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Volunteer Service Programs Abroad

Making a Difference at Summer Workcamps

This summer thousands of people will contribute to an international dialogue of peace by participating in a 2- to 3-week volunteer service program called a workcamp. Workcamps allow participants to live, work, and socialize with the people of the country they visit as well as with a group of international volunteers. You can immerse yourself in the culture of a foreign community, make friends from many nations, and help the world become a better place--all while doing something you love and without spending the thousands of dollars that many service-oriented travel experiences cost.

Last summer I joined a group of international volunteers to help Serbians and Muslims in Bosnia rebuild bridges and a park destroyed in the war. Bosnians still tend to be segregated along ethnic lines and tensions run high, but in Bosanska Krupa I watched Serbians work together with Muslims to rebuild their country. "Working together shows that Serbians and Muslims don't have to hate each other," said the camp leader, Haris Karabegovic. "We can work together for common goals. We can learn to live with each other."

Opportunities for All Ages

The best way to begin looking for a camp is to select a country you'd like to visit, then choose a placement agency (see below).

Although most workcamps tend to attract young participants, there are plenty of opportunities for older participants as well. Some workcamps are organized for older professionals who have experience in the type of work to be done in the camp.

Volunteers for Peace (VFP) arranges mixed-age workcamps for volunteers over 30, and these workcamps are becoming more popular every year. Most mixed-age workcamps take place in Europe, but some are also offered in Africa, China, and other Third World destinations.

VFP representative Amy Bannon says, "Many choose a camp based more on what they want to do than on the age group." Last summer over-30 participants volunteered in China, for example, where most of the workcamps focus on teaching children English. Amy says that teachers often choose to volunteer in education-based workcamps during their summer vacation.

Foreign Language Workcamps

Language students who wish to improve their fluency in French, Spanish, or German should consider participating in a foreign language workcamp. Since workcamps bring together ten to 20 volunteers from as many as 15 or more different countries, each workcamp has a designated language in which all participants must have at least some proficiency. The most common language is English, but many workcamps in Europe require participants to speak French, German, or Spanish. Participant make new friendships and communicate for two to three weeks exclusively in the foreign language. This kind of immersion experience works well for language students ready to test the limits of their ability and become fluent in their language of study.

What to Expect at a Workcamp

Though every workcamp is different, you can expect to work as much as six hours a day and spend quality leisure time with your co-workers in the evenings. Most workcamps organize special outings on the weekends. In Bosnia, for example, we often went rafting and kayaking on the Una river or hiking in the beautiful mountains of the region. In some workcamps housing is in tents, while others offer basic amenities in a hostel-like environment.

Depending on your preference, you may build trails in a rainforest, help the mentally challenged in a nursing home, educate orphans in a city, rebuild a country after war, or dig a well in a water-starved village. You may find yourself in Western or Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, or one of the former Soviet Republics.

Whatever type of workcamp and wherever you wish to travel, you will become part of an international group of as many as 20 other volunteers who share your passion not only for travel but also for learning about other cultures and enacting positive change in the world.

On my final day in Bosnia I sat with local families and watched their children play in the park I had helped rebuild with volunteers from countries as varied as Slovakia and South Korea.

Workcamp Placement Organizations

Service Civil International (SCI USA). SCI was founded in 1920 with the mission “Peace thru Deeds”. We offer affordable volunteer abroad expriences. Participate in short term 2-3 week international workcamps, made up of 5-20 volunteers from around the world. Choose from hundreds of opportunities in over 50 countries. Long term 3-12 month volunteer programs also available. The SCI workcamp season primarily runs March until September, with the exception of some winter camps in warmer climates. The application fee is $235 for international camps and $100 for domestic camps. The cost of the workcamp includes accommodation and meals during the project along with minimal health and acident insurance coverage. You must arrange and pay for travel to and from the workcamp site. Contact: SCI – International Voluntary Service, www.sci-ivs.org.

Volunteers for Peace, 1034 Tiffany Rd., Belmont, VT 05730; 802-259-2759; vfp@vfp.org, www.vfp.org. One of the largest and most popular North American workcamp organizations, VFP offers over 2,600 camps in more than 75 countries, including over 300 in France and 200 in Germany alone. Summer workcamps vary in purpose and geography from teaching children in Armenia to restoring castles in the French countryside. Participants in a VFP camp gain access to their online database of open workcamps. Once you have chosen a workcamp, you fill out an application and send a check for the fee, usually no more than $500, which covers accommodations and food as well as other activities such as rafting, hiking, and traveling to nearby attractions as part of the 2- to 3-week camp. If you have any questions about choosing a site, you can call the VFP office and a representative will help you.

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