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Finding love where you least expect it

VSO volunteers have been making a stand against poverty for almost 70 years. From their stories, we know it can be a life-changing experience, in more ways than one...

This Valentine's Day, we celebrate the bond that volunteers have formed on placement - proof that romance can arise when we least expect it.

"One of the reasons for [the bonds we form] is that I believe we all hold similar values, which probably brought us to volunteering in the first place."

Joanne Stanley, who met husband Paul volunteering with VSO in Ethiopia

Nick and Sarah, Zimbabwe

Nick and Sarah VSO volunteers

Sarah volunteered in Zimbabwe starting in 1997, a time she says was the "most rewarding and happiest" of her life. That's before she even crossed paths with future husband Nick.

Nick was Sarah's tour guide on a safari holiday. They got on so well that she ended up booking herself onto several of his game drives, during the course of which they confessed their feelings for each other just before Sarah left for home. 

A string of love letters cumulated in marriage in 2002. They ran safaris together in Zambia for eight years, before settling in the Isle of Wight where they have a food business.

Chris and Melisa, Kenya

Chris Melisa Cooper VSO

One Sunday in August, 1998, Chris Cooper's volunteering stint in Kenya put him in the path of his future wife Melisa.

She was looking for someone else at Mumias School for the Deaf where he was working, but they soon found they had lots in common, including Kenyan Sign Language. After hours of talking Chris walked Melisa home, after arranging to meet her the next day. So it went on for several weeks.

By November the next year, Chris and Melisa's first child was born. Both sets of parents were fully supportive of the pair and Chris' mum and dad flew to Kenya for their wedding in 2000. By 2002, they were settled in England. Today they are a family of four children and are planning a holiday to Kenya for next year. 

Sally and Jim, Kenya

Jim and Sally VSO volunteers

Volunteering in the same school in Kenya brought Sally and Jim into contact. They got along like a house on fire. When Sally's placement was coming to an end, Jim was a big part of her decision to extend it.

After they finally returned to the UK, they realised they were right for each other. They were married in 1980 and went to have two children.

They've continued an interest international development and volunteering - they even returned to VSO volunteering together for a placement in Malawi in 2014.

Elisabeth and Rassul, Mozambique

Elizabeth Rassul VSO Mozambique

Driven volunteer Elisabeth took up her communications and advocacy role in Mozambique hoping to develop her career whilst making a difference for girls' education. It was a real surprise when a year into her placement she met her best friend and husband, Rassul.

The relationship grew out of a friendship: Rassul taught Elisabeth Portuguese, and they spent spare time together helping street children. It wasn't until Elisabeth visited Rassul's hometown that she understood the depth of her feelings. 

On a walk by the seashore, Rassul made a proposal. Elisabeth says: "His question was not made with fireworks in the sky but for sure there were fireworks in my heart. I said yes."

Elisabeth and Rassul are newlyweds, and this Valentine's Day will mark one month since they were married in Chimoio, Mozambique.

Paul and Joanne, Ethiopia

Joanne first met Paul on the day after her 40th birthday in Ethiopia, where they both were volunteering - not that she remembers, having been a little worse for wear on the day. Thankfully they met again a couple of months later at a volunteer gathering and really hit it off.

Love struck when Paul stayed with Joanne at her accomodation on a routine visit to the capital Addis Ababa. Nine months after that first kiss, the two got engaged in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

Paul and Joanne were married in the UK in 2012, surrounded by family and friends, including ties forged in Ethiopia. Joanne says, "We wondered if the 'adventure' would wear off. But we have discovered that we have found adventure in the UK and with each other. Our core values are the same. It just took Ethiopia to find each other."

Marianne and Troy, Tanzania

Marianne Troy VSO volunteers in Tanzania

Marianne and Troy first clapped eyes on each other at the departure gate of London's Gatwick Airport. It was 1996, and the two in their mid-twenties were both headed for VSO volunteer placements in Tanzania, she as a pharmacist and he as a teacher trainer.

A friendship quickly developed as they made each other laugh through the Kiswahili language lessons with what Marianne calles their "shared juvenile sense of humour". It wasn't until Christmas Eve 1997, spending the holidays together camping at Victoria Falls with a group of volunteers that they confessed their feelings for each other.

They returned to the UK as a couple, though their hometowns are more than 350 miles apart. They eventually settled together in Edinburgh together. Daughter Lily was born in 2008.

It's now more than 20 years since Marianne and Troy volunteered but they are still in touch with many of the friends they made, with a group of former volunteers even reuniting in Tanzania for their 10th anniversary.

Hans and Debbie, Ethiopia

Hans Debbie VSO volunteers Valentines

One day in 2007, Hans was using the internet at VSO Ethiopia's office in Addis Ababa, when someone taped him on the shoulder to introduce him to the woman who would later become his wife.

Debbie, from Canada, and Hans, from Kenya would both be volunteering with VSO in Awassa, Ethiopia. Volunteers in Awassa held a social gathering every Wednesday at a local restaurant, and it was over the course of these meet-ups that Hans and Debbie got to know each other. Before long they were meeting one-on-one as they got along so well.

Even after Debbie returned to Canada once her placement was over, she and Hans communicated every day. Eventually she decided to return to Ethiopia to live with Hans until his volunteer placement was completed.

In August 2011 Hans and Debbie were married in Kisumu, Kenya.  Almost a year later their son Milek was born.

Heather and Richard, Nigeria

Heather Richard VSO volunteers in Nigeria

While Heather was considering a volunteer placement in Nigeria, VSO put her in touch with Richard, a volunteer who had already made the leap.

Before they ever met in person, they had developed a close rapport over email. Heather even met Richard's friends before she left - who gave her a block of Richard's favourite cheddar cheese to take to him. It proved the perfect ice-breaker for when the two finally met in person in 2011.

They quickly felt a connection, and their relationship blossomed over shared dinner dates in local restaurants. When Richard left Nigeria in 2010, he waited for four months for Heather to finally return so they could be together. They reunited in February 2011 and married three years later front of lots of VSO friends.

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