For Amy Strayer, two weeks of volunteering in South Africa last May was the experience of a lifetime.

Raised in Merritt, Strayer is now a second year student at Thompson Rivers University hoping to get into the social work program and so when she heard about the trip offered through VESA (Volunteer Eco Students Abroad) she jumped at the opportunity to go.

“I’ve always wanted to travel and I’m going into social work so it was a perfect opportunity to get some experience and see what the world was about,” said Strayer.

Before departure Strayer saved up the $5000 program fee by working at McDonalds and then boarded the plane that would take her across the globe.

According to the organization’s website, VESA’s sole aim is to provide people with the opportunity to fully immerse themselves within a country through a program of community based volunteer work and adventure tourism.

With three components to the trip- education, conservation and construction – Strayer had two weeks packed full of African experiences.

While in South Africa Strayer got to work in a daycare orphanage called a crèche for children under four, and teach English in an elementary school.

“The best moment of my whole trip was on the first day when we arrived at the orphanage,” she said. “I picked up one of the children and automatically all the other children ran towards me.”

Strayer also had the chance to feed cheetahs and build new pens for the cheetahs and other smaller cats.

“They’re planning to breed cheetahs and let the babies out into the wild,” she said. “We fed them zebras – some of the girls cut the meat up and others threw it over the fence – it was scary but exciting.”

After the volunteer work with the cats, Strayer’s group returned to the orphanage and worked to build bathrooms and establish gardens and composting programs.

“The project is ongoing and the work is never going to be done,” said Strayer.

Living in Africa was certainly an eye-opener for Strayer. She explained how families with extra rice for the week will take in an orphan. She also said that AIDS was not a taboo subject since 90 per cent of the children were born with the disease.

“I didn’t feel threatened at all – they are very open about it,” she said. “The children were so cute – I wanted to bring them all home with me.”