A twist of fate: From volunteer to country director in Kenya

Carlos Gallardo, country director for Nasio Trust, started his development career in Nairobi as a volunteer. Photo by: VSO

Carlos Gallardo works in a remote town in Kenya that lacks paved roads and local attractions, is 10,000 kilometers away from home in the Philippines and is surrounded by people who speak a different language.

And sometimes, he catches himself crying… alone.

Every volunteer who wishes to work in the small municipality of Mumias, northwest of Nairobi, should expect to experience the same, he said: being away from family and friends, and removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Gallardo told Devex that he was so used to the life in Manila that he had a hard time adjusting to the provincial setting in Mumias when he first arrived there in 2011 as a VSO volunteer.

The long walks also takes some getting used to, he said.

In most parts of the Philippines, everything is accessible by public transportation. But in Kenya, the picture is far from convenient. On days when he needs to travel to the capital, Gallardo has to endure 10 to 12 hours on the road.

But over the years, he was able to adapt to life there, and now advises newly arrived colleagues: "Less expectation, less frustration.”

Volunteer life

Gallardo's life in Mumias started after signing with the Philippine chapter of VSO in 2011.

It was his first time doing volunteer work outside of the country, although not his first volunteer stint. He's been part of the Philippine Red Cross and its youth chapter since 1997, and has served the organization in different capacities, from president of the National Red Cross Youth Council, member of the Red Cross board of governors, to manager of the Red Cross Youth.

Though not ideal, especially for a family breadwinner, he knew his volunteering experiences would be useful in the long run.

“Half of my life I have been serving the community as a volunteer. I know jobs will come after being a good volunteer since having an experience in the field is important,” he said.

VSO placed Gallardo as operations manager with Nasio Trust, a small U.K.-based charity that runs day care centers in Western Kenya for children orphaned by HIV and AIDS, and what he claims was probably the only organization present in the area.

It was supposed to be just a one-year assignment, in which time the Filipino introduced fiscal and human resources policies within the organization, helped build their capacity and contributed in their fundraising efforts.

But at the end of his engagement in 2012, the organization offered Gallardo the position of country director.

"When we started we relied on local staff, so the IT skills was very, very poor. For us, as a UK-based charity, most people relied on reports, because they want to see if they're giving you money, what does that money actually do. And so Carlos was able to develop reports that were suitable for our funders, for our supporters, but also for me as a UK director. I can go away and market it and say 'look, this is what we're doing' .. you know you put things in graphs, like saying this is the percentage of HIV orphans that we've got ... and that just added a lot of value to our project, which are things we never had," Nasio Trust co-founder Nancy Hunt shares in a documentary produced by VSO.

The opportunity opened doors for Gallardo, who from focusing on the organization’s internal operations, is now in charge of making sure Nasio Trust gets to position itself in the NGO community.

But it is not without challenges.

On the ground

One of the very first issues Gallardo faced when he arrived in Mumias was fundraising. A child under Nasio Trust’s care needed a heart operation, but neither the child’s family nor the organization had the means.

“The operation cost in Kenya shillings is 650,000. In Kenya, that is a huge amount of money! After the diagnosis, we made an immediate appeal both in Kenya and the UK,” Gallardo recalled.

The U.K. office was only able to raise 300,000 shillings, so Gallardo and his team tried negotiating with the private hospital in Nairobi where the surgery was scheduled, while at the same time appealing to banks and schools in the local community in Mumias, although the expectation wasn’t very high given the town’s poverty.

But the effort paid off, and in two weeks, the team was able to raise an additional 100,000  shillings, and, to their amazement, secured a 350,000 shillings discount from the hospital — giving them enough money for the operation and other expenses that go with it, including travel costs and the child’s food needs.

It isn’t every day though they get to intervene in the nick of time.

While conducting interviews in a primary school, Gallardo met a young girl with HIV. Every month, when having her period, the girl would be absent from school for a week. She didn’t have sanitary pads, and could not afford to buy one.

“In her desperation to go to school and buy sanitary pads, she decided to have sex with a guy much older than her in exchange for 50 shillings … after several months, it was found out she was positive with HIV. The girl almost committed suicide!” he recalled.

Potential for change

His experiences provided Gallardo insight in framing the organization’s approach.

A few months after having learned of the girl’s story, the organization started a program titled “Queens Feel Free,” which provides washable and reusable pads for primary school students.

Gallardo said it taught him to pay attention to even what for many would appear as a small problem, have a better understanding of a situation – so he can make an immediate and correct intervention – and focus on prevention rather than the cure.

But the biggest lesson learned is self-sufficiency, and he has developed an equation for it:

Maximizing available resources, plus putting in place a good management system, plus selecting people who shares the organization’s vision.

“I believe our Kenya office has a lot of potential that has not been maximized. Example of which [are that] the organization has big farms and poultry projects. I believe if we maximize these resources we can raise money for the operation rather than waiting for [our] U.K. office to send money,” he said. “We might not be able to get all the money we need, but at least we are saving a huge amount of money. If the organization starts earning money from our income generation projects that is fully run by the organization, then it becomes sustainable.'

Gallardo however admits this may take a while, and he needs to ensure the organization can manage its funds effectively. So in the meantime, he busies himself by scouting for new partners to work with and helping prepare project proposals.

On days he has nothing to do, he spends time with his external hard drive.

“Watching movies helps me to relax and unwind. I have loads of movies in my external hard drive; it’s a must for volunteers with hard placement like me,” he noted.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.