Working Life: Meryl Westlake on the importance of storytelling

VSO's communications adviser on documenting the charity's work and 'weird food'

Meryl Westlake
Meryl Westlake

My official title at VSO is communications adviser, but I changed it to story gatherer to make it easier to translate into other languages.

I document VSO's work by producing photos, films, case studies, interviews and audio, and gather stories from across the world about our volunteers and the people who benefit from our work.

We get them to tell their stories in their own words, then we take the material and produce and package it into something that is digestible by whatever audience we need it for.

There's no typical day. If I'm in the office, I might be reading up on our new projects, helping to produce a story or planning our next shoot.

Every couple of months I'll go out on a shoot. So far I've been to Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nepal, Tanzania, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.

I'll do anything, from directing the camera people to liaising with hostel administration, government officials, programme staff, volunteers or local partners to make sure we can get to where we're going.

You have to make sure you get up early because you're on shoot for a very short period of time and have to make sure you have everything you need. It's intensive and often very hot.

Apart from talking to some amazing people, one of my favourite bits is all the weird food - once someone brought out a bucket as a ceremonial thing, took the lid off - and there was this goat's head looking at me, swimming in some kind of broth. It was strong.

I never want to be too dramatic about my job, but you never really forget the faces and the things they tell you. I see the people who have been helped by VSO, and the people who are still in need, which isn't easy.

It's super important for charities to get to grips with storytelling, explain what they do and justify how the money is spent. Everybody likes a good story.

Meryl Westlake is a story gatherer for VSO

VSO is an international volunteering charity that works in 25 developing countries

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