‘Hello, what’s your name?’ A small child with a pearly smile appears by my side. He reaches out to hold my hand and walk with me down the street. It’s a scenario that will be repeated countless times over the coming weeks.

I have arrived in a small enclave in Ghana called Busua. The village is made up of shacks, half-finished buildings and the occasional brick-built dwelling. It will be my home for the next three weeks and its people will capture my heart.

Many young people take a year out to volunteer or travel, but not many are brave enough to let their 55-year-old mother tag along. Ellen, my 23-year-old daughter and I are volunteering as teaching assistants in a school for three weeks. I have always loved travel, but even by my standards this is totally out of my comfort zone.

Great British Life: The beach at Busua is known for its surfingThe beach at Busua is known for its surfing (Image: Julie Lucas)

I have come to Ghana with The Mighty Roar. The company, based in Woodchurch, near Ashford, was founded by Chris Holland with his wife Michelle in 2017, after Chris had volunteered for another organisation and found it less than rewarding. ‘I signed up and paid thousands to volunteer in Sri Lanka but realised that none of the money went to supporting that country, it all stayed in the UK,’ says Chris. ‘Not only that, the elephants that had been rescued were chained up and it felt that they were now being exploited, along with the volunteers.’

Chris and Michelle’s aim when they set up the Mighty Roar was to offer something very different: ‘We started our first programme in Sri Lanka in 2017, initially with the aim of helping wildlife out there, but we wanted to be transparent about our fees and as affordable as possible, to enable as many people as possible to experience volunteering.'

The company takes a registration fee from its clients, but all other fees are invested back into the country that the volunteer goes to. After success in Sri Lanka, the couple opened volunteer programmes in South Africa and then Bali. ‘In Sri Lanka, where we were working with sea turtles, the local people started to see the volunteers coming and asked us for help within the community. We work in a very small village there, so we built our own kindergarten, providing free daycare and meals to the children, and it kind of expanded from there.’

Great British Life: The beach at Busua is known for its surfingThe beach at Busua is known for its surfing (Image: Julie Lucas)

The Mighty Roar now offers volunteer programmes in 20 countries, building networks through word of mouth and partnering with organisations. There are options to work in wildlife conservation, childcare, nursing and mental health and The Mighty Roar also now works with school groups .‘We visit and inspect every programme personally before offering it to our volunteers. We then revisit regularly to ensure we are 100 per cent happy. I visit every programme at least once a year; we have zoom calls with our prospective volunteers to ensure they choose a programme that’s right for them and – with our younger volunteers, we’ll often talk via zoom to their parents, reassuring them of safety issues.'

Chris advises volunteers to go with an open mindset and get involved as much as possible. ‘It’s not a holiday. It’s about learning about the culture, becoming friends with the locals and gaining a different perspective on things - just by going there and immersing yourself in a new environment. The experience gives you as much as you give to it.’‘The people in these communities have become our good friends - they’re part of our family. I like to think this is me giving back.’

For my daughter, Ellen and me, our trip to Ghana was a unique experience that we could share together. So what did we each gain?

Great British Life: Building relationships with the children was just one of the highlights for Ellen and Julie - here's Ellen with a young studentBuilding relationships with the children was just one of the highlights for Ellen and Julie - here's Ellen with a young student (Image: Julie Lucas)

Ellen’s view

‘Before we embarked on this adventure lots of people said to me, "I couldn't do that with my mum, we would grate on each other." As mother and daughter we have our moments, but I was fairly sure we could travel together.

When I first arrived in the village, met the other volunteers and saw where we were going to sleep, I felt completely overwhelmed – and when you're in an overwhelming situation, it's nice to have someone you can rely on, especially your mum. That said, I don’t think I did rely on mum while we were there, but it was good to have her as a "comfort blanket". You're going to totally new place, seeing strangers, staying with strangers, you're thrown in at the deep end and it’s a bit of a culture shock.

I didn't find the school too overwhelming; I enjoyed it from the get-go. After day one, you very quickly get know everyone. It's so different: you're in their world basically, but the local people are so welcoming. When we arrived on the first day, I just seemed to slot in. A highlight was the children running up to me and calling me “Madam Ellen”! I’ll never forget that feeling. As the days progressed, I became more comfortable – suddenly, life there becomes your reality; you get used to the slower place of life. You have your phone, but in this tiny village in Africa you do feel you're detached from the world. It’s such a simple way of living compared to our fast-paced life.

Great British Life: Ellen with the school children in Busua, GhanaEllen with the school children in Busua, Ghana (Image: Julie Lucas)

At home, everyone cares about what other people do, in every aspect of life. These people don't care what anyone else is doing, what they're wearing; they can't care. I certainly felt less concerned about what people were doing on social media!

When we found ourselves in a situation at school when there was no teacher, I realised you just had to go with it. I’m glad that Mum and I got to do the teaching together. It would have been a lot for either of us to have done on our own - having the support made it more fun.

Overall, it was an amazing experience. I learnt that I love people - and the school taught me a lot of patience. I have also learnt that my mother can talk – though I'm not sure it was really necessary to tell stories of how I had nits aged seven! She loves to help people and I am glad that trait has been passed on to me. But, most importantly, it's nice to have someone I can share my memories of Ghana with – and that person is my mum.

Great British Life: Julie with children from the schoolJulie with children from the school (Image: Julie Lucas)

Julie's view

For me, what made the trip special was seeing my daughter grow as a person. Having seen her suffer the usual teenage angst, I suddenly found this young woman without any teaching experience standing in front of me taking a class of 10-year-olds. Her normal concern about her appearance went out the window – it's impossible to wear make-up in heat that sends your sweat glands into overdrive. Her greatest concern was learning how to wash her undies in a bucket.

One particular day when the school bell heralded playtime and everyone spilled out on to the dusty playground, I decided to rally some of the little ones for a good old-fashioned round of the hokey cokey. Ellen looked at me with reservations, but before long we had children of all ages running to join in. My pleasure at seeing the joy on Ellen’s face as momentum grew was immeasurable - something I’ll never forget.

Another memory that will stay with me was listening to the hoots of laughter and watching Ellen as she played Ludo with the locals and other volunteers from around the world. It made me realise how important family and community are and that, although we may have different lives, as people we're really not that different. What I gave in volunteering my skills and time I got back tenfold in the experience of spending time with my daughter – and in the love we received from the people in Ghana.

Great British Life: Ellen and Julie on a day out.Ellen and Julie on a day out. (Image: Julie Lucas)

The Mighty Roar

Minimum age 17+ travelling solo (though some programmes allow family groups from 5+)

Most volunteers are on gap years -17-25 years old.

Covers 20 destinations, offering placements from one to 24 weeks in length

Ghana costs are from £180 for a week (accommodation, food on volunteering days and volunteer placement), plus £179 registration fee