One of the most incredible ways to experience a country is through volunteer work. You will get to live local culture day in and day out, try local foods, you may even start to learn a new language. However, there a number of things to keep in mind before heading out on a service trip.
1.) Choose an organization that has a good reputation
There are hundreds of incredibly well-intentioned organizations out there who can facilitate a volunteer trip that will change your life. Since they are typically affiliated with a charity, we often assume all of them will execute well and provide much needed assistance to the communities they work in. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. As you begin to research your trip more you will learn the term “sustainable development” and this is super important in the world of volunteer travel. An organization that focuses on sustainable development will ensure that they are helping people based on what THE COMMUNITIES THEMSELVES think they actually need, They are committed to not deplete resources of the communities by conducting volunteer trips. They also hire local labor to run their camps, community interactions, and facilitate trips. Remember this is NOT a hero holiday. You are not going to tell poor communities what they need to be better off. You are going to assist them in attaining what they know they need to live a better quality of life.
I have attended volunteer trips with lots of different organizations but the one that I most highly recommend is always ME to WE travel. Learn more here.
2.) You can fundraise to cover the hard costs of your trip
When I was 14 I went on my very first volunteer trip to Mexico City to work with street kids. I fundraised $2000 to go which paid my entire way. You would be amazed at how generous your family and friends are when they learn you are going to help people less fortunate than yourself. So grab some friends and put on a bake sale, a run-athon or use one of the many fundraising sites like CrowdRise to drum up your funds online.
3.) Get to know your fellow volunteers
Whether you know your full team or not, by the end of your trip these people will feel like family. A volunteer trip is and incredibly emotional journey and so often can change your outlook on life. Going through an experience like this really bonds a group, so do everything you can to get to know the group of people who will experience this life-changing journey with you. Then make sure to stay in touch afterwards because the emotional journey can be even harder when you first get home.
4.) Learn as much of the local language and culture as you can in advance
There is truly nothing quite as rewarding as being able to communicate with the kids on the community you are serving on your volunteer trip. No one is expecting you to be fluent but if you can learn the basics; hello, goodbye, how are you, my name is….it will go a long way to make those you are working with feel more comfortable around you. Plus they will probably get a great laugh out of hearing you trying to pronounce these phrases and will appreciate the effort.
Cultural nuances are also important to learn so you don’t offend anyone unintentionally. For example, in many countries it is not appropriate for women to show their shoulders or knees. This may mean you need to bring a new wardrobe to work in the heat if you aren’t allowed to have much exposed skin. Ask the organization hosting you for these considerations months in advance so you have time to prepare.
5.) Shop for appropriate attire
As I mentioned above many places that host volunteer trips have different expectations for appropriate attire than we do in North America. If you want to be on the safe side and be respectful (which I always recommend) plan to have outfits that don’t expose your knees or shoulders. Remember you are usually going to be in a very hot environment and working hard, so make sure you purchase fabrics that a breathable. My go to wardrobe is usually some combination of Lululemon workout gear. However I would recommend not getting clothing that is too fitted.
It can often get quite cold at night so make sure you have warm layers for the start and end of the day. Items that pack small are key!
On every volunteer trip I’ve ever been on, my socks have been destroyed. They turn red from clay or brown from mud so just plan to come home and have to toss your socks. Don’t forget to bring at least 1 pair of high socks. You likely will have to wear rubber boots at some point on your trip and high socks will help prevent blisters.
6.) Get your documentation and medicine sorted
Most countries require you to get a visa upon entry, especially if you are staying for an extended period of time. Canadians can use this site and Americans this one to determine which documentation they will need in advance of their trip. If you are a citizen of another country visit your government’s website for more information.
The ongoing medical situation in any given country is constantly shifting. Visit your local travel doctor at least 2 months before you leave. They will update any expired shots and provide necessary medication or vaccinations required for the country you are visiting. These are typically not suggestions but rather requirements. Some countries will request proof of vaccines upon entry so be sure to bring them with you.
7.) Arrange to travel around your volunteer trip
Since a volunteer trip can take quite an emotional toll on you I always encourage people to add on some more travel at the end of the service trip. This will give you time to process everything you have experienced before returning home. Plus, you are probably in an exotic location that you will not return to in the near future – so make the most of it! Go with your group to the nearest airport and hop on over to the coast to veg out on a beach or go on safari nearby. It is often quite cheap to take domestic flights within developing countries so take advantage.
8.) Talk to your family and friends about what to expect when you return
After a life-changing experience like this it is often hard to adjust to life back at home. You can sometimes feel like “your eyes have been opened” and now you know “what is truly important in life”. These are all important discoveries on your trip but can make people in life back at home feel disconnected and left out of your experience. I remember a high school teacher saying to me when I returned home from my first trip that he thought it had put me into a depression for weeks when I got home. What I really needed was someone to sit down and listen to what I had experienced so that they could relate to me. So let your family know it advance that this may happen and ask them to be patient with you.
9.) Have the time of your life!
This volunteer trip you are going to take is truly a once in a lifetime experience. So make sure you make every effort to get out of your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to someone, try a new word in a foreign language, or eat a new delicacy. Each experience will just make your trip that much more memorable.
10.) Tell your story
Set up a little party with family and friends, reserve a portion of time in your school assembly, or church service when you get home to share your photos and stories. This will help others understand this life-changing experience you went through and also give you people you can connect to when you are feeling nostalgic. It’s also a great way to honor your donors if you fund-raised your fees to go overseas.
Who knows, maybe you will inspire one of them to join you on your next volunteer trip.