Some people try something once and then that's it, they can tick that off their list. But for people like Fiona Simpson, a trip abroad turned into a charitable work opportunity giving her a new career and outlook on life.
Formerly an Enrichment Coordinator at New College, Fiona, now 32, organised activities to enhance students' lives. "An opportunity came up where I was able to take a group of students over to Kenya where we were placed at Melon Mission school," she told me.
"It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my life – I’d already been travelling and seen quite a bit of the world, but I had never been to Africa and I had never seen anything like this. The children were happy, teachers were happy, and yet they didn’t really have anything in comparison to what we have in England. So, I loved how we were helping even in a small way. And what I also really loved was seeing how students were really benefitting from the trip.
"So, for me that was the start of everything. I thought ‘this is the best thing ever' – not only are we helping a school in Africa, but I’m actually seeing this help people from my own town and my own students’."
Fiona is now the trustee of Swindon-based charity Younite Foundation and director of her own travel company Younique Travel Adventures (YTA). Combining the organisations together she now offers people adventurous and cultural travel experiences. These are in aid of charitable projects she works alongside in Kenya, - Melon Mission School and Silver Bells Children’s Welfare - India, - P.E.T.E (Providing Education To Everyone) and Vietnam - a youth project supporting disadvantaged young people. "Every destination that we’re working in we are supporting a project, but we’re choosing to support them in a way that they’ll benefit the most from," she says.
Fiona started out by creating a community interest company, Younite Outreach Project, and became driven to take the project further. She said: "It just got to a point where it was quite clear that this was my passion, and I wanted to go fulltime with it.
"I moved out of college and went for it on my own – I’d never had any experience in running a business, no experience in the travel industry, and hadn’t any experience in charity work either. So [laughs], all of this was a massive massive learning curve."
Starting small with providing trips for friends and family, Fiona wanted to make these trips and charitable causes more accessible, so in 2016 she brought together YTA and Younite Foundation which is aimed primarily at her Kenyan projects - last year the organisations raised £45,000 which has enabled Fiona, volunteers from the UK and community members in Kenya to start building a brand new school which she hopes will be up in running within the next two years. "People often ask, ‘how can you make a difference in two weeks?’ and I just think that unless you go there and see for yourself what difference you can make then you’re never really going to know. But what I see is the schools progressing massively – we had Melon Mission where the school was in a terrible condition, they didn’t have any electricity, but now they’re very close to having a brand-new school like you would expect to see here."
Through YTA volunteers, and travellers, will also get to explore different countries. For instance, she tells me, "You can’t go to Kenya and not do a safari! We want people who come on our trip to have a cultural experience and a little bit of adventure as well. We feel people should really see the area and embrace it - we take groups to Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Thomson's Falls, traditional church services and Menengai Crater."
Always on the move, Fiona's next step is to get local businesses, schools and projects in Swindon involved with both Younite Foundation and YTA - next year a scout group from Taunton will be going out to Kenya, and she would love for more local organisations to engage with the charity.
Aside from “a lot more grey hairs”, Fiona has also felt the impact of her adventures, both as a traveller but also as a charity trustee and business owner. "What I do, I don’t refer to as a job – it’s my life. It is something that has taken over my life, it’s something I always talk about, something I am very passionate about – every night I go to bed I’m thinking about it. It’s given me a real drive and passion - I want to help and when I go out on these trips I see the benefits of people on the trip, and benefits of the projects. But, when I see the kids [in Kenya] running out shouting ‘Fiona! Fiona!’ that means the most to me."
For further information about Younique Travel Adventures visit www.ytauk.co.uk
For further information about the Younite Foundation visit www.younitefoundation.com