23 Sep 2012

Who Will Plan My Gap Year?

Philip Russell will plan your gap year.  I've always held a lot of admiration for people who set up and run their own businesses, even more so when their work is also their passion.  One of my own passions is travel, so when a friend directed me to Plan My Gap Year I was enthralled by their story.

Philip in Uganda

Philip and his friend Gad Mimran decided to become gap year providers after they spent time teaching English in Thailand in 2011.  They built the company entirely from scratch and within a few months were sending volunteers off to Asia.

Philip, a graduate from Loughborough University, kindly agreed to answer a few questions I had about his experience:

1.  What inspired you to travel?

To learn and explore new cultures, and to broaden my horizons. I really like seeing how different communities live and their approach to life. Seeing new places inspired me academically and professionally. But when people ask things like why do you want to travel, I kind of think why wouldn't I?

2.  How did you meet Gad?

We're friends from school in Tunbridge Wells, since 1998.

3.  Was there a particular moment or experience in Thailand that made 'the light go on', and when did you first discuss the idea?

Before we went out to Thailand we were looking at volunteering opportunities on offer in the UK and realised there was a lot of money involved. For example, we were looking at £700+ for a two-week programme. How does volunteering in a developing country cost so much? We found a complete lack of clarity over where the money was going and there was a very 'call centre' type feel from each company. The people from these companies that we spoke to on the phone hadn't been to the country let alone the projects they support, so we looked at doing it independently.

We thought we could do it, but the problem was the lack of structure. You arrive at Bangkok airport and you spend half an hour just trying to work out how to get to the town and you've got to sort accommodation, get transport to the project etc. This was obviously a cheaper way of doing things but we wasted so much time planning it.

While we were in Thailand we felt compelled to try and find a middle ground where we could provide a really personalised service and provide a structured experience at the same time. So we started contacting organisations in each country that could provide our volunteers the structure of being picked up from the airport, accommodation, meals, transport to project every day etc.

We thought that providing clarity over where the fees were going was one of the most important points while establishing PMGY. We charge a £149 Registration Fee (per person) for the services that we provide in the UK. Within this fee we provide assurances that we have visited and will continue to visit the programmes we support, funds are 100% financially protected and you also receive a 50+ page Volunteer Handbook. This has been written by us based on our travelling and volunteering experience in the country and really covers everything you need to know. For example cultural issues, safety, embassy contacts, language guides etc. Furthermore we also provide a continuous support service prior to the programme start date, volunteers can call or email us and we answer any questions they may have. In fact this continuous support service is what really stands out in our review section – our response service never really sleeps!

We outline that the subsequent Programme Fee is being used for the services provided in the relevant country. In India for example, the Programme Fee costs £200 for a two-week programme. Within this Programme Fee you receive an airport pickup, accommodation, meals, local transport to and from the projects, an in-country orientation and a 24/7-support service within the country.

Gad was actually travelling beyond Thailand for a few months and I was on a two-week holiday from my graduate job. I remember flying home to the UK and talking to the guy sat next to me who worked six months in the UK and six months in Australia. Speaking to him made me realise I couldn't imagine being stuck in an office for the majority of the year.

Once back in the UK I handed in my notice and started to put the wheels in motion for the start of PMGY. Once Gad returned to the UK we really started to refine the aims and objectives of the organisation.

I had studied Business Studies at Loughborough University so it was always a big ambition of mine to start my own business. It was also important for me to start a social enterprise that helped benefit local communities as well. This still plays a major factor in the motivation behind PMGY and how we approach everything we do.

4.  What is your favourite aspect of volunteering?

Working with the local people. You meet people from all walks of life, and even though there's a language barrier you'd be surprised how easy it is to communicate. You meet some of the most inspiring people you will ever meet! Just learning about them and how they approach life allows you to evaluate your own life and what is really important.

5.  Can you share your most memorable Plan My Gap Year experience so far?

Earlier this year I ran the London Marathon and as part of that we raised £800 for the projects that we support in Sri Lanka.

As part of our annual project visits I travelled to Sri Lanka a week after the marathon. I met with our country coordinator there and we identified some local children who went to school but didn't have the money for uniforms, essentially they were kids living on the streets. So we took the money to the local markets and purchased material from local traders, we paid local women to make the uniforms, we bought stationery, rucksacks, shoes, underwear.

With the remaining money we also bought an electricity source for a community centre and we bought a local woman a stove so she could cook for her family.

Just being there in the community was really touching, and it's something we will be doing on an annual basis. Gad and I are looking into the Paris Marathon for 2013.

6.  What words of encouragement would you give to someone considering volunteer work?

Be open-minded and be proactive. A lot of people go volunteering for two weeks, when I look back at my university experience I can always think of things I wish I'd done. Due to time constraints our volunteers really have to use their own initiative, be proactive and really make the most of their time otherwise they will finish their programme with regrets.

The money raised from the London Marathon was used for all sorts of things, including school stationery and clothes for the local children

Having read a number of very positive reviews, it's clear these two gentlemen have produced gap year programmes that offer rich, focused and inspiring volunteering experiences, as well as being involved in many other projects.

All images are taken from their Facebook page.

If you want more information you can visit their site or you can follow them on twitter: @PlanMyGapYear.

On a personal note, two countries that had a big impact on me last year were Laos and Cambodia.  I intend to return to both one day and would love to contribute in some way as a volunteer.  If and when I do, I will definitely be looking up these guys!