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Volunteering Abroad from A to Z

A Perspective from an Experienced Senior

Volunteering with Earthwatch
Volunteering on Kangaroo Island with Earthwatch.

When I got hooked on global volunteering many years ago, I would spend hours and days researching options. With the maturity of the Internet, when I am looking to venture to a new destination, all I need do is pull up my favorite search engine and type “Volunteering in Any Place” to see what new activity I might try in some new location I am headed for. The choices are inevitably many and tempting.

Travel with a Purpose

“Travel with a purpose” has become a hot slogan during the past decade because it promises the eager traveler a much more meaningful view into new cultures than simply going on some commercial tour. There are structured volunteer projects all over the world through hundreds of organizations. Do you want to go to Latin America or Southeast Asia? Do you wish to do medical work or to teach? Do you wish to stay two weeks, six months, or any specific length of time?  There is something right down your alley no matter your skills, interest, or timeframe.

Paying to Volunteer

Hesitant volunteers often question the wisdom of paying for the privilege of volunteering abroad. But when you see how far your contribution goes—to buy the materials, or support the organization, or improve the conditions where you are working—you will likely come to feel that it is money well spent. That 2-week package tour of Peru would cost far more than you are paying to spend two weeks making some toddlers’ lives happy in a Peruvian orphanage. And what you bring home from your volunteer experience is priceless.

Volunteer Experiences

Although I have worked for many different organizations, the experiences that were the most meaningful were two that I arranged independently. At the end of a year’s teaching stint in Bangkok, I had a few months available before it was time to return to Florida. So I checked around with various friends in Madras (now Chennai), India, where I had lived 15 years earlier. Among several possible placements, I chose to teach English to primary school kids at Seva Samajan, an orphanage. What a change from teaching teenagers at a Bangkok technical school! These little kids, age 8 to 12, all dressed in crisp uniforms, were fun-loving and eager. Gifta and Kumar were my star pupils, but all the kids had a sparkle to them that belied their sad situation. We sang songs, we played games, and we had light-hearted lessons. Their other classes were rigid and repetitious, with plenty of ruler-over-the-knuckles discipline. It was a delightful four months for me. I suspect the kids enjoyed it as well.

Nicaraguan kids love the parachute game
Nicaraguan kids love the parachute game.

Some years later I visited Vietnam for a month and was quite smitten with the beauty of both the land and the people. Before leaving, I confided to our naturalist project leader that I would love to return and spend more time in Hanoi, but would need something to do. He promptly suggested that I teach English at the government scientific institute where he did his research. Although they had no formal language program there, the scientists knew how important it was to be able to write and present research papers in English and to attend international conferences in their field.

So, I returned the next two years to teach there for 6-8 weeks each. Our classes were small.  I designed a curriculum to best meet their needs, primarily emphasizing practice in listening and speaking. I was provided a room in their guesthouse, and I was often invited by my students to sightsee, to meet their families, or to accompany them on weekend field trips. You can imagine how much I learned about my students and their lives. This was before many foreign tourists visited Vietnam, so I was their sole contact with Americans. It was a win-win situation unlike any other volunteering I have ever done.

Possible Disappointments

Not all your volunteer experiences are going to be as satisfying, but you are likely to learn something on each project. Once, in Swaziland, lack of organization meant that our little band sat around with very little to do in a rather remote location. (I had a lot of books read, fortunately.) On the occasional day that we actually had work, we enthusiastically pitched in to dig construction ditches in the sticky muddy soil. Anybody can survive a disappointing situation for a couple of weeks, but I felt sorry for the volunteers who had planned to stay there for several months.

Keep Your Mind Open

In general, it is better not to start out with goals about the assigned project. Our Western sense of purpose (“I must finish this lesson this week,” or “we must paint this schoolhouse before we leave”) is often at odds with the pace of life in other parts of the world. Just enjoy being where you are and associating with the people there. It is the experience of being there that counts. Additionally, if your presence helps allay the all-too-common image of the Ugly American, that’s worth any discomfort you may experience.

A niece of mine recently wrote about an extended stay in Ecuador, “I’ve grappled with problems I didn’t think I’d encounter. I’ve learned that I don’t need to plan every minute of my day, [such] that I can deal when things don’t go as I’d expected.” She is a college student, but at any age we can conquer those demons. As an octogenarian, I intend to continue volunteer travel as long as possible. To volunteer abroad will almost certainly teach you new strengths, broaden your world sense, and make you see life back home with new eyes.


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