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Volunteer Abroad

Volunteerism at Home

Keeping the Spirit of an Overseas Volunteer Experience Alive

Volunteerism abroad offers the excitement of life in another land, and the opportunity to learn from other people and cultures—all while making a positive contribution to the society that provides this personally enriching experience. The most important thing we can gain from our experience abroad is the realization that there are many ways to affect important social change at home.

My volunteer experience at the Mexican Federation of YMCAs in Tijuana was eye-opening. The YMCA Home for Migrant Youth provides shelter, food, clothing, and access to communication for thousands of Mexican teenagers per year. After being detained by U.S. Immigration for attempts at unlawful entry, many youths are left stranded alone at the U.S./Mexican border. The YMCA’s mission is to reunite each child with a family member in Mexico.

I came to Mexico ignorant of the plight of children in migration and the needs of our nation’s many immigrant agricultural workers. I had gone to learn Spanish, find adventure, and to try on a life outside of the one I’d always known. Like many volunteers who go abroad, I had gone for myself.

What I witnessed on a daily basis soon jerked me out of my self-focused world. I saw that people daily risk their lives to obtain what I had always had taken for granted.

The children who end up at the Casa YMCA have left their home in Mexico’s interior, often for the first time and usually with only the clothes on their backs. They spend nights in seedy border-town motel rooms, vulnerable to a criminal network that preys on their ignorance and defenselessness, before trying to slip through customs on a fake visa, brave the currents of the Rio Bravo, or attempt a multi-day trek through a desert that claims the lives of many through heat exhaustion or hypothermia—all with the hope of making it to the U.S. to find work, schools or connection with family already there. For many Mexican youth, this is their only way out of extreme poverty.

I was grateful to be given the chance to try to alleviate at least some of their immediate sufferings; and I returned to the U.S. with the knowledge, skills, and the motivation to continue my work with migrant youth on our side of the fence. I found work as a family caseworker and volunteer coordinator at a Hispanic community center that provides social, health, and educational services to the many Mexican migrant farm workers living in the heart of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s mushroom country. My volunteer experience has led to a positive contribution to an important cause.

I was fortunate to find paid work at home directly connected to my volunteer experience abroad. Not everyone who goes abroad comes home with a new career focus or life-long mission; however, many North Americans who volunteer in “developing” nations undergo a mind-opening and sensitizing experience that teaches the personal rewards of helping others. While such need may be more prevalent in a poor country, need exists everywhere, and there are plenty of ways to serve in your own community. Regardless of what your full-time day gig may be, making time for volunteer work on a part-time basis is a great way to continue making a difference. Finding relevance for your experience abroad in your life back home is key to healthy re-adjustment and gives greater significance to what otherwise might feel like an isolating situation.

So don’t be surprised if a year with World Teach in Ghana turns you into a volunteer tutor at a local high school, or if that a summer in India at a home for children with AIDS awakens a desire to help Americans afflicted with the same virus. When this happens, the experience abroad extends beyond the volunteer and into the world around them, making that world a better place.

If you’ve never done volunteer work before, here are some ways to locate great opportunities that aren’t so far from your doorstep:

1. Contact nearby universities. Go to the Student Affairs office; find volunteer and employment opportunities. Although non-students may not be assisted by university personnel, you most likely will be allowed access to their valuable information.

2. Get in touch with the United Way Agency nearest you. United Way funds nonprofit human service organizations in their area, and often have a Volunteer Coordinator to direct potential volunteers toward those same places. If your UW doesn’t have a VC, ask for a list of names and phone numbers of the agencies it funds and contact them directly.

3. Churches are often engaged in altruistic activity, either to help members of their own congregation or in collaboration with a human service organization or school. Whether you join their efforts or not, speaking to clergy or church personnel will probably give you many ideas.

4. Consult your phone book. The blue pages (a thin section nestled between the white and yellow) list local human service agencies by category: health, education, food and clothing, shelter, etc. Dial up the ones that sound like they may be in sync with your personal mission and ask about their volunteer opportunities.

5. Schools, hospitals, and libraries are standard institutions in every community, and most have regular roles for volunteers to fill.

6. Check your local newspaper. The one in my area runs a listing of current volunteer opportunities every Sunday.

7.  And of course, there’s the web. Plug in your zip code at the following organizations’ websites, and you’ll be served a list of opportunities registered by organizations near you: Idealist, SERVEnet, Volunteers of America, and Volunteer Match.

You can also visit the home page of national and international humanitarian groups you know to find an office close by. If your city or town has a local website, run a search for “volunteer opportunities”—you may find there’s a virtual volunteer clearing house in your community, or at least links to local organizations that list volunteer jobs on their websites.