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Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly
VolTra (Volunteer Travellers)
The VolTrateers (from left): Billy Chueng (Vice-Chairperson), Henry Fong (Editorial Director), Bird Tang (Chairperson), Kum Hiu Fung (Project Innovator)

Bird, Kum, Henry and Billy (all HKUST alumni) are the kind of people that would roll up their sleeves and jump at an opportunity. They do not wait for others to find a missing piece or solve a problem. That’s how VolTra - the very first organization in Hong Kong dedicated to advocate international voluntary services (IVS) came into being two years ago. VolTra has now emerged as a worldwide network of IVS, or workcamp organizations targeted at linking Hong Kong to the world through volunteering.

The VolTrateers (that’s how they call themselves) are celebrating VolTra’s 2nd anniversary this month (April 2011) which now has a membership of over 6,000, offering more than 3,000 voluntary opportunities in 100 countries. 

Under the Mongolian Sky

Tagged as "a bird with no feet", Bird Tang (BSc BIOL) is an obsessive traveler. He is also a dedicated volunteer. Doing both at the same time is a matter of course.

In 2008, he had the chance to work at an orphanage in Outer Mongolia for two weeks. "It was a different world," he said.

Temporarily cut away from - some call it "civilization" – internet, mobile or high-tech toys and scarcely little electricity, Bird had the rare chance of immersing himself into the imperturbable serenity, and learnt to appreciate the astounding beauty of nature and the simple pleasure of innocent childhood games. Singing a quiet tune with children under the Mongolian sky filled his heart with joy.

"The experience was life-changing. I came to realize there are infinite possibilities before me to live an abundant life," he said.

Working with volunteers from around the world and sharing history, culture, dreams with these passionate individuals taught him one thing - despite all differences we may have, we are all citizens of a global village, interconnected and interdependent.

"The idea fascinates me and I couldn’t stop preaching it to everyone I’ve since met. The world looks completely different if we use a wide lens – a global perspective," Bird said. 

At the time not many in Hong Kong had heard about international voluntary service (IVS). Joining overseas voluntary projects from Hong Kong could be painstakingly complicated. Bird once applied to work for a voluntary project saving baby turtles in Indonesia. He was unsuccessful as there was no proper intermediary in Hong Kong.

Bird shared his workcamp experiences and frustration with Kum Hiu Fung (BSc BIOL). The two were classmates at HKUST. And they came up with an idea.

"I knew there was a lack of IVS (and its NGO) in Hong Kong. I feel that it is the thing I would like to do and need to do," said Kum.

"Why not set up a workcamp organization in Hong Kong? It will act as an official contact point providing match-making service for local enthusiasts who, like us, have problem accessing IVS opportunities?" Kum suggested.

They had fervent discussion with two other UST alumni - Henry and Billy (BBA), both frequent travelers who embraced the idea and they were quick to move the idea into action.

In April 2009, the four HKUST alumni, together with four of their friends, co-founded VolTra.

Citizens of global village

The very first VolTrateers had all joined international voluntary projects (workcamps they are called) themselves.

Henry Fong (BBA OM) participated in a Japan workcamp – Fukui Prefecture. "As travelers, we are consumers of the place’s resources. But if we participate in local voluntary service (e,g, environmental protection), we are contributing back to the local community,” he said.

Billy Cheung (BBA MARK) participated in sea turtle conservation work in the south western coast of India in 2009. "If we adjust our attitudes and general habits regarding responsible travel and incorporate voluntary service into holiday arrangements, we can make a real difference,” he added.

"The best ways to really understand local cultures and traditions is through participating in local activities and there are many ways to add value to the local environment and culture – a carnival, or community service, for instance,” added Kum Hiu Fung (BSc BIOL).
"My experience in International Voluntary Service is peaceful and exciting. Before VolTra officially started, I was in Nepal mountain where I understand how small I am,” said Kum. There he realized one of the missions of VolTra is "Not only seek and work on the mission of yourself, but also help others to seek and work on their mission”.

Later he was put in charge of organising VolTra’s first, also Hong Kong’s first International Workcamp. An experience he described as "full of unprecedented excitement with friends from all over the world.”

When we think of overseas voluntary work, we think of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), ORBIS or Red Cross etc. – NGOs that welcome doctors, nurses or technical professionals.

"I had that impression too. But working at the Fukui Prefecture made me realize everyone can contribute to the IVS movement – just commit yourself, open up and get involved. Anybody aged 18 or above can join. Hardly any training is needed. It helps if you speak English but it is not a must." Henry explained.

Workcamps in Hong Kong

Other than match-making and managing applications, VolTra also organizes international workcamps in Hong Kong for both local and overseas volunteers to participate in community service and cultural exchange activities in Hong Kong. Three such workcamps have been organized so far and attracted volunteers from Asia and Europe.

  1. VolTra’s first international workcamp in Hong Kong was co-organized with the Fresh Fish Trader’s School in December 2009. 13 volunteers from five regions taught pupils of the school English, engaged in cultural exchange activities and helped renovate school facilities. The volunteers also visited elderly home during their two week stay.
  2. A cultural-specific international workcamp was organized in the summer of 2010. Volunteers came for a weekend training camp in Peng Chau to promote the tradition of celebrating Tin Hau Parade.
  3. In January 2011, the Warehouse International Workcamp focuses on promoting and appreciating the culture and tradition of the Lunar New Year was organized. 21 volunteers from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia, France and Hong Kong helped set up and run a flea market booth, renovated the living environment of the teenage club through planting and farm site formation.
On alma mater

The VolTrateers thanked HKUST – their alma mater for the education which had greatly influenced their personal development.

Billy said student life at HKUST was so busy and he was trained to be efficient and better at time management. The six-month he spent in the United States as an exchange student turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences he had.

Kum was a committee member of the Biology Students' Society and SU Council at HKUST. "It provided me the knowledge and practice to set up and run an organisation," he said.

Bird actively participated in community service during his UG years. He was Internal Vice Chairperson of a student residential hall and gained intangible rewards, e.g. communication skills and human relations skills. "That taught me how to cooperate with different people and parties which proved to be most useful when we started VolTra,” he said. It was also through the network he built then that led to the creation of VolTra – four of the co-founders are UST alumni.

Henry, also a BBA graduate, appreicated the Univeristy’s efforts in encouraging students to be creative, to come up with their own plans and help them implement their plans. He worked for a company run by students, guided by faculties and backed by the University in his Year 1.

"HKUST encourages students to come up with initiatives and materialize our dreams. Starting from ground zero is hard work, but we succeeded. It showed us that we can build something from scratch - just put ideas into action and work hark," said Henry.

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