A MORTGAGE broker swapped her day job to help build schools and save endangered animals and plants in Madagascar.
Jo Cowling, of Hammersmith, has just returned from a three month trip to the island made famous by the Dreamworks' animated films featuring King Julian the lemur, as part of a project for charity, Azafady.
The 36-year-old joined a team of volunteers to help build everything from benches to latrines for communities in the African country, where roads are sparse. She also carried out repair work to schools originally built by Azafady, a London-based charity which aims to alleviate poverty and conserve unique but endangered forest environments in south east Madagascar by empowering local people.
Ms Cowling, said: "I was a little nervous before the start of the trip, but almost as soon as we touched down in Madagascar the local people quickly put me at ease with their friendly and welcoming demeanour which I found heart-warming throughout my trip, especially given that 90 per cent of the people in the area we visited live on less than 80p a day, and 40 per cent of children die before they reach five, most of simple curable illnesses."
She said one of the most rewarding tasks was repair work on village schools, adding: "Local schools are extremely important because, with no cars or sometimes ever roads, most children simply wouldn't be able to get a proper education without them."
Jo also helped with conservation work by planting hundreds of trees to help local people become less reliant on wood and resources from the forests, which are home to some of the world's most endangered animal and plant species.
She said: "I got to spend time with the local people and learn about their amazing culture. We ate some fantastic, and sometimes rather unusual food, played football with the children and even went to a couple of bush parties. We also had the opportunity to explore and I encountered some amazing wildlife, including of course the islands most famous inhabitants, the lemurs, and some of the perfect white beaches and sunsets I saw will stay with me forever.
"The other thing that has left a lasting impression on me is how the Malagasy people work together to make their lives better. They help each other out, they share, and they work together to improve their lives. Traits I think we could all learn from."
Ms Cowling, said she would encourage anyone who is wanting to do something different to look at Azafady and consider visiting Madagascar.
"You can make a difference in just a couple of weeks and I guarantee they will be some of the most exciting and rewarding weeks of your life," she said.