Volunteering overseas

Volunteering is a fantastic opportunity to travel the world, make new friends and, most importantly, help in the fight against avoidable sight loss. 

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Volunteering is also a great way of developing your clinical and professional skills, as well as life skills such teamwork, problem solving and communication.

Find out what it’s like to volunteer overseas – and how to go about getting a place on a project.

The volunteer

International student, Ling Lam Yin, joined a group of volunteers on a trip to Malawi, led by Peter Hong MBE FCOptom, Teaching Associate at Cardiff University

The opportunity to do overseas vision screening in Malawi appeared on the School’s Facebook group. I was a regular volunteer with Maggie’s club and UCAN in uni, and had volunteered in Laos. I benefitted so much from these experiences that I jumped at the chance. A lot of students applied, so we had to go through a series of interviews with several supervisors for the limited spaces.

We raised most of the funds as a group. We approached established spectacles and lens companies for sponsorship and received many letters of support in response, and the College provided pens and stickers, which were a hit with recipients. We also did a lot of fund raising activities together such as quiz nights, cake sale, selling St Valentine’s day chocolates – and even face painting!

There was never once a point of time where I felt deserted or lonely. The team that you go with will be your family for that trip and will have to look out for each other.

On this trip, I was the stand-in supervisor for two of the four weeks we were there. As second year students, we know a substantial amount in terms of theory and to actually see the theory applied to patients is particularly impactful. We used a brightly lit shed to re-enact a typical clinic to perform retinoscopy and ophthalmoscopy. With so many patients and so little time for each examination, we were able to hone that one skill. With practice comes experience.

I had volunteered overseas before so I kind of knew what to expect - an exchange of culture and busy days. However, no two trips are the same. The processes and people you meet are different and rewarding. It is not an easy journey but it is a worthwhile one.

Carrying out tests was difficult, as we desperately needed more translators. Sometimes there was no hot water for showers, or staff had to bring us water in pails to shower in. There is a lot of moving around and between new places and getting things organised. It’s important to keep morale high when things don’t go to plan, which frequently happens. Team work is crucial. Every obstacle was a hurdle, which we got over as a team - thanks to the efforts of every individual that was a part of this. There was never once a point of time where I felt deserted or lonely. The team that you go with will be your family for that trip and will have to look out for each other.

Team bonding day in Malawi
Ling Lam Yin on a team bonding day in Malawi

Check with your GP to see if there are any vaccines or anti-malarials you should take before and during your trip. Life is very different and you do need to be prepared for this. I would definitely bring insect repellent, torchlight and wet wipes!  Having an open mind, trying new food and living like a local, will also work in your favour. There’s usually no wif-fi available, but the time spent in the trips is so fulfilling, you don’t actually need it. You can always grab sim cards to contact family members at home, and anyone who brings along a game to kill time will earn lots of brownie points.

It is difficult to balance reality with expectations as things change with circumstance and culture. Maintain an open mind and a willingness to try. I mean, what is the worst that could happen from trying? Volunteering means willingness to contribute, so I don’t see any bad in it. I can honestly say that every minute of the trip was amazing. It raised my awareness of the conditions that are common out there and strengthened my thought process within a sight test. Being able to see and talk to patients allowed me to make a better judgement on improved questions and tests to perform the next time you suspect a diagnosis.

I would definitely recommend volunteering overseas. You forge new friendships, and there is a huge sense of satisfaction and gratitude. You also gain a personal insight on how optometrist works in different sectors.


The project organiser

Pete Hong MBE FCOptom has worked for more than 20 years in the field of charity eye care in Romania, Moldovia and Malawi. His regular trips overseas have helped more than 30,000 patients, and provide volunteer students and professionals with a unique and invaluable experience.

One of the key elements of the work we do overseas is enabling our students to experience optometry in the developing world. They have a direct role in restoring sight to those partially sighted and blind, simply because of the lack of a pair of specs.

Pete Hong in Romania
Pete Hong in Romania.

It all started about 20 years ago, when I travelled to Romania to commission a workshop to provide specs within the country. Seeing so many people in desperate need was a call to do what I could, and I started travelling out with a small church charity to provide refractions and specs. The situation has improved greatly since then and now I only travel there if there is a specific need and request for help. For the last seven or eight years, Malawi has been the main focus of our efforts. We mainly carry out refraction and provision of specs, but where possible we try and undertake training of local people in refraction and spectacle manufacture.

As well as helping to make a real difference to people’s lives, volunteering often enables teams to witness pathology rarely seen in the UK. It is also a great opportunity to put into practice much of what you have been learning at university. If there’s an opportunity to volunteer on a project close to your heart, do your research and if it’s right for you, go for it! When you are preparing your application and CV, look at the ethos of the organisation you are applying to see if it fits with what you want to do and talk to previous teams to find out what’s involved. Let the organisation know what skills you have and how you can fit in, and have realistic ambitions about what you’d like to achieve.

As well as helping to make a real difference to people’s lives, volunteering often enables teams to witness pathology rarely seen in the UK. 

We need people who are adaptable, and can make the best of a situation and do their best to help those who’ve come for help. I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing students and colleagues who have worked so hard to achieve so much. The key has always been their adaptability and willingness to put up with rough conditions. We expect our students to participate fully and they never disappoint. Previous teams have often slept on floors and washed from a bucket! The one thing that will carry you through a project is the overwhelming desire to help those in need that and a great team spirit and camaraderie.


Volunteer projects

We’ve found some organisations that run volunteering programmes for optometry students in the UK and overseas. Please let us know if you know of any others and we’ll add them to the list.

And don’t forget that there are some great charities working in the UK: