The concept of volunteering overseas changed my life. Literally. Had I not discovered the likes of WWOOF and HelpX, odds are we would never have taken our RTW trip. Volunteering (which we did in Italy and Germany) enabled us to extend our travels and gave us some of the richest memories and experiences of that entire journey.
So when Shay Gleeson, founder of HelpStay, got in touch with me, I was intrigued. His twist on the concept is introducing a fundamental layer of quality assurance – vetting, if you like. He’s an Irish bloke who (like us) recently took a six-month sabbatical and spent time travelling in Thailand, Vietnam and Australia, including some WWOOFing in the latter. Not surprisingly, he met plenty of other backpackers supplementing their travels by swapping their skills for lodging and food – there’s plenty of that here in New Zealand too.
The plan is to start small and expand from there. HelpStay has launched with a number of Irish hosts (most of whom he says are also members of other major volunteering sites) and Canada will be next off the ranks.
We had a chat about the birth of HelpStay, what he hopes to achieve, and where he’s off to next…
How he got the idea for HelpStay
I worked on organic farms for 3 weeks in Australia when I was on my travels. The idea started fermenting in my head. I was thinking ‘this is great’ …
Unfortunately I don’t have an inheritance or a nest egg or a trust fund … so you know the trip is going to come to an end sometime and you gotta go back to your home country, work for a few months, get some cash together then you can go off again.
I was thinking there must be an easier way to do this, to travel perpetually. That’s where the whole idea came from … that you can sustain your travel longer and go further.
A good UK friend of mine who is a surfing fanatic spent the whole summer in Australia helping in a surf lodge and surfing in his spare time. He did it all on a very tight budget.
To me travel is all about sharing, learning and growing and I think HelpStay facilitates the traveller to share their skills, learn new ones and grow as an individual. In addition, the traveller is living among locals, creating meaningful social connections and travelling with a purpose.
I guess we are the next evolution of Couchsurfing – you can crash on the couch but you will need to pull your weight about the place.
What sets HelpStay apart
There are other places doing it but where I’m different is that I wanted to actually look at building some trust and security into the system. At the moment, the other places, they don’t actually do any of that, they don’t actually go to the hosts and verify them, interview them and so forth.
If you’re a traveller and want to go to a host you’re taking a bit of a gamble. You don’t really know much about them. It’s a big ask to ask someone to go halfway across the world and stay with somebody they don’t know.
Hosts are only accepted on the platform once I have visited and interviewed them. I am also in the process of photographing all the hosts’ properties. This way the helper will know what to expect. It’s a big ask for someone to travel half way across the world, they need to know what to expect. I want to ensure that each host property and stay is as expected. Trust and security play a massive part and it’s something that is at the forefront of this venture. After all, trust is the currency of the new economy.
The end game
With HelpStay, I want to start 1000+ journeys. I want to entice people to start travelling and exploring the world. I want to empower the current generations to leave the safety of the couch and start a new journey. In the future, I would love to have hosts in a diverse range of countries and regions. How cool would it be to spend a month living and learning fabric weaving in Ireland or on a ranch learning horsemanship skills in Mongolia?
The end game of the whole project is to have hosts in as many countries as possible, in really interesting countries … like Mongolia, Iran or Iraq. If it works the way it’s supposed to work you will be able to travel around the world free, you can go from one host to another and that way travel perpetually (Ed: And a handy excuse to travel there to vet them!).
Once I have Ireland up and running, I am going to start travelling again. I have booked my flights to leave for Australia in early December.
My thoughts, in closing:
Shay mentions that volunteering can easily turn into exploitation if there’s a lack of communication and expectations aren’t laid out (hence the required approval process here, even though it takes a lot of work on his part). As he says, it really is the little things that can ruin an experience. We got a bit of a feel for our host via Skype beforehand, but were totally thrown by their eating habits (quantity/timing) when we got there. That’s a really hard thing to nail down – what do you call a reasonable amount of food, and does it line up with my perception?! – but I know if we ever volunteer again I’ll be asking about their dining routine early on.