Boomers, with their decades of community involvement, are now spreading their wings further afield looking for opportunities to do good elsewhere in the world. The growth of volunteer vacations in the past decade has been nothing less than phenomenal, thanks to the interest of Boomers and their traveling children, who are also impacting this sector. There are great opportunities to meet people from all over the world, and learn about their languages and cultures. Volunteering usually means living with a family or in a group so chances are you’ll be exposed a lot more to the local food & drink than when just traveling through.
Seemingly unlimited opportunities are offered throughout North America and around the world to fix the many problems that ail humanity. You can teach English, work to eradicate AIDS or help with other health-care issues, build homes and schools, care for orphaned children, or help save various animal species. Before deciding on any such project, you’ll want to educate yourself on health issues, safety concerns and, the local facilities.
With so many choices, deciding on what project to volunteer with, which organization to join, and the destination in which to work can be a real challenge. There’s also a scarcity of information on what permissions are required and you may have questions about what types of activities are available for you as well as some about money and time.
People who volunteer to help others tend to be good-natured, kind, optimistic, and think the best of others. That doesn’t mean that conflicts won’t arise between individuals and groups within and outside the volunteer organization. Whenever you put humans together, conflict lurks, but a good volunteer program has staff that’s well trained to manage people and issues. This can be an especially difficult task when dealing with people coming from different age groups and cultures from around the world.
You should be aware that when volunteering, you’ll be dealing with three different groups of people: the receiving community, the program staff, and other volunteers. Most of the time, the recipients will be appreciative of the work you do, but at other times they may give you a lukewarm reception or even be resentful. Often programs are imposed on the community by the government, a religious or outside group, and volunteers aren’t informed of this prior to their arrival. You want to act and dress in an appropriate and respectful manner at all times because you can’t possibly be sensitive to the interplay of the many issues between your program and the receiving communities.
Within the volunteer group, cliques will sometimes form along language, cultural, age, or other lines, which—as all excluding groups do—harm the larger assembly. This is something to watch out for and avoid becoming part of as it can greatly diminish your volunteering experience.
While you can expect to be comfortable and safe, you shouldn’t demand a whole lot more when you go to poorer countries to help out. After all, do you really want your money to be used to keep volunteers in luxury or to feed and clothe the community?
It’s common practice that food preparation, eating, and cleaning up is done as a group since it’s cheaper to feed large numbers this way and organizations can’t afford staff to do this work. Look at it as a bonding experience or a chance to relive your younger days doing dishes with your siblings.
If you have any dietary needs, you should let the organization know in advance as they may need to make arrangements (or you may have to bring in special foods). Treats and drinks, including alcohol, usually have to be purchased and/or brought in by the participants and are not paid for by the organization.
Travelers with major health issues may want to think twice before volunteering to work in any situation where facilities are distant. Any decent organization will give you information on what shots you should obtain before coming to the country, especially if any are required or advisable for the work you’ll be doing (for example, tetanus shots if you’ll be building houses).
If you’re only going for a short while—a few weeks to a month—you won’t be there long enough to get used to all the conditions of someone who lives there (water bacteria, local viruses, etc.), so you’ll have to take the same precautions a traveler would. That means watching what you eat and drink, including water and foods rinsed or washed in tap water.
Before leaving home, ask the organization you’ll be working with what you should expect in terms of personal safety. Such questions could include: Will there be a secure space/locker for your belongings, including camera, money, and passports? It’s wise not to expect too much in the way of security beyond the basics, although the organizations will, of course, make sure foreigners aren’t targeted by thieves.
The honeymoon phase is especially acute and can be of particular danger for many volunteers as they’re not only in love with a new environment but bring with them that rose-colored optimism that keeps the world going round.
While you shouldn’t expect luxury, facilities are likely to be pretty standard in most places. They can be very basic if you’re volunteering in the bush for animal care projects (think camping outhouses). If you’re in the bush, on an overland camping trip, or working on a project deep in the jungle or forest, you may have to dig bush toilets, but this is pretty rare.
The destination question may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about volunteering, but why not? If you’ve always wanted to see the Horn of Africa and wondered about the people there why not join a project that will help them deal with the challenges they face every day.
In choosing where you want your volunteer experience to take place, think of what you want to see and do beyond your work with the organization. If you have the time, you’ll want to visit surrounding areas before, during, and after your experience, so you’ll want to go somewhere you’re interested in culturally, geographically, and/or historically.
Many volunteer organizations gloss over the permissions issue, so be sure to ask whether a special visa is required. In some countries, such as Mexico, it’s illegal to volunteer: the rationale being that a local person could be paid to do the job (in fact, the work simply goes undone as no one can afford to pay to have it done).
Such laws are rarely enforced, so organizations may not be aware of them or just ignore them. You might not get in trouble for volunteering on a tourist visa, but immigration officials could use that as an excuse for deportation if it decided—for whatever reason—that you were no longer welcome to stay.
If you’re planning to stay just long enough to do your work, you may not have much time for activities over and beyond what you’re already committed to doing. You may have evenings and/or weekends off during which to go exploring or take a language or dance lesson. Take advantage of every opportunity.
If your program doesn’t organize activities during time off, why not take the initiative, get a group together and go exploring, or get a local resident to teach a cooking class? You’ll get more out of your experience in the new country while getting to know your fellow volunteers.
Most volunteer organizations ensure that your accommodations are functional but basic.
Sleeping arrangements are often communal with several people to a room, and all sleeping necessities, such as linens, are provided. Depending on the climate, you may want to ask whether you should bring a mosquito net or a sleeping bag or any other items to make your stay more comfortable.
City programs present a different set of transportation challenges than those in the country or the bush. If you’re comfortable taking public transit, you’ll likely be fine once you’re taught the ropes by someone who’s been there longer. Just make sure you keep enough money on you for a cab so you can always make it home safely in the event of late-night outings or you get lost.
If your project is located in a village, the countryside, or in the bush, then you may have an issue, especially if there’s no regional bus available. Many volunteer opportunities, like animal care, are located in distant villages or the bush. The organization usually picks up participants at the local transportation hub and brings them to the project. Volunteers, however, may have no access to the town or city unless the project is situated close by or a member of the organization happens to be going in to run errands.
Always check with the volunteer organization about what type of clothing is most appropriate for the situation. It might also be nice to ask if you can do the organization a favor by bringing anything it needs.
Your access to stores and entertainment venues is determined by the location of the volunteer project (city, village, or the bush), and that dictates what you’ll be packing. You can expect to be allowed to bring small amounts of all your prescription and over-the-counter medications for common ailments, such as colds, diarrhea, and headaches.
Time issues for you to keep in mind when considering volunteer opportunities include the climate in the part of the world to which you’re going, whether it’s high or low volunteer season for the project, the pace of the work, and how much time you want to dedicate to it.
Start with the time of the year and the climate so you don’t end up in South Africa in August, thinking it will be hot when it’s in fact winter and you’ll working outdoors in frigid mountain weather. Or during the monsoon season in Vietnam when you wonder if you’ll ever wear dry clothing again.
Depending on how busy the organization is and how many volunteers it has on hand, you could be super busy or not busy enough. If you’re too busy—due to a lack of volunteers—you’re exhausted and don’t enjoy the experience. If there are too many of you, people end up sitting around bored. An organization operating long enough can predict its cycle of ups and downs and can advise you on the best time to come based on your needs.
Some volunteer projects have minimum stays that vary between several weeks to several months—especially for contact with the community—to make the investment in training worthwhile. You should also have a sense of how much physical work you can take—none of us are as young as we used to be—as building schools for a week may be fine, but a month could be too long.
Investigate an organization’s philosophy on giving before you sign up to volunteer. If this core belief doesn’t match your own, you’ll want to stay clear because a clash in this important area may lead to a stressful experience. Charities that trade food for attendance at church, for example, may be a turn off for you, so make sure you’re aware of such practices prior to your departure.
Volunteer and charitable organizations that take a respectful approach to giving begin by asking the communities they serve what they need. Organizations should never assume they know what these needs might be nor should they impose themselves and their programs onto the communities without an invitation. They don’t hold the communities ransom with food or other necessities of life in exchange for attendance or beliefs (political, religious, or others). Finally, they ensure the community is well represented on the organizations’ board of directors and on the staff.