Friday, June 14, 2013

How to Volunteer (part 3): Leave the Country

Is volunteering a regular part of your life? Can you think back to the last time you served someone? Are you looking forward to the next time? Are you ready to do it for the first time?

Volunteering has become such a part of the American landscape that most high schools have a community service requirement. Whether you are 12 or 82 you can get involved in your community or the world at large. Looking to find your way?

This is the third post in a series of How to Volunteer.
If you want to read the first post first or the second post second, go right ahead.   If you're feeling crazy and want to start with this one, go right ahead.  

Leave the Country

If you tell someone that you want to do volunteer work abroad there are a variety of different responses you might get
Option A:  That's awesome.  Can I go?
Option B:  Why are you going to another country to volunteer?   There are plenty of people here that need help.
Option C:  Why are you going there?  Is it safe?   I heard about ___________ in _________on the news.

Hopefully you'll get support and encouragement Option A style.   But you want to be prepared to react to someone who isn't as excited about your international adventure in service.    
Personal example:  Before I went to Thailand I heard option C at work: "I heard about the riots at the airport in Thailand."   That was true.    But I had a riot-free adventure while I was there.

How to respond to Option B?   Be honest about your reasons that you want to go abroad (culture, language, adventure, faith, etc).   If you're thinking about this kind of trip, you probably already volunteer locally. 
International volunteer opportunities fall into two categories:  It Finds You and You Find It.

It Finds You

I've gone on international volunteer trips to Costa Rica, Mexico (x3), Guatemala, and Thailand.   Thailand was the only trip that I searched for and planned from start to finish.   The five other trips happened through church and friends.   Your networks are the easiest way for this experience to happen organically.   
Usually the destination and project has already been determined by someone else.   A good friend is going to Cambodia later this year on a volunteer trip.    A year and a half ago if you would have asked her if she had any interest in visiting Asia she would have said no.   Then she heard a guest speaker and did her research.    Now she's bouncing off the walls in excitement.  

The trips that found me - and who I traveled with:
Costa Rica - a spring break mission trip in college - we taught VBS at a variety of small churches
Mexico 1 & 2 - my church in Indianapolis had a partnership with a church in Playa del Carmen - more VBS....can I say that I love juegos (games)?
I love games.  Anytime.  Anywhere.
Mexico 3 - a friend worked for a water non-profit, Healing Waters International, and we went to learn about their organization and did volunteer projects while learning about the local area and culture
Guatemala - a youth mission trip with Habitat for Humanity's Global Village...and a one day project with Healing Waters

You Find It

If a trip hasn't sought you out (yet), you can start looking for opportunities that fit where you want to go, what you want to do, and how much you want to spend (international volunteering is not free - more on that below).

First - ask friends or family who have done international volunteer work.   Where did they go?  Who did they work with?  Did they like it?   If you don't have a personal connection, start with a simple search for "international volunteer" and see what comes up.   Identify an international non-profit or relief organization and check to see if they have volunteer or educational trips.   You should thoroughly research any organization you decide to volunteer with, possibly check references of people who have traveled with that organization and consider the following:
  • What will you be doing?
  • Do you need to speak the local language?
  • What in-country support is provided?
  • How many hours per day will you be working?
  • Are you working in partnership with locals or working alone (or just with your group)?
  • Will you have a chance to explore local attractions, festivals or learn about the culture?  (one of my best memories on Mexico #3 was dancing at "Marimba Park" along with the local community out to enjoy the band)
Bring on the marimbas!

A cause that you already support is a good jumping off point.   A friend who sponsors a Compassion child was able to travel with them to the Phillipines a few years ago. 

In 2008 I decided I wanted to take a month off to volunteer and after doing some research and reading through other volunteer's blogs, I decided on Cross Cultural Solutions.    What I liked was that they offered housing, meals, cultural activities, language lessons and established work sites.  Every volunteer program is different.   Some offer a lot of support (you might even say "hand holding") and others are more self guided and require you to take the lead.  

International Volunteering is not Free

Let's just put that out there.   Deciding to do international volunteer work is not free.   Or cheap. 
  • You usually have to fly there
  • You have to pay for lodging, meals and transportation
  • You often pay a program fee or make a charitable donation
  • You want to do fun things while you're there (this includes eating a lot of ice cream)
I recently researched a 5 day trip that I would like to take with an organization that I believe in.   Let me say that I could take a 7 day Caribbean cruise (including airfare from Denver) for about half the cost.

The type of organizations that you go to help are on a budget.   Volunteers help gets the work done as well as promoting international understanding and community.   The relationships you build are as important as the project you are doing.    The majority of work should done by local volunteers so that the community is commited (Habitat is a great example).  

If you plan ahead, there are opportunities to fundraise.   If you're working through a US non-profit, friends, family and complete strangers can often make tax deductible donations towards your trip.   You can learn more from the organization you're working with.   Have a bake sale, work a side job, ask for your birthday presents to go towards your volunteer adventure - there are a lot of options if you're willing to do the work.   Whenever I've traveled with church groups, fundraisers are a part of the program and help defray the costs.

Think about it.   Research it.   Then ask yourself...     
Should I do it? 

You won't be sorry.

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