Here at Projects Abroad, we get enquiries about family volunteering more and more often. The increasing popularity of volunteering with your family is easy to understand when you think of the kinds of experiences it opens up for parents and their children. With the chance to teach your children about a part of the world different to your home country, about different cultures, and the importance of helping others, volunteering as a family is a truly eye-opening and rewarding experience.
Bart Fatan, a father of two from Belgium, recently got to experience this for himself when he volunteered with his family on projects in Fiji, Peru, and Kenya. We caught up with him when he got back from his trip to hear all about his time making an impact abroad with his family.
Making this life-changing decision
Bart has a very busy day-to-day life, managing a team at an automotive factory. With so much going on in his life every day, he decided he wanted to take a step back and take some time off to do something meaningful. He went on a search for alternative ways of travelling, where he and his family could learn something about different cultures and communities.
“A holiday in a big resort is so boring,” Bart explains. “I wanted to experience something that you can’t do on your own without an organisation.”
Bart decided to take parental leave for eight months and he attended a Projects Abroad information day in Belgium. On that same day, without any second-guessing, he chose his three projects.
“I didn’t really have a preference of where to go,” he tells us. “All I wanted was to make a difference somewhere in the world. It’s all about the actual experience, not about focusing on all the little reasons why you think you should or shouldn’t do something like this.”
Choosing Projects Abroad was an easy decision for Bart. “I have a heart for nature, especially where it’s untouched. Projects Abroad offer a wide range of Conservation Projects in unique locations. The communication with Projects Abroad went so smoothly and the whole package is incomparable with the other volunteering organisations out there.”
Bart decided on Rainforest Conservation in Peru and African Savannah Conservation in Kenya. His third project was a combination of the Community Village Project and the Shark Conservation Project in Fiji. He was mostly volunteering on his own during the projects, but his family flew over to join him for a few weeks.
Getting the family involved
Bart left it up to his wife and children to decide if they wanted to join him on the projects. “I didn’t force the kids to join. They had to decide on their own if they wanted to experience something like this. My wife, Fabienne, struggled with the idea in the beginning, but she was quickly convinced that it would be a positive experience. At first, the kids took the idea of ‘working’ quite literally. They thought it was going to be like doing a daily, typical job in Belgium,” Bart laughs.
When they told their friends and family about their plans, there were mixed opinions going from criticism to admiration. “Some people did not understand our mission abroad, but I never tried to convince any of them that what we were doing was the right thing,” Bart explains. “I did this mostly for myself and my family. Experiencing different cultures, languages, and communities is so different from just hearing about them. You have to experience these things yourself before you can truly understand what they’re like.”
Learning life lessons in the Amazon
Both of Bart’s children, Laurence (9) and Gilles (11), still attend school and in order to let them join the trips, Bart and Fabienne had to ask the schools for permission. “There was a very good understanding and plenty of support from their schools,” Bart notes. “They understood the higher purpose of these trips. What Laurence and Gilles experienced in Peru, Kenya and Fiji is something you can never learn at school.”
Gilles and Laurence absolutely loved the Conservation Project in Peru at the Taricaya Ecological Reserve. “The work on this Conservation Project was adjusted for the kids. They could help with so many things on the project. They worked with animals and spotted birds and butterflies. It was very tiring for them, but they loved the project to bits.”
The family never complained about the simplicity of the accommodation and they had the time of their lives. “After 9 pm, there was no electricity in the Taricaya Reserve. During the day, they used a generator. This was something to get used to in the beginning, but the kids never struggled with this. The water came from a nearby stream and there was only one central tap filtering all the water. The more basic things were, the more fun the kids had.”
The family did not only spot wild animals they had never seen before, but they also learned some important lessons along the way. “The experience was so carefree and laidback, in contrast to how we live in Belgium,” Bart explains. “We’ve learned so much together. We started to understand different ways of living and the attitude people have towards life. You realise how to respect nature, the circle of life, and how we have an important role in protecting the planet. This experience has broadened our minds so much.”
Challenges the family encountered
The family encountered a few challenges while they were abroad. One of the biggest challenges was adapting to a different way of life while living with a host family in Fiji. Bart and his family struggled with how hot the house was, the unfamiliar smells, and different hygiene practices. “It was interesting to see how different the values are from what we know,” Bart tells us. “It’s important to realise that you’re not in the right to tell these people how to live. It’s their way of living and their values. We learned to deal with the difference in cultures, but it wasn’t an easy task.”
The family never felt unsafe at any point in time. “Theoretically there was some unrest in Kenya because of riots in Nairobi, but we were never affected by it. The project was very well organised and the expertise of the local Projects Abroad staff made a big impression on us.”
Looking back at the experience abroad
“We got so much value out of the Conservation Projects. The projects were really well organised and the staff welcomed us as part of the team from day one. There is such a big variety of things to do and the staff would always guide us through all the different procedures of the tasks. The one challenge we had was the language barrier because many of the local staff have a limited knowledge of English,” Bart explains.
“We had some good laughs at the projects as well. The kids helped with making chapati in Kenya while shaking their hips and dancing with the locals. When we were in Peru, there was one time when a massive tarantula fell from the roof and gave everyone a huge fright,” Bart beams.
After their return to Belgium, the school asked the children to prepare something to share their experiences with the other students. “They both made presentations explaining everything about the trip and everyone loved their presentations. Perhaps we even inspired some people to also try volunteering abroad with their families.”
The start of an adventurous future
These first three trips are only the beginning! Volunteering abroad made a big impression on Bart and his family and they are already planning their next trips. “We’ll never forget about this experience,” Bart says. “From now on, we will always want our trips to be organised just like this.”
Bart dreams about all the places that he wishes to go next. “I want to visit Nepal, Cambodia, Belize and Central America. I basically want to do all the projects!” Bart laughs.
He also wants to keep involving his family in future travels abroad. “When the kids are older, they might want to continue this new tradition of travelling with a purpose. I leave the choice in their hands.”
Bart swears by the saying ‘dream, dare, do’. “Don’t think twice, just do it. There’s always a lot of arguments about why you shouldn’t do something in life. But if it feels right, it will always end up being a good experience. Volunteering abroad is something very different and it was an experience of personal growth for me. If you do this for yourself, then you can grow, share your best self with others, and give back even more.”