Thinking about traveling internationally to volunteer? Read more about the journey that is volunteering abroad – the positive and the negative…
The road began winding through lush green rice fields as our van turned towards the village of Mawanga. About a mile away from ROWAN’s headquarters, the nonprofit organization our team was partnering with in Uganda, we saw a couple dozen kids running straight towards us. Soon the children reached our van, and proceeded to joyously shout and wave palm branches while jogging alongside us. The minute we stepped out of the van, we were cheerfully pulled into a large dance party with children, parents, and grandparents. I was incredulous. I had never been welcomed like this before! I wasn’t royalty or a political figure…my only ‘title’ was ‘volunteer.’
The four times I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve participated in volunteer/missions work. Some travels I’ve done solo or with groups. I’ve assisted others, sometimes with physical labor, other times helping lead children’s activities. But ultimately I ended up learning more than I could fathom about the surrounding world.
Yes, there were struggles at times, but they transformed into life lessons as soon as I changed my mindset. Bucket showers in Uganda made me realize how much I take advantage of a quick warm shower. Finding a giant tarantula in a bathroom in Nicaragua created fascination at the animals found there (though I’m still not over my fear of cockroaches yet). Stepping on a sea urchin in St. Martin, and then being carried by a local man (who, might I add, was carrying a baby around his neck and also stepped on a sea urchin before we reached the shore) showed me the kindness of strangers. Getting my first bee sting while in Costa Rica, complete with a swollen foot and various rashes on my body, taught me to be humble and recognize the beauty of languages and other ways of expressing myself when I had difficulties communicating through the language barrier. Being uncomfortable wasn’t a nuisance because I was here to help others.
Volunteering comes naturally to me. I desire to help others. But truthfully, I don’t volunteer enough. In today’s society, it’s extremely easy to become overbooked and overly stressed out. There’s work to do, money to be earned, and bills to pay. However, I’ve learned some of the best times to volunteer are when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Instead of constantly worrying about my own life, I can transfer my energy to help others in need.
As a child, I was an avid reader and loved absorbing knowledge. I remember reading about children suffering from diseases or starvation but I only gained a deeper understanding years later after more research and maturing. Not until I did volunteer traveling did I believe I thoroughly understood poverty. I could read about how AIDS is affecting families and communities in Ugandan villages, but until I actually went and saw firsthand, it was hard to fully comprehend the magnitude of this issue. When I met and hugged an orphan whose stepmother had kicked her out of her house because she has AIDs, my heart broke.
Despite the hardships that I’ve seen while volunteering I’ve learned much about hope, perseverance, and how places are often different than their popular depictions. A Ugandan man once told me how it’s unfortunate that the media often negatively portrays Africa – and it’s true. We usually hear about an African country during wars, terrorist attacks, disease outbreaks, or famines. Rarely do we hear about the people’s strength and resilience, or how they are improving farming, education, or ways of living.
After these trips, I’ve noticed that I’ve gained more confidence to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve also learned that the world is quite similar, anywhere I go. Cultures, languages, and customs make us unique, but emotions and attitudes make us similar. I’ll remember the smiling, playful kid with the ripped clothes falling off his back next time I believe “I have nothing to wear.” And I’ll remember the kindness and love I received while serving (and oftentimes being served by) others.
You don’t have to travel across the world to volunteer. In fact, you can “travel” within your own city to volunteer at schools, shelters, etc. But next time you plan a vacation, think about adding a volunteer stint – I can guarantee you will be blessed beyond measure!
And sometimes, volunteering can simply mean making the day of children by joining them in a game of soccer!
What to consider before volunteer traveling
Research is key!
Look for organizations that have a positive track record of helping their community. Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for “non-profit charities” to really be money-making schemes. Read review forums from past volunteers (even send them emails if you have time). Find out how monetary donations are distributed in the organization. Then determine if the organization is ‘harmful’ to the community (see next bullet)…
Ask yourself, is the volunteer organization enabling local people, or is your volunteering eliminating work from people in need?
This was something I didn’t like thinking about at first, but it’s important to reflect on whether your presence is creating more harm than good. I went on one trip to Central America where myself and other volunteers did repairs in a village school and placed cement in a church. While we (a group of young teens not familiar with construction work) did our ‘jobs’, I looked at the men of the village, sitting in their chairs watching us. I honestly thought they were lazy. Now, looking back, I realize we, Westerners, came into their village with yes, good intentions, but our ‘good intentions’ actually weren’t as good as they could have been. We could have asked the capable men in the village to take part in repairing and building their own community. Not only does this empower the men, who have families and children watching them, but it also shows the locals that they can take charge of their community, without thinking it’s only possible with foreign aid.
Find local charities.
Well known and popular does not always mean better! There are plenty of small, local charities that are doing amazing work, just on a much smaller scale! They may not have the resources to send fancy flyers or email newsletters, but they exist and they are making an impact. Do Google searches of “volunteer work in BLANK city.” Or, if you’re having difficulty finding anything by city name, consider emailing the local government office or schools in the area. Recommendations from friends or friends of friends is another great way to find volunteer opportunities. I actually volunteered in Costa Rica for a month with a local children’s summer camp in Nosara after my sister’s friend told me about her friend’s charity. This is one of my personal favorite ways to find new nonprofits.
Don’t spend an enormous amount of money!
Volunteering should not cost you an arm and a leg. Some nonprofits have fees upwards of $2000+ for one week trips. Those costs can sometimes be double or triple the cost of just traveling to the country and staying in a nice hotel. Other application fees may prohibit those with tight budgets from doing international work. If a nonprofit asks for hefty application fees or living costs, research into why the fees exist. They may be filling the salary of a CEO, or they may really be going towards aiding their projects – better to find out before you make the journey there! If something seems off, try searching for other local charities.
Volunteering is not limited to physical labor.
You do not have to dig trenches or knock down decrepit schools in order to volunteer. Have a degree in science? Consider teaching local adults about the effects of pollution on their natural resources. Or demonstrate some awesome experiments to kids in a struggling school. Great at tech stuff? Repair computers or TVs at a hospital clinic or children’s home. Figure out your talents, and put them to use! If you don’t see your skill listed on a charity’s volunteer needs, email or call them to see if they have a task pertaining to your skills.
Even though you may have to take time off of work, don’t feel stressed! This is a great opportunity to learn more about the world outside of your hometown, and to pour your energy into others. Trust me, you’ll come back with stories to tell, many memories, and maybe even some new friends!
It might even change your life. 🙂