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Wrong place, right time

Keah Mcilwain

When Keah Mcilwain was caught up in a devastating earthquake while on an International Citizen Service (ICS) youth volunteering placement, she knew her career path would change forever. Forced to evacuate home, Keah came back to the UK with a determination to forge a career in disaster relief.

It was such a culture shock

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

I’d signed up to volunteer because I had no idea what to do in life. I was working a job that wasn’t going anywhere. And for the first two weeks, I really struggled. Then I found the confidence to pair up with volunteers working in the next village. On the days we couldn’t work in my village, we’d work there instead.

We ran a lot of community events. Our projects were on sexual health and livelihoods, and we worked with them on their livestock and beekeeping, so they could sell honey and make it for themselves.

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

Three boys watch ongoing rescue work on a collapsed building in Kathmandu

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 waiting for the volunteers from the next village to come over. While on placement, I lived and worked with a Nepali counterpart, and I was with her in the house. In the next room, our host brother and mother who we were living with were chatting.

And then the house just started shaking. I had no idea what was going on. Everyone had ran out of the single storey concrete building and all I could hear was shouting in Nepali. I looked around and it was just me stood inside. Outside, my 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 to communities up and down the country.

Map of the 2015 Nepal earthquake

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

We were acutely aware that as international volunteers, we were going back to homes with family who were safe. That wasn't the case for some of our Nepali counterparts.

Keah Mcilwain

VSO ICS volunteer, Nepal, 2015

Our evacuation

In those days after the earthquake we knew our evacuation was about to happen but didn’t know when. We’d have our bags packed, ready to go, but due to the disruptions to transport in and out of the country, the evacuation would be rescheduled.

Then one day, suddenly, the decision was made. 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.


Getting back to help the disaster relief

In the days that followed our departure, I felt so lost. People had lost their homes, their friends and family. But they were helping out despite it all. So, stuck at home feeling useless, 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 in a big village called Thulo Pakar in the Sindhupalchok District. There were three schools to be rebuilt and as a team of skilled and non-skilled volunteers, we had our work cut out.

The moment when we handed over those buildings to the community was amazing. It had been half a year of working six days a week, from 7am-5pm in monsoon season, in the water and the mud. But to be part of restoring access to education for those children made every second worthwhile.

Repaired school buildings Keah Mcilwain
Nepali school children sat outside for a lesson Keah Mcilwain

My diagnosis devastated me

I later 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 their lives.

I loved the work but the project had just been signed off for another six months when I was forced to return to the UK. A year and a half earlier, after I’d returned from Nepal, I was diagnosed with the inflammatory bowel condition Chron’s Disease.

I was devastated when I found out. It meant I would have to be in hospital every two months for a transfusion, and long travel plans would be out of the window. Doctors were telling me the career I desperately wanted to do wasn’t possible.

But I'm very stubborn, and when I have something in my head and it's something I want to do, I'll do it. I tried to make that quite clear. And I guess it kind of worked. I managed to get them to agree to a medicine I can get prescribed in the countries where I travel.

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

To those youth volunteers who are looking at doing a similar thing – I have just one piece of advice: stick it out. When things get tough, you'll look back on it as one of the best things you've ever done.

You don't have to take the normal route in life. Just because everyone else is going to university and you're being told that you need a degree to do what you want to do, just 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.

In 1951, just 5% of Nepali adults were literate. By 2015, that figure had increased to two thirds. The effects of 2015’s devastating earthquake are still felt today, with schools destroyed across the country. ICS volunteers are working to help communities repair from the impact by improving access to education.

Do you know anyone that would be suitable for ICS? Find our more here.