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Community Service Volunteering Abroad

Combine Alms and Elbow Grease

A food cart on the street in Thailand
Community service volunteering can take many forms.

Maria was working in El Salvador when she met a campesino family whose home had been badly damaged by the 2001 earthquake. She fell in love with the family and decided to build them a new house. So Maria wrote letters to people in the States, got donations to fund the project, found an architect to design the house, hired workers, and found volunteers to build it. Maria was already a volunteer with an NGO, but this project was totally independent.

Responding to poverty may be a greater challenge when traveling abroad than at home—where it’s generally better hidden. Even if we are generous with our spare change, we often feel that our donations are counterproductive or even harmful; for example, in that it can sometimes reward the exploitation or even mutilation of a child.

The advice I received on how to handle poverty when I began to travel included the “one beggar a day” plan, which is psychologically very comforting and allows one to give without being overwhelmed. Another suggestion was to give only food. My own answer is to find some way to contribute to a community and in addition to alms offer some elbow grease. We don’t all have the expertise to build homes, but everyone has something to offer, and there is always need for whatever that is.

Charity work abroad is like washing the dishes when you are a houseguest: it is polite and it helps your host tolerate your presence. Whether traveling, studying, living, or even already volunteering abroad, there are innumerable opportunities to do community service. Volunteering is an excellent way to get off the beaten track, become involved in the culture, and make friends in the community.

Opportunities abound. Here are a few basic suggestions to get you started:

  • Homes for children and the disabled are church or state funded and always short staffed. You can do anything from looking after kids to construction projects. Look in a phonebook or ask around the community. I have found that many places will put you to work as soon as you walk in the door.
  • Churches often coordinate or know of projects, particularly those that help the very poorest of the poor, and they will always welcome another pair of hands.
  • Community centers are a good place to start if you are interested in teaching English or organizing soccer games or the like. Again, check the local phonebook and ask around town.
  • Established volunteers in a given region usually know of each other’s work and can provide good information.

Contacting regional headquarters of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity is another way to find out what sorts of projects are available in your area. You can do this before you leave home. If the organization cannot use you, it may be able to provide you with some good suggestions.

Once you find a useful job to do, there are some ways to avoid disappointments. First of all, you should never overestimate what you can offer in terms of time and skills; it is better to exceed their expectations than fall short. Be humble. You are often a bigger nuisance than you are a help when you begin. Be patient with yourself and with the people who you want to help. Don’t expect to be given a hero’s welcome for your good-heartedness because you might not get it. Finally, try to have fun: as Loretta Scott said, “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” Don’t set your expectations beyond the realm of the possible. Your presence and your goodwill are often more valuable than the work you actually do.

MOLLY BEER studied abroad with the School for International Training in India, Nepal, and Tibet, then taught English in El Salvador. She is currently a volunteer teacher with WorldTeach in Ecuador.

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