Skip to main content

Wrong place, right time

At 18, Keah Mcilwain was volunteering with ICS in Nepal when the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the remote village of Sotipasal, in the central district of Lamjung. Keah and her fellow volunteers were evacuated.

But Keah came back to the UK with a determination to help the people of Nepal. Before long she was back helping with the relief efforts. 

Keah's team of volunteers were evacuated after the earthquake struck
© Keah Mcilwain
Keah's team of volunteers were evacuated after the earthquake struck

None of us realised the scale of the devastation

April 25th, 2015, was a Saturday. It happened at 11.30am.

We were doing a planning day, and I was at home with my counterpart. In the other room, my host brother and host mother were home, and all the children as it was their day off.

And then the house just started shaking. I had no idea what was going on. Everyone had ran out of the one-storey concrete building and all I could hear was shouting in Nepali. I looked around and I was the only one stood there. Outside, my Nepali counterpart was screaming at me, ‘get out, get out!’

I ran outside and the ground was moving. It wasn't shaking, but it was like waves – it felt like the ground was rolling, and it seemed to go on for a long time.

But we didn’t realise just how serious it was until we discovered we had no electricity. Our family kept getting calls from their relatives in Kathmandu about how big the earthquake was. None of us had any idea how devastating it had been.

The epicentre of the earthquake was in Gorkha, just 36 miles from where Keah was based in Sotipasal
The epicentre of the earthquake was in Gorkha, just 36 miles from where Keah was based in Sotipasal

Before ICS, I’d never been away

I’d been on holiday once, but I’d never been away from my family. I come from Catterick, a tiny village in North Yorkshire. To move for three months to another tiny community 4,500 miles away – well, it was insane.

On my ICS placement, we did a lot of community days. Our projects were on sexual health and livelihoods, and we worked with the community on their livestock and beekeeping. We did clean up days, healthy livestock and farming days, and ran infertility and menstruation awareness sessions.

Three boys watch ongoing rescue work on a collapsed building in Kathmandu
© Michael YL Tan / Shutterstock.com
Three boys watch ongoing rescue work on a collapsed building in Kathmandu

Leaving Nepal in the wake of the earthquake

The decision was made to evacuate us, and it was all quite sudden. We hurriedly said our goodbyes before travelling to Kathmandu and flying home.

That journey back was horrible. We were acutely aware that as international volunteers, we were going back to homes with family who were safe. For some of the counterparts and host families we were leaving behind, that wasn’t the case.

None of us wanted to leave, but as much as we didn’t want to say goodbye to the Nepali volunteers, they desperately wanted to return to their family and friends.

Keah was working with a charity to rebuild three schools destroyed in the earthquake
© Keah Mcilwain
Keah was working with a charity to rebuild three schools destroyed in the earthquake

Getting back to help the disaster relief

Back in the UK, I was constantly messaging my counterpart to see how she was, constantly talking to the Nepali volunteers, and many of them were going out and actively helping in the relief and rebuild efforts. I decided to see if I could find any disaster relief organisations helping in a sustainable way.

Before I knew it, I was back in Nepal again, volunteering with a charity called All Hands in a big village called Thulo Pakar in the Sindhupalchok District.

When I arrived, I saw all the houses along the main road made out of sheet metal. It didn’t clock until later that in place of those used to be people’s proper homes. That was the same for every single home in that village. 

There were three schools to be rebuilt and as a team of skilled and non-skilled volunteers, we had our work cut out. After spending half a year of working six days a week, 7am-5pm in the monsoon season, in the water and the mud, when we handed over those buildings to the community, it was amazing. 

To be part of restoring access to education for those children made every second worthwhile.

Keah repairs a basketball court in the Virgin Islands. The waste filled 14 skips
© Keah Mcilwain
Keah repairs a basketball court on the British Virgin Islands. The waste filled 14 skips

I like to be physically challenged. I like to see the difference I make

After Nepal, I signed up to work on St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. I was mucking and gutting homes. We were pulling everything out of the home that had been damaged, and stripping it all back to get a roof on it and sanitising it so they could rebuild them.  

All Hands, like ICS, pride themselves on giving everyone a chance, regardless of background and education. They've just opened projects in Dominica, Mexico and Puerto Rico so I'll hopefully be headed that way in a few months’ time.

"Get out into the world and figure it out as you go" - Keah's learnt practical skills on the job
© Keah Mcilwain
"Get out into the world and figure it out as you go" - Keah's learnt practical skills on the job

Valuable skills aren’t just found in the classroom

It’s important to remember that as a volunteer, you're not always wanted. Communities might not want the help, they might have it completely under control, and that's where you have to listen to the people you’re there to work with. You need to figure out what a community actually needs.

What I like about this line of work is not knowing where I’m going to be next. For now, it’s giving me the skills I need to get a long-term job in the field I want to be in.

You don't have to take the normal route in life. Get out into the world and figure it out as you go. Valuable skills aren’t just found in the classroom, but in the world around us. 

Dfid Logo

Funded by the UK Government

ICS is funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID) which leads the UK’s work to end extreme poverty.

Find out more