4 February 2011
Heilwig Jones of Kaya Responsible Travel

Name: Heilwig Jones ("It's German")

Job title: Director

Company: Kaya Responsible Travel

Tell us about your background

I was 26 and working as an advertising account director in London, when I took a career break. I had volunteered in Africa with animals, then went to Australia on working holiday visa and returned via South-East Asia.

My plane arrived the day after the 2004 tsunami. It really affected me, I didn’t feel like I could be there travelling when I could be helping. So I found some volunteering work with a local Thai organisation, after a lot of searching. That was part of what incentivised me to do what I’m doing because I couldn’t find many places that would take someone to do unskilled work – they mostly wanted doctors etc.

While volunteering, I found that my project management skills came into their own, in terms of getting teams of people together to get stuff done. I organised builders to help rebuild homes and villages, and got groups working within the camps, teaching, running classes. They also had to occupy the displaced children to help get their minds off the tragedy. I was there for 4 months and in that period I ended up leading a construction team, even though I’ve never built a thing in my life! The impact it had on me and the impact I was able to have on the ground left a lasting impression.

I returned to advertising, and found that I was inspired by the time I’d spent volunteering, on the basis that I think most people don’t realise how useful they can be as a volunteer. I’d had a lot of contact with the organisation I’d worked with but also got quite involved in some existing US organisations. I spent time talking to them about how we could bring my idea to life. I used their experience and guidance to set up Kaya, in 2008. Our approach has always been to get people to realise how useful they can be.

Is there such a thing as a typical career breaker?

There’s no typical career breaker. Some people are suddenly made redundant and given this out of the blue, some people plan it for decades, some people wait until they’re retired and use the time then.

We get people who are looking to change careers and use volunteering to try out a new area, or get work experience in a new area and in fields as diverse as your traditional teaching and medical projects right the way through to journalism, business, setting up micro businesses, to vets – it really is quite diverse. I’d go so far as to say that when someone walks up to me at a stand [at a travel show] I can never tell.

What kinds of questions do career breakers ask?

The main question is always about what happens when I get there? What’s going on on the ground, what’s going to happen to me? How am I going to cope?

The answer is – we have staff on the ground to provide support, help them through the culture shock. It’s a vital part of volunteering and one that people should not overlook. If you’re the kind of person who is happy to schlep around Ghana for weeks trying to talk to people locally, finding where your skills will be best used, I mean, where do you go to find this sort of work? Our projects don’t even advertise for this kind of work, they’re hospitals, schools, groups of women trying to make a difference.

What are career breakers most excited about?

People are always most excited about a challenge, and doing something totally different that nobody they know has done. And to a certain degree, the reaction that their friends are going to have when they tell them they’re going to go from this comfortable work environment to this whole other world. They’re always really proud when they sign up for something like this, that people are looking at them in awe. To a certain degree, they’ve rocked people’s perceptions of them, because it’s easy to become the boring office worker!

Any odd questions or misconceptions?

We had one enquirer from the US say "In front of your prices you keep putting these funny little signs instead of dollar signs – what are those?" People ask if there’s electricity (there usually is, for at least part of the day anyway!). A popular misconception is that our projects are "only for the younger people" where our average age is 29. Our oldest volunteer is 68 (a man who went to the Phillipines), and we recently sent a 65-year-old to Vietnam.

What do you think the most important thing is for a career breaker to think about?

How much taking a break can make a positive difference to themselves. It’s easy to make a list of why you can’t afford it, can’t take time off your career, how it might affect this that and the other, but you should think how it can positively affect not only your personal being and your approach to life, but also your career and other things.

It’s easy to put these things off another year and another year, and your excuses with your mortgage and your car repayments etc. People travel and volunteer with their families, put their stuff into storage, let out their house. So there are ways and means of doing things, there’s always an easy excuse not to do it, but they’re easy to overcome if you really want to. Time goes by so quickly that before you know it you do feel that you’re using the excuse of age to put it off. I talked about mine for 5 years! It’s never too late.

I love this quote: "The best time to do anything was however long ago. The second best time to do anything is now."

What’s your favourite project that Kaya offers and why?

I have two. The first is the marine projects where you spend the days diving and either working in Thailand on the reef conservation, or in Mozambique with whale sharks and manta rays. I like this because it [diving] is the sort of thing people do on holiday but with really positive contributions to conservation.

The second is the jewellery-making project in Peru. The NGO that we’re working with is trying to resurrect the ancient Incan art of jewellery-making, while providing skills and jobs for disadvantaged youths. It needs the help of volunteers to promote the work they’re doing and the jewellery they’re selling to the visitors to come to do the treks in the region.

What memorable career breakers have you seen?

An ex-volunteer ended up working for us and marrying a local girl and having a baby - he lives in the Philippines now! We had one volunteer work on a journalism project, and she was short-listed for a Guardian young writer’s award, in 2009.

There was the London IT consultant, age 35, who worked on a computer literacy project in South Africa. He was so inspired by the work being done that he’s gone back to his company he took the sabbatical from, and they are raising funds to send a satellite station out so the project can have internet access.

We’ve also had people who’ve come to work on an animal project who didn’t realise they’d have to clean up poo! It is hard work, and hot and dirty, and you really get very involved, but that’s what makes it such an awesome experience.

Tell us an industry secret

We probably get 10 emails a day from projects that want the help of volunteers. We only work with the projects we can go to and fully check out, and there’s a lot of work involved in finding the right partners. But there is so much need that there will never be an over-abundance of volunteers.


Heilwig is the owner of Kaya Responsible Travel, a travel and volunteer organisation that's been vetted and approved by The Career Break Site.