Monthly Archives: August 2010

Quick Tips for a Successful Volunteer Abroad Experience

Volunteers hard at work in Thailand

Last week we talked about why voluntourism is super fabulous so this week I’d like to follow up with some tips on how to get the most out of your volunteer abroad experience.

Let me start by telling you exactly what to expect. Ready, here it is – EXPECT NOTHING. The worst thing you could do is go into a volunteer abroad experience with a boatload of preconceived ideas and expectations because chances are it’s going to be NOTHING like what you expected. While you may have an interest in “volunteering abroad” for a particular cause, what that really means is that you want to step into an organization in a different culture that has a unique set of subjects they are trying to help, a unique set of employees and volunteers, and a unique set of rules, values, priorities and issues. No matter how much research you do you won’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you get there. So be super excited for the brand new out-of-your-world experience that you are about to embark upon but go in with an open mind and a clean palate because no volunteer experiences are the same.

So here are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience. This list could obviously go on and on but these are the things I wouldn’t have fully understood if I hadn’t experienced them first-hand throughout my journeys. If you have any other tips I’d LOVE to hear them so please leave them in the comments!

1. Embrace the experience & ignore the inconveniences. Volunteering in a foreign country is a once in a lifetime experience (even if you do it more than once!). Ignore the inconveniences that you would never put up with at home. For example, if the shower only runs freezing cold water with no pressure from a faucet located only 2 feet above the ground, that’s okay, you’re not there for a spa. You’ll be back home to your jet streams in no time so don’t let these little discomforts affect your perception of what you’re there to accomplish.

2. Stay away from negative people. Often you will be surrounded by a positive group of volunteers who love every minute of what they’re doing but every now and then someone comes along who hates absolutely everything and has no problem contaminating your experience with their negativity. Whether you want it to or not, their negativity will creep into your brain and affect how you view everything going forward. While they may have their reasons, you should have the chance to make your own assessments. So, to the extent you can, stay away from these people. Be the positive person you would want everyone else to be. Positivity is contagious, let it shine through you.

3. Talk to the organization’s directors/volunteer leaders as much as you can. You are there to learn and the people working there are a wealth of knowledge and stories. If it’s a big organization and there are a lot of other volunteers it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let that happen, seek them out and spend time with them. They will appreciate your curiosity and you will have a richer experience for it.

4. Bond. You will finally be rid of email, facebook and twitter and all your daily gadgets that distract you from fully engaging in conversation. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bond with people through volunteer work. I still keep in touch with people from almost every trip I’ve been on. These friendships make the experience all the more enriching.

5. Don’t be shocked if things aren’t run exactly as you’d like. I admit, I’ve struggled with this periodically. I’ve been to organizations that fall into all areas of the spectrum, those that are extremely well run and organized providing the ultimate volunteer experience to those that are not so well run. After working for so long at a law firm, which is a well oiled machine built for the most optimal level of efficiency, I’ve often wondered if I am particularly susceptible to falling into an overly critical mindset. But I would hate to be someone who marches in telling people how to run things better after being there for only a few days so I’ve found it’s best to wait for an organization to ask for feedback. If they ask for it it shows that they care about continually improving, as every company should. Just as with everything in life, no organization is perfect, and the smaller ones who need the most help are often the ones who could benefit from some changes. I believe in supporting these organizations (provided that they are legitimate) just as much, if not more than, the larger ones who’ve got it all figured out because the more help they get, the more effective and efficient they can become.

6. Follow the volunteer organization’s rules. While some rules may seem arbitrary and unreasonable to you (i.e., no drinking on the premises), those rules are there for a reason, placed after years of trial and error that you were not a part of. You are only there for a short time, don’t try to rock the boat and be a rebel.

7. Remember you are not there to save the world. As I mentioned in my last post, you will likely learn and gain more from the experience than you give. You are there to help out, to learn and to then spread awareness – that is the beauty of volunteer work.

Here are some random photos I’ve taken of volunteers hard at work and hard at play!

Sanctuary for endangered macaws, Costa Rica

Start of overnight trip into the jungle w/elephants, Thailand

Jungle treehouse, Thailand

Me & Paws, rescued street dog, Costa Rica

Friends of different species at an ecological park that rescues wild animals, Argentina

Break to play soccer w/locals at a sea turtle conservation program, Costa Rica

Break to play soccer w/school children, Thailand

My husband tying a cloth blessed by buddhist monks around a tree to protect it from deforesters, Thailand

Locals entertaining us with their music, Thailand

Silly volunteer ;)

Feeding rescued street dogs, Thailand

Volunteer introducing herself to the local residents!

Smooches for me!!


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What is Voluntourism Really About? & 5 Reasons Why It’s WAY COOLER than Just Sitting on a Beach All Day…

Me & fellow volunteers in Thailand

Let’s start with the definition of “voluntourism”. Voluntourism is exactly what is sounds like, volunteering while engaging in traditional tourism activities when you travel. While that sounds so simple it’s really about so much more. It’s about cultural immersion, participation and exploration. It’s about meeting people from all over the world and from all walks of life and engaging in something truly unique with them that bonds you in much deeper way than getting drunk at a hotel bar. While you may exchange a lot of “I love you’s” when you’re drunk, it’s superficial and it probably won’t change your life in any real way.

When you volunteer you get to totally immerse yourself in the culture by working, and even living, with the local people. You get to hear their stories and learn their history. You get to interact with other travelers from all over the world. You get to choose a cause you care about and then participate in it in a unique and amazing way. While you may have to do some hard work, it’s not sitting in a cubicle watching the clock tick kind of work. It’s exhilarating and unique and challenging and it’s for the benefit of those who need it most. By adding tourism activities you get to explore the country and just have fun, because you work hard and you deserve some fun!! It’s the absolute best way to get the most out of a country and out of a vacation in a short amount of time.

So if you haven’t given voluntourism a try yet, here are 5 reasons why you don’t want to miss out!!

1.  Cultural Immersion. The days of traveling to another country merely to sit at a hotel resort sipping mai tai’s and baking in the sun all day every day are somewhat over. From terrorist attacks, to tsunamis, to earth quakes, to economic collapses, to social media, our world has become smaller and smaller. We now want to engage more, learn more and interact more. Spending a ton of money to fly to a foreign country and never leave your resort now seems frivolous. Through voluntourism holidays you can still get your beach and mai tai time in, but you get so much more. There is no better and faster way to immerse yourself in a culture than to work side by side with it’s people for a cause you share together.

2.  Dissolve Stereotypes. It comes as no surprise that people everywhere have stereotypes. Stereotypes of Americans are not always flattering. Prove people wrong. When you volunteer abroad you get to spend a lot of quality time with local people. You can show them what being an American is all about. Be helpful, gracious, courteous, respectful and eager to listen and learn. Slowly but surely you will influence people’s image of not only you but the culture you represent.

3. Knowledge is Contagious. The more you learn on your travels, the more eager you’ll be to continue that learning process when you get home and to educate others about what you’ve learned. My first volunteer abroad experience was in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary. At the time I didn’t know just how harmful it was to go on elephant rides or to watch elephants paint a picture. My instincts told me it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know just how devastating a life those elephants live to provide entertainment for tourists. My point is, I learned from the people working at that sanctuary and I came home and I shared that knowledge. In doing so I affected what other people participate in when they travel and that shared knowledge became invaluable.

4.  It’s Good for Your Health. Volunteering has been shown to help decrease rates of depression, increase your functional ability and reduce your chances of getting heart disease! We’ve all had bouts of depression where it feels like your life is a mess, nothing’s going your way and the future looks bleak. There is nothing better at getting you out of your own head, than helping others, whether they be animals or people or the environment. You may think you have it bad but I guarantee you others have it far worse and they could use your help.  In helping them, you gain a little perspective that goes a long way.

5.  It May Change Your Life. It certainly changed mine.

So whatever your interests may be, if you want to get a little more out of life and out of your vacation, consider including some volunteer work in your travels. You will gain way more than you give.