Today's guest post is written by Julie Tulba. Librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic by night, Julie is the author of the travel and food blog, Adventures of the Red Headed Traveler. A summer abroad as an exchange student in Mexico at the age of 16 gave her the travel bug, an “illness” she has been happily dealing with ever since. When she's not traveling she's either testing out a new recipe or being a wannabe foodie in Pittsburgh, where she is attempting to eat her way through as many restaurants as she possibly can. Be sure to follow along with her adventures on Facebook and Twitter. And don't forget to say “hi,” she would love to connect with more travel bloggers and fellow food aficionados!
So You Want to Volunteer? Tips for Volunteering Abroad
Shortly after graduating from college, I embarked upon a completely new adventure. I spent four months working as a volunteer at an orphanage in Cuernavaca, a city in central Mexico. While I had done a great deal of traveling and lived abroad before in countries throughout the world, none of it was remotely similar to what it meant to be a volunteer in a foreign country. It’s an experience like no other, and an experience that will always be set apart from the rest of my travel adventures.
Here is some advice for anyone considering volunteering in a foreign country:
1.) Ask yourself the question, “what do you want?”
Do you want to volunteer with children? Do you want to work with animals and conservation efforts? Do you see yourself in a big city or do you think you’d prefer living in a more rural area. How long do you want to volunteer for — a day? a month? a year? When it comes to volunteering abroad, the choices are endless — location, language, scope of work, duration of assignment, etc.
I’ve always enjoyed being around children. As a teenager and college student, I babysat for many children of all ages and also worked as a camp counselor for a couple of summers. Volunteering with an organization whose sole focus is helping orphaned and abandoned children, well, it was the perfect fit for me.
As for locations, I grew up in a large city and attended college in a metropolitan area as well. While I have traveled in rural areas before, I knew that I wouldn’t be happy volunteering in an isolated town. Your success as a volunteer and the work you do as one is greatly tied to your emotional state, so if you are from a rural location, you probably are not going to be happiest living and working in a major city in a foreign country.
While many people feel that they can “hack” anything for a period of time if they need to, don’t turn your volunteer situation into something like that. You want your experience as a volunteer to be deep and meaningful, not one in which you’re crossing the days off of a calendar until you can leave.
2.) Do your research
I cannot stress this one enough. Volunteer tourism has taken off in the last couple of years with more and more people wanting to turn their trips into a more unique experience. As a result, numerous organizations have sought to capitalize on this new phenomenon. And anytime a great need arises, unscrupulous organizations and individuals sprout up like weeds.
The organization that I volunteered with has been in existence since 1954. Although I still did quite a bit of research, I knew that they were reputable and could be trusted. For individuals wanting to volunteer for a longer period of time (more than a month), you want to make sure that everything is in order in regards to work and housing assignments, the obtaining of visas if needed, and most importantly, your safety. Yes, you are going to help out but your personal safety and security is just as important as the children you’ll be assisting or the fields you’ll be planting.
3.) Shop around
During my research of possible organizations I could volunteer with, I came across numerous ones that were charging more than $4000 for the chance to volunteer (in addition to the airfare it costs to get to the destination). To be honest, I found places like this to be beyond outrageous. While I was never expecting a “free ride,” I was not about to pay that much money for the opportunity to play with children or groom wounded tigers, especially since I would not be making any money to support myself during this time either.
Luckily the organization I volunteered with charged nothing. I was provided with a space to live and two meals a day, if I so chose, in addition to a very small bi-monthly stipend. Yes, I spent quite a bit of money shopping for groceries at the local Walmart as I often preferred to cook for myself and yes, I lived off money I had saved prior to going to Mexico since the stipend didn’t go far at all (Mexico is an inexpensive place but city Mexico, not so much). However, I was not putting myself into debt simply for the chance to volunteer.
In short, there are programs out there that I feel “respect” volunteers and the work that they do without charging them ridiculous amounts of money. However, these types of programs are not plentiful.
4.) Have an open mind at all times
Traveling in a developing country is one thing… living in a developing country for an extended period of time is another matter altogether. Even though I lived in “big city” Mexico, I still dealt with my share of travails — having no water or electricity for almost three days which boiled down to not being able to shower “normally,” not being able to flush the toilet, lamenting over expensive groceries I had recently bought only for them to be wasted when the electricity went out. And then there were the creepy crawler varieties — cockroaches and scorpions, many many of the latter.
When you travel, you can never go someplace and expect things to be exactly the same as home. But when living in a country where the average person has only a fraction of the material things you’re accustomed to, it’s all the more imperative to be warm and open at all times. You’ll also be amazed by people’s ingenuity and their overall thoughtfulness. I think the biggest thing I found when volunteering is that the people who have less are often some of the kindest individuals you’ll ever encounter.
5.) Don’t go expecting to change the world
There may be numerous reasons why you want to volunteer, one of them being you want to “make a difference.” Well, that is probably not going to happen. You may have an incredible month or year volunteering somewhere, you may be lauded for the work you’ve done and have been doing, but you personally are not going to be the hero for the organization you may envision yourself to be.
One of my jobs was to write news articles about what was taking place at the orphanage, and while I was congratulated numerous times on my pieces, I knew that while the work I did was very important, I was not at all the crux of anything. You as a volunteer will “come and go,” but the people or places you’ve been helping will remain and, sadly, will always need more help. So instead of making your volunteer experience about “you,” just give it your all for the time you’re there and focus on the bigger issue at hand: what or whom you’re helping.
This list is hardly an exhaustive one, but I feel it may be helpful for anyone wanting to volunteer, whether they’re somewhere in Latin America or Africa; working with children or injured animals. Volunteering abroad is an experience that not every traveler can claim they’ve done, which is why you should consider doing it if you’re looking for that once in a lifetime opportunity.
(I volunteered with Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos-Our Little Brothers. In addition to their home in Mexico, they also operate eight other homes throughout Latin America.)
Do YOU have any tips or stories about volunteering abroad?