Wednesday, September 12

Review of ISV

International Student Volunteers (ISV) is an international volunteering organisation which is mainly based in the United States. They are a company that organises trips to foreign countries for students with the goal of doing volunteer work in that country and then, depending on the trip, after the volunteering they send you on an adventure tour, run by ISV, that gives the student a reward for their hard work and its a fantastic chance to see the county they've been working in.

My friends heard about ISV through University. They have representatives who visit different universities and tell students about the trips. My Girlfriend and her friend signed up straight away. There is a £200 deposit to pay up front and then they will offer you the opportunity of tacking other services onto the total price later on. About 2 or 3 months before they were due to leave I was invited on the trip as long as I brought a friend along with me. ISV were very accommodating and were more than happy to squeeze us in quite late in the game.

Please bear in mind I'm writing about the ISV volunteering trip to the Dominican Republic. Other trips run by ISV may have similar features to this trip, or they may be completely different. Also this review focuses on my personal experiences of ISV when I went on their Dominican Republic Trip in June/July 2007. Trips before and after may be different, see the ISV website for details on their current trips.

ISV run a group flight to the Dominican Republic which would have cost £660. After much scouting around on the internet we managed to get flights about £200 cheaper. There wouldn't have been much point in the group flight anyway, as most people went out earlier for the spanish lessons and home stay extra (which also cost them extra). The price for getting the cheaper flights was having to spend the night in JFK airport on the way out there, but this experience wouldn't have been so bad if we had realised that there were camp beds set up round the corner in terminal 8. Just take one of the blankets they give you off the plane when the stewards aren't looking and you'll be fine.

ISV collect a lot of information about you when you travel with them. Most of this is to help them give you a better trip. Expect to give them a photocopy of your passport, insurance and flight details. You also have to fill out a lengthy application form, give them details of what kind of project you want to do and if you are going with a friend, they give you the chance to tell them so you are put together (if thats what you want ;) ). Considering they take all this information they don't put it to good use. From what I've learned by talking to people in the organisation it seems to stem from a lack of communication between the American and British travel offices. For example when we got to the airport there was no-one there to meet us and we hadn't been given any information about where to go or who to contact. We managed to find the number for the U.S. ISV office on our paperwork and gave them a (quite expensive) call using my credit card on the credit card long distance payphone. I had to call them back 20 mins later to be told an address to give to the taxi driver. We ended up at a hotel (they had reserved us a room) and had to keep looking out the window to see if we could see anyone who looked like they worked for ISV. While it all worked out it could have gone better.

Its also a good idea to ignore most of what it says in the badly localised ISV volunteering handbook that they give you. With such vital information such as "take care when crossing the road" and "The prices, unlike the U.S. and the U.K. are listed with tax included" (Tax, V.A.T, is included in British prices) mean that any useful information is hard to find.

ISV also say they will give you fund raising advice. Plan to raise your own money, however, as all they give you is a fill-in-the-blanks letter asking people to donate you money. This seemed a bit of a rude way to raise money and I was expecting stuff on how to put on a successful bring and buy sale or something.

Anyway despite all the hassle we had as British ISV participants once you get out there the experience is good value for money. The volunteering, although partly handled by a volunteering organisation called the Community Service Alliance, was well organised and the leaders had a vague plan to follow set out by their office. The construction was planned ok but we completed much more than they had planned for us and had trouble ordering more building materials on time. Even so we completed an amazing amount of work and it really felt worthwhile. After the trip the organisers sent me some photos of the completed school.

The Adventure Tour was solely the responsibility of ISV and it was impeccable. Our tour leader, Adolfo, was a Dominican local with amazing English and a great sense of adventure. You will not find such a wide range of activities available in most package tours. We got bussed around the country from activity to activity and stayed in some really nice places. They also had planned some opportunities to meet the locals, party in local bars and also meet some conservationists who were working on the island.

Overall the ISV experience was great but they need to sort out the kinks in their handling of students before they leave. When asked by our leader on the first day who thought ISV was a scam everyone raised their hands. This can only be down to the fact that they seem so disorganised before you leave, although it is pretty damning. If you wanted to find out if ISV are a scam I would say no, but it will feel like one until you're sitting there in a room with the people who you will be volunteering with. Once you get going, though, you wont remember how bad you thought it was as they really do it right.


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