I participated in the Helping Hands Gap Year Block.
I traveled in Laos for two weeks as part of the Helping Hands gap year block.
I think that Laos is an incredibly beautiful country, and each of the cities we were in were stunning. There are a lot of outdoor activities which we participated in (kayaking, hiking, swimming, etc.). In addition, we visited temples, caves, night markets, and other cultural attractions which I enjoyed. Unfortunately, many of our night time group discussions were focused on personal reflections which meant that we did not get to learn as much about the history or culture of Laos as I would have liked.
The service project was a disappointment. We were meant to be building two public toilets but lacked the technical skills required to do much of the actual work. There was not enough work to do to occupy fourteen, unskilled teenagers so many of us spent hours sitting around waiting for the work day to be other. At points, the villagers would grab the tools from us and take over. It felt as if the construction project would have been more of a success if done entirely by the villagers, as opposed to with our half-heartedly attempts to assist.
In addition, two volunteers taught each day at the village school which was a touching experience as they had never received English instruction before. As we were extremely untrained teachers, it's not clear how much we were able to teach them but they did pick up a few words and those who like being around children enjoyed the experience.
The two local staff were pretty good, although one was much easier to interact with than the other. Between them and the Western staff, we were always safe and healthy. At times staff did show questionable judgment however (for example, encouraging us to put whole raw eggs in our mouths as part of a group Olympic event, despite the risk of salmonella). There was a great deal of supervision, perhaps more than I personally would have liked or required, which meant that many of the decisions such as what to do or what time the lights would be turned off were made by staff instead of students, despite the fact we were all adults and could have been trusted to be a part of the decision-making process.
Two final notes about the gap year program was that although this was never explicitly stated, Rustic only covers two meals per day and participants are expected to pay the third from the spending money they bring, and, although it is marked as a gap year "block" because this was a part of the greater semester program there were only three new students for this month and the remaining eleven members had been together for one or two months already.
Laos was an incredible country so I'm thankful I had the opportunity to visit, I am just not sure that this was the right fit of a program for me. There were some really great memories but overall, the trip was a disappointment for me.
I spent two weeks in Cambodia this November on the Helping Hands gap year block. Overall, I felt the experience was okay but not great.
I started off the trip with being forgotten at the airport and desperately trying to get ahold of someone to pick me up. I was shocked upon arriving into the group to realize that although it is marketed as a gap year "block" since it is a part of the larger semester program, only three of the fourteen students were new. Everyone else had spent one or two months together already and although they were very nice and welcoming, they already knew one another and were established in their friendships. One of the local staff members was great and the other one was very sweet but spoke significantly less English so it was difficult to communicate with him. The leadership from the Western staff was at times lacking, although all staff always made sure we were safe and healthy.
I enjoyed all of the "touristy" things we were able to do in Cambodia, from visiting the killing fields in Phnom Penh to exploring Ankor Wat, and taking a boat ride to visit the floating villages. I thought there was a good mixture of activities that helped me learn about the country and its history/culture.
I was not as excited however by our service project which was building a brick wall. We, as American teenagers, do not have the technical skills required to do construction very well, even as simple as building a brick wall. As a result, our van driver ended up doing a significantly larger portion of the work than our entire group combined (including tearing down a section we had already completed to re-do it since it wasn't straight or steady). Thinking about the materials wasted, it would have been a larger benefit to the community if we had used our expensive fees to hire local technicians to do the work in half the time.
And finally, I was disappointed that Rustic Pathways never informed Gap Year program participants that only two meals each day were included in the already hefty program fees you pay. This meant that each day we had to purchase one meal, often dinner, on our own. In addition to creating hectic situations at restaurants when our group had to pay the bill, many students had not budgeted one meal a day into their spending money since Rustic never disclosed that they were not purchasing all meals (and although dinners were not particularly expensive, it does add up over the course of a month or two or three).
My feelings about this program were extremely mixed-- there were some great moments and some not-so-great ones too. Overall, I have to admit that I was disappointed but I think for the right person this type of program could be great. Like I said, you get to see and learn a lot about the country but you do not get to participate in a community-driven project for which you are actually needed.