra gives free volunteer quotas. The organisation has cooperated with some businesses to hold competitions and training programmes where winners and participants may be exempted from paying the fees. But she says there is no real free ride for participants and they shouldn’t expect it.
As VolTra has grown in scale, the organisation faces different challenges. The thing that concerns Wan now is how to remain competitive and attractive in the face of new platforms such as the cultural exchange and gap year volunteering site Workaway.
Wan recognises that VolTra’s operation model is outdated and less effective since it relies on working with an international network of work-camp organisations. Therefore, the process of handling feedback from participants is slow. Wan worries this may drive younger participants away. She will work on changes to improve operations.
VolTra’s success means Wan no longer has time to take part in work camps herself. Her role has changed from being a participant to an organiser but she is comfortable about the change.
“I hope more people can experience what I experienced. I hope they can feel the touching moments I felt.”
Wan’s goal and adventurous spirit have never changed over the years.
“Although I am not leaving Hong Kong, I am still wandering,” she says. For Karin Wan, running VolTra is similar to travelling. There will be plenty of uncertainty ahead but Wan will embrace it and journey on.