Since I have been volunteering overseas, I have had people email me to ask how I went about organising it, especially since I didn’t go through an official programme like AusAid, Peace Corp or VSA. Most people mention (because it’s also true) volunteering overseas is the best, most life-changing experience you can do.
Volunteering overseas exposes you to people, lifestyles, history and daily life different to anything you would find at home, and as such, encourages you to grow and develop further as a person but there are other aspects to consider as well.
Here are some points I have thought about since I started volunteering, and might be useful to people thinking about doing the same.
1. Know what it is you want
Mexico was an easy choice for me as it has remained in my heart years after backpacking through the country in my 20’s. Coming from NZ, it also provided me with daily life, challenges and routines far removed from my own at home. When looking to volunteer overseas, you will be drawn to a certain country or area. Research, narrow down where it is you want to go. What language do they speak? Do you know what daily life looks like there? Can you drink the water? Will you be living in a gated community? How will you get there? Do you know anyone who has lived there before? Identify your skills and abilities – where do you think you will be able to make a difference? What is your make or break criteria? I knew that I didn’t want to work with turtles or children (just not for me as a full-time gig), and so researched until I found somewhere I thought I could use my professional skills to assist. I also wanted the opportunity to learn to speak Spanish.
2. Programme or Self-Arranged Placement?
Nowadays a simple google search will bring up literally hundreds of organisations you can volunteer with or through. As I had chosen Mexico as my destination, my options were cut shorter as official programmes like AusAid and VSA in both NZ and Australia do not have Mexico as a placement country. The benefit of going through official organisations means that you have access to support – both in-country and at home – and in some cases, you will be provided with a small monthly stipend for your work. Private companies will also organise a placement for you doing activities like tagging turtles, working in orphanages, counting wildlife or teaching English for a fee ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Obviously if you choose to arrange your own placement, you will need to research thoroughly, ask returned volunteers, skype interview with current staff/volunteers and work how out how much money it will cost you to live there for the amount of time you decide.
3. You won’t make a difference in 2 weeks
Many companies offer volunteer experiences as part of a larger vacation package. Lie on a beach 3 days and then visit the local school for a day to help out! Sometimes the overhead required to organise and manage short-term volunteering (less than 2 weeks) is not available in-country and so if you do only have a short time to offer, also come prepared to get your hands dirty from day 1.
You might need to proactively suggest ways you could be useful – painting, repairs, designing class lesson plans etc… The more opportunities you seek out, the more rewarding your experience will be – both in terms of your own satisfaction, and also by not limiting your skills to one organisation. Check out noticeboards, talk to people in language schools, chat to strangers in cafes (see point 5).
4. Be prepared to be lonely
Without your normal routine and modern conveniences, volunteering is a different world. Especially of you arrange your placement yourself, you are responsible for finding your apartment, making friends, travelling about the country and finding your local market. You may not speak the language and without a doubt daily life will be different to home. How are you when everything else is stripped away?
5. People will come and go but you will stay
If you volunteer/live in a more travelled area of the world, you can expect to meet people who stay for a short-term gig (around 3 months) before heading back home. Expat populations are traditionally a transient bunch, and these guys will form the basis for most of your long-term friendships – especially if you cannot speak the local language well enough to make local friends easily. You can expect therefore to say goodbye to a large amount of friends before you leave at the end of your term. Living overseas, friendships are accelerated – in a short time you will be organising to eat a couple of times a week, and randomly catching up a couple more. Back in the real world, this type of all-inclusive friendship might get you branded a stalker; volunteering overseas, it’s normal. This does mean though that goodbyes are hard, as many of your memories are linked to the friendships you will make.
OK, so hopefully that has given you a bit more information. I have cut this post into two parts, (I obviously really thought about this!) so stay tuned for part 2…