“Where do I start?”
Some people come to us and tell us exactly what volunteering project they would like to do. They're the easy ones. Others come to us without a clue. And that's okay too.
“Where do I start?” is an all too common question I get from students interested in volunteering abroad. They want me to tell them which country to go to and what task they should do. But truly, these are questions they should ask themselves, while looking into the mirror, before they, themselves, chose the program of their liking. Here's a simple guide on starting:
1. Have you ever volunteered locally? Since with volunteering you are essentially giving your time away for free- you should give you time to something you care about. Did you choose to tutor kids, work at your local animal shelter, join the reforestation effort at your local forest preserve, help build a community center, or guide groups for your local architecture tour? Through understanding issues you care about and building ties to your own community, you'll be more inspired to build ties with communities abroad.
2. What do I want to do? Sometimes we don't have a preference, and that's okay. That can make it easier when choosing a program. But many of us do have preferences. We know exactly what we want to do, and more importantly- exactly what we don't want to do. Do we have any special skills we can lend? I personally would love help doctors abroad, but since I have absolutely no medical expertise, doing this is not only unethical and dangerous, but any organization allowing me to do so is unprofessional and dangerous. However, I'm great with animals, and I have teaching and tutoring experience, so helping out in either one of those areas is not only worthwhile to me and my time, but also to the organization and cause.
3. What do I want to get out of this? This question differs across the board. Some of us want to further our career experience. Some of us want to offer up our skills. Some of us simply want to have an adventure or to live out a dream (as I did while volunteering with elephants). And some of us just want to participate in something greater than ourselves.
4. Where do I want to go? While some say “Everywhere” or “Anywhere,” others know exactly what there next destination will be. “I'd like to go to Ecuador and practice my Spanish,” or “I've been dreaming of Thailand since I tried Tom Kha Goong a few years back. And not to mention those gorgeous beaches.” All legit reasons. Check out our Instagram, and maybe get a few more ideas.
5. When do I want to go? Not everyones schedule is unlimitedly flexible. Some of us only have a couple of weeks off from work. Students usually have summers and one month of for winter. Scheduling can be vital.
6. What kind of weather can I handle? The rainforest is humid. The mountains can get chilly. What is your tolerance for weather? Humidity does nothing to me, but the cold kills me. My mother loves the cold, but avoids all humid climates with a thousand kilometer distance. If you are having trouble adapting to a specific climate, follow example from the locals. Otherwise, check out some tips like this one on hot climates to help you ease into your new world. Also, remember to research the weather. This might seem obvious, but seasons are different world wide. Even on the equator- one place might be hot as hell all year long, but if you're in the mountains you might still need to bring a jacket.
7. What are my minimum requirements for accommodation? One of my favorite projects is an eco-village project in Nepal. However, at this project accommodation is basic (by Western standards). The toilet is a squat toilet. The shower is a bucket shower (you literally throw buckets of water on yourself for bathing). This isn't an end-all for me, but it is for others. Letting these little aspects of life mentally get to you during your trip can sour your mood and those around you. Pick a project where you can bathe, go to the bathroom, and sleep in peace.
8. Can I eat anything that is placed in front of me? Are you a vegetarian? Do you have allergies? Are you willing to try new dishes? People's diets differ across the world. At each project the meals differ too. Make sure you or the project is flexible enough to accommodate your diet. Being happily fed makes for happy people. No one likes the hangry (hungry+angry=hangry)
9. What's your budget? Sometimes talking about money sucks, but its something you need to do. Volunteering at home for free is easy- you give a couple hours a week or month and then go home. You can even volunteer for free at a hostel abroad. But most of the time when you volunteer for a cause abroad, volunteering for free is hardly an option. Expecting local people to pay for your accommodation, food, and transportation can be detrimental to their own livelihoods. That being said, its easy to find a project that fits your budget. Some projects you'll find are less than what you spend at home in three weeks than spending three months at the project. There are also plenty of fundraising opportunities. Check out some of our tips to help get you started.
10. How sensitive am I to poverty, starvation, health and other social issues? Volunteering abroad isn't always glamourous. Its very possible you will see a different side of the world, especially if you've led a sheltered existence. It does shock people. Wanting to run away is a common reaction. Learning how to live, work, and be a witness to this world is vital. Are you mentally and emotionally prepared to possibly seeing kids with bloated stomachs from malnutrition or a turtle's flipper sliced in half from a fishing line? Understanding your own sensitivities will help you pick a project in which you can be a warrior in.