Leuven non-profit helps Flemish youth volunteer at home and abroad


For over 60 years, Bouworde has been providing young people from Flanders with volunteering opportunities around the world

Have heart, will travel

Care to work in an Albanian community centre or plant trees in Ecuador? Volunteering has become a popular form of travel for young people eager to discover the world. Every year, thousands of Flemish youngsters go abroad with the intent of getting their hands dirty and making a difference on the ground.

Bouworde has been providing such opportunities since 1953. Based in Leuven, the non-profit organises volunteering trips for people who are between 15 and 30 years old and live in Flanders or in Brussels.

Those interested are spoilt for choice. Bouworde owns 114 volunteer camps in 38 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Volunteers can choose between social, ecological and technical projects.

“Our most popular project is in the Moroccan town of Taroudant, where volunteers get to help out in an understaffed orphanage and work in a centre for street kids,” says Karen Heylighen, who is responsible for fundraising and communications at Bouworde.

Nearly 75% of the volunteers are female, she continues, “as they are usually very interested in social work. Boys tend to go for technical projects such as building schools”.

Eye-opening experience

But this was not the case for Silke Lenaerts, a 23-year-old student from Leuven, who has been on two volunteering trips with Bouworde. “I chose construction projects because I like to see the result when I leave,” she explains. “In social projects you interact with local people, but you don’t really leave anything behind.”

Lenaerts first travelled to Egypt in 2012, where she spent two-and-a-half weeks painting run-down classrooms in Luxor, in the country’s south, with four other volunteers. In 2015, she went to Central Java, where she took part in the construction of a wooden school.

You get to know people on a completely different level and you learn to put your own values aside

- Silke Lenaerts, volunteer for Bouworde

“Volunteering is an eye-opening experience,” says Heylighen. “Young people are exposed to different cultures and to the problems and inequalities that exist. Our main goal is to raise awareness and encourage youngsters to become citizens of the world.”

Accessibility is key to Bouworde’s mission. Anyone who meets the age and residency requirements can apply online, after which projects are assigned on a first-come first-served basis.

Fees vary from €1,500 – for the most remote destinations – all the way down to €50 for local projects. As the fees are a deterrent to some hopefuls, Bouworde has created a fund to reduce the financial burden for young people from low-income families.

To reach them, the organisation collaborates with schools across the region and with the Holiday Participation Centre, an initiative started by Tourism Flanders-Brussels to help disadvantaged youth go on holidays.

Close to home

“Bouworde puts €1,000 into the fund each year,” explains Heylighen, “To that, we add returns from various fundraising activities such as the Music for Life action last December.”

Last year, three underprivileged youngsters benefitted from the fund and Heylighen hopes to send five more abroad in 2017. “Our opinion is that everyone should have the opportunity to participate,” she says.

Exotic destinations are enticing, but Heylighen points out that you do not have to travel thousands of miles to make a difference. “We also have volunteering projects here in Flanders, mainly in asylum centres operated by the Red Cross” she says. “These have become increasingly popular since the migration crisis. I think people like the idea of doing something in their own country as well.”

Ultimately, what matters is the learning experience. “Volunteering teaches you skills you wouldn’t normally acquire,” says Lenaerts. “You get to know people on a completely different level and you learn to put your own values aside.”

She also believes volunteering has made her more pragmatic: “You learn to fix problems with a lot less than we have here.”

Photo courtesy Bouworde