Volunteer in Latin America Independently
by Michael Don
The last time that I wrote about volunteering abroad independently (Transitions Abroad September/October 2004) I had just returned from a 2-month stay on a small Caribbean island in Mexico working as a camp director. And although I learned a great deal from my experience co-founding a day camp in another country and maintaining it throughout the summer, I have since returned from an entire year volunteering and working in Peru and Ecuador—all of this arranged independently.
Having volunteered a significant amount of time in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, I have come to the conclusion that finding volunteer work independently in Latin America can be extremely easy, provided that you take the right steps. Below I have labeled and highlighted the three approaches, which I have successfully used to find volunteer work abroad without the aid of a program or organization:
Contact Before You Go
This approach is ideal for people who are apprehensive about going to a foreign country in search of work without contacts.
Do all the research necessary in order to make at least one contact in the location where you want to volunteer, before arriving there. Of course, the more contacts the better. Although this is changing more and more each day, Latin American countries still rely on web-based information much less than North American and European countries. A better way to make contacts is to find people in your community who have ties in the Latin American community of your interest.
For example, before I went to Peru I sought out Peruvians who live in my community in the U.S. They gave me the contact information for the president of the Lions club in Cajamarca, Peru. After a few e-mails, I had room and board already arranged and a volunteer job at an orphanage in Cajamarca. I found that the Mexicans, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians are extremely proud when a foreigner chooses their community in which to live and volunteer. They will invite you into their homes, cook you typical meals, and take you on day-long excursions to the mountains, beach, or Incan ruins. So don’t be timid or hesitant in contacting the appropriate people.
This approach is ideal for people who know exactly what kind of work they want to do.
Go to Latin America with a resume in hand (in Spanish and English) and a lot of self-confidence. Know that you have many skills and talents and explain this to the person(s) for whom you want to work. Articulate how you will benefit their company, school, organization, etc. The key is to find a place where you feel your talents will truly make a positive impact; this way both you and your employer will be happy. This approach takes serious planning and hard work.
When I showed up in the gorgeous Andean village of Vilcabamba, Ecuador I knew I had to live there for a while. I considered myself to be an experienced writer and a passionate runner and hiker. I thus marketed myself this way to the owner of a wonderful hotel and spa and ended up working there for a few months on several projects ranging from writing a hiking guide of the area, to rewriting the restaurant menu, to helping with public relations.
Walk Through the Door
This approach is ideal for people who are unsure of what kind of work they want to do but are excited about being abroad and volunteering. And it works nine out of 10 times; so don’t be afraid to try it.
Simply find a place where you might be interested in volunteering and walk through the door. Ask around until you find the right people to talk to and then explain that you are living in the area for a while and would like to be a volunteer. Tell them about your talents and interests, and that you are open-minded and flexible.
Just days after moving to the beautiful and sophisticated Andean city of Cuenca, Ecuador, I noticed a building that seemed to house some kind of non-profit organization. Knowing nothing about the organization, I walked through the door, found out a bit about what they do, talked to them about what I was doing, and agreed that I would come back Monday as a volunteer. It turned out that the work lacked substance and was not what I was looking for; I quit after a week. Just a few days later I walked into an English school and acquired an extremely gratifying teaching job. This approach is based on trial and error and can require a significant amount of patience.
It is always important to keep your happiness in mind. I quit a number of volunteer jobs in my year abroad because for one reason or another I wasn’t happy in the situation. Just because you are offered room and board does not mean that the job will be enriching or that the living situation will be adequate. If you are on an extremely tight budget, it is easy to get caught in this trap of working for room and board under poor circumstances. You are most likely volunteering abroad to interact with the natives, improve your language skills, and or help those who are in need. This will be difficult to achieve if you are unhappy with your situation. And don’t forget, there is always more volunteer work around the corner.