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Volunteer Abroad on Your Own

Finding Volunteer Projects on the Isla Mujeres, an Island off of Mexico

Many people think they need to volunteer with an established organization. However, with patience, creativity, and perseverance, you can volunteer abroad on your own and have a meaningful experience.

I wanted to volunteer in a Spanish-speaking country, but I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to travel or in what field I wanted to work, but I knew I had the drive to carry out my desire.

A friend and I decided to book a flight to the Yucatán peninsula, where we would search for volunteer work. Though friends and family—and admittedly we too—were skeptical, our strategy proved successful. After only five days on Isla Mujeres, a small island off the Yucatán, we found volunteer work cleaning, painting, and organizing a one-room schoolhouse for kids with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. A few days later, we conceived of the idea of running a summer camp program for the children who attend the school. We presented the idea to the kids, families, and teachers; they all agreed that it would be useful. From then on, each day for seven weeks from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., we played baseball, went to the beach, drew, painted, and read with 12 Mexican children.

Being self-employed allowed for much compromise and creativity as our daily schedules developed and diversified. By the end of our stay we had established close relationships with the kids and their families. They invited us for evening meals of local dishes like cerviche (octopus marinated in a vinegar, onion, and garlic sauce served with tortilla chips) and gave us necklaces and other gifts to show their appreciation. We learned to speak their slang, slept on hammocks, went to the local hangouts, and played dominoes on the street.

If you want to try volunteering abroad independently, I suggest the following steps.

• Before doing anything, decide on a specific town or country where you would want to live. Consider that it may be easier to find independent work in more remote or rural communities.

• After choosing a town or country, try making contacts through email or by phoning someone in your field of interest. We originally wanted to volunteer in a medical clinic and through Web searches found a doctor’s email address at a local Yucatán Red Cross. The doctor did not have work for us, but she did introduce us to the teachers at the school where we ended up volunteering. Any contact you make is a step in the right direction.

• As soon as you arrive in your destination, seek out your contacts as soon as possible. Communicate to them your ideas and why you think they would benefit the community. Let them know your strengths, skills, and especially your sincerity and dedication.

Although my experience was unforgettable, there are some disadvantages to volunteering abroad on your own. The first and most obvious is the time and effort you will expend doing research, networking, and house finding. And, even with an all-out effort, there is the reality that unless you set up connections prior to going abroad, there are no guarantees you’ll find work. The first few days of our sojourn, I had an unsettled feeling, but at the same time I was excited, because I knew the possibilities were limitless.

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