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Questions To Ask While Choosing A Volunteer Vacation
When choosing a volunteer abroad project, consider your expectations—what do you want to get out of the program, what will you give in return?
Do You Want To Emphasize “Volunteer” Or “Vacation”?
Knowing this from the start will make all the difference in planning a positive travel experience. If you’d like ample time to explore the host community and surrounding areas, you might want to sign up for a less intense project, or even one with built-in excursions and tours.
Get in touch with your volunteer program coordinator to see what the typical travel experience with that is like. Ask how much free time you will have, how physically demanding the project will be, and whether outings or weekend travel are feasible.
Why Do You Want To Volunteer Abroad?
Are you passionate about a particular cause? Do you want to help others with a project they find worthwhile? Volunteering makes you feel great for a reason: You help a community in need, learn more about the host country, and meet like-minded friends along the way.
Keep in mind that most volunteer abroad programs are long-term solutions accomplished through the help of many short-term participants. Don’t expect to see the impact of your work overnight or by the end of the week. While your assistance is very important, remember that you’re part of the bigger picture, and try not to become discouraged!
What Do You Want To Do While Volunteering Abroad?
There are many types of work you can do, from animal care, to trail building, to youth development. Just make sure you know exactly what tasks you’ll do before jumping in—for example, if you work with a women’s group that sells handmade jewelry, make sure you know your role in the project, whether it’s arts and crafts development, grant proposal writing, or marketing.
Also be sure the work is something that truly interests you—if you’d like to teach abroad, consider the age group and subject you’d like to focus on before signing up.
Finally, think about your optimum level of involvement in the project, and whether you prefer a variety of tasks or a strong focus on one goal. Knowing this beforehand will make a difference in how much you enjoy the work and how you might further the organization’s goals.
Do You Agree With The Volunteer Abroad Group's Mission?
Learn about the volunteer group’s history, the projects they’ve worked on, and how they’ve implemented those projects. Make sure that their mission and type of work align with your goals and interests.
If you’re looking at volunteering through a placement group, check out the host partner you’ll work with directly; if you’re unsure of which group they work with in the host country, check with a volunteer coordinator.
Where Do You Want To Volunteer Abroad?
While searching for a volunteer abroad project, you’ll probably start with where you’d like to go—such as a region, like Southeast Asia, or a specific country, like Thailand. You might even have a certain area of that country in mind, which will help narrow down the search even more. Before signing up, think about the climate, what season it will be when you get there, what kind of terrain the area has, and whether the project is in a rural or urban location.
You also should familiarize yourself with the culture of the host country. For example, are you comfortable with gender roles there? How about the way you will be expected to dress? What language do they speak, and do you have any background in it? Some volunteer groups ask their participants to have some host country language ability, as it might be the only language spoken by local staff.
Knowing as much as you can before you travel will better prepare you to acclimate to your new neighbors, and will help to prevent some of the effects of culture shock later.
What Kinds of Volunteer Projects Are You Able To Do?
Even if you have physical limitations, there are many projects available, from animal care, to business development, to teaching. If you find an organization you’d like to work with, get in touch with them to see what’s open to you!
If you are physically capable, you’ll find that many volunteer abroad projects will get you in shape—but you shouldn’t have to push yourself beyond your limits. Check with the host group and with your doctor to see what’s expected of volunteers versus what you’re capable of doing.
Lastly, consider what you’re good at and what skills you can improve. If a group requires an intermediate level of Spanish language ability, be honest with yourself: Does that describe you? There might only be Spanish speakers at the project site, and you don’t want to be completely lost when you get there. If, on the other hand, they accept English speakers and offer Spanish language classes, then go for it! Not only will you help an underserved community, but you also will build a new skill set.
How Much Time Do You Have To Volunteer Abroad?
One thing to be mindful of while planning a volunteer abroad trip is travel time. If you have a week to give, it might be best to find an opportunity close to home; air travel and in-country transportation can take quite a while, even without accounting for delays.
If you’re interested in a long-term program, then this might be a great way to relocate temporarily while building new skills and expanding on ones you already have. Some travelers have even bounced from one volunteer program to the next, staying a few weeks at each project site.
Another option is a week-to-week program. If you have a summer to give but you’re unsure about taking the whole time to volunteer, then this will give you flexibility to work for as long as you’re comfortable. Start with a one- or two-week commitment, and then depending on how engaging or beneficial the project is, extend the stay for however long you’d like.
What Kind Of Support Will You Have On Your Volunteer Trip?
While your volunteer abroad group should prepare you adequately before departure, you also will need onsite support. Volunteer coordinators or staff at the project site will guide you through your training and daily activities, and help you become acclimated to your host community.
Check with your volunteer group on whether you should bring items like a first aid kit or over-the-counter medications for stomach problems or pain relief. They might keep these at the project site in case a volunteer has a non-serious injury or falls ill with a 24-hour stomach bug.
Finally, ask your volunteer coordinator what plan the organization has in place for unexpected or unlikely emergencies, such as a major medical issue, political turmoil, or a natural disaster. Be sure you know where your home country’s closest embassy is located, and how to get there if needed.
Who Will You Work With On Your Volunteer Trip?
There may be some busier seasons than others on your volunteer project; for example, organizations that work with sea turtles often are much more active in the summer and early fall, which is nesting and hatching season. Depending on when you go, there may be many volunteers on the project, or you may be the only one.
Some organizations attract certain age groups, nationalities, or people with specific education or career backgrounds. Check with your group to see who usually works with them—and even whether you can get in touch with your fellow volunteers beforehand.
What Do Other Volunteers Say?
Some service groups have listservs or forums to connect potential, current, and former volunteers. If you can’t find one, contact a coordinator to see if he or she might get you in touch with alumni or current volunteers you might work with on the project.
Facebook is another great way to connect—the volunteer organization itself might have a fan page, or there might be separate pages set up by alumni and friends. Other places you should consider reaching out to include Twitter, LinkedIn, and listservs such as those hosted by Google Groups.
Finally, browse articles, blog entries, or other reviews of or stories about the volunteer organization. Remember, though, that online reviews of any product or service often can be extremely biased one way or the other (or even fakeposted by the group itself), so use your best judgment in your research!
Photo Credits: Dave Bezaire and Susi Havens-Bezaire and REM (rembcc)