Who hasn’t dreamt of living out of a hut in Kenya and playing with orphaned children, helping them read or put on clothes or singing songs together. I mean, what a great romantic cliche many 22-year-old college graduates think they’ll experience as they turn their tassles and march into the Real World (and I mean a third-world version of the MTV show). You’ve seen the pictures: white girl/ guy in her/his early 20’s, wearing some outfit from a Guatamalan market (regardless of whether they’re in Thailand or Russia or Guatamala) and maybe an unshaven face, surrounded by little African or Latino children with big smiles on their faces. Then many are sadly disappointed when they realize how 1. disorganized the operation was, 2. how not-really-needing-their-help the people turned out to be, 3. how unpleasant it can be to take cold showers and be eaten for lunch with mosquitos every day, and 4. how, in fact, boring it turned out to be.
I had the itch after college to go over with the Peace Corps somewhere and single-handedly change the world, one village at a time. Sometimes I still have that itch, which has grown more while planning a trip to Tanzania this summer and while watching the devastation in Haiti. I had volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in Paraguay several years ago, helping some families build new homes. Of course, I still had to shell out about $1,600 and ended up playing with three toddlers the whole time anyway, ever since the local bricklayer looked me up and down and decided I wasn’t competent enough to build a house (and rightfully so – I would hate to be responsible for a house caving in).
However, I still believe in volunteer vacations. Why? I think it’s an excellent way to mix in with the locals, which is the best way to see a country. You don’t get to really experience the flavors and sites from an air-conditioned jeep shuttling you around on safari to your next luxury tent with electricity, but you will living in someone’s house and eating the meals with their family and taking their cold showers. And, in theory, you are helping out people who could use the help.
Questions I’ve run into about volunteer vacations:
Q. Why am I paying to volunteer?
A. Because while your help is appreciated, your money is even more appreciated. Your money can buy supplies and medicines that, unless you are a pharmaceutical company, you as an individual can’t really provide. You are also not really trained in anything useful to them unless you stay for a long time and are hired for that purpose (i.e. nurse, doctor, teacher, systems analyst). Your money also pays for your food and housing during the time you’re volunteering. So, yes, you can also just donate that money and stay home, but at least you get a trip out of it, tax-deductible.
Q. Why do these organizations seem so disorganized?
A. Because many are underfunded and because they are communicating across cultural, language and distance barriers. You might show up at an orphanage ready to show these kids all the love and attention you think they’re missing, only to find that the orphange employees spend most of their time just watching TV with nobody to show you the ropes. When volunteering, a lot of times you’ll have to take the initiative to ask what you can do and even just jump in.
Q: How do I choose a volunteer group?
A: There are so many out there it’s difficult to choose, and depends on what you’d like to do. It helps to check with your local university for the more reputable ones. You also want to find one that is non-profit, rather than for-profit. Habitat for Humanity builds houses around the world. It is a Christian organization, so some leaders will make it a sort of biblical retreat (I almost went to Portugal on a trip that was going to pray before every meal and have bible study, but I ended up on a Paraguayan one where we drank a lot of beer and, well, didn’t pray). Doctors Without Borders look for doctors, nurses, public health professionals and also non-health professionals to help out in countries where medical care is critical. Cross-Cultural Solutions is another organization that provides opportunities for teaching, community development, healthcare and care-giving. Jon worked in a children’s hospital in Ecuador through Experiential Learning International and the kids just adored him and showered him with hand-made gifts. There’s also Global Volunteers, Global Citizens Network, EarthWatch, Partners of the Americas, to name a few other reputable organizations.
Q. How do I know I’ll be safe?
If you are researching online and having a hard time deciding, check www.abroadreviews.com which is a third-party site for various programs. You’ll want to check that an organization is legit and not going to disappear with your deposit, or put your in any danger or abandon you in the middle of a bad situation. HOWEVER, I am still leery of doing anything strictly online, because you’ll never know if the same people involved in the organization are the ones posting fake reviews on these other sites. Apparently, some are also run by corrupt companies with a volunteer facade, or even cults who may try to recruit you into their sect. You should also be aware how well your safety will be kept while you’re abroad, particularly women.
Note about Haiti and similar devastations in other countries: The best thing you can give right now is MONEY. Sure, it would be very nice to go there in person and hand out water bottles to the ravaged, but unless you know how to repair the concrete and asphalts at the sea and airports so aid can come in, you’re much better sending money. The time to go to these areas to help is maybe a year later, when the countries begin rebuilding.