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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

Volunteering Abroad

Jan 04, 2014 04:08AM

If you’re wondering what it’s like to volunteer abroad, consider an experience I had in Ecuador. I was assisting scientists studying a remote mountain cloud forest. My foot slipped on the steep, slick ground, and suddenly—thumpI was sliding down the Andes. I grabbed a branch to stop my descent, which wedged tree bark behind my thumbnail (ouch).

Despite the throbbing, treatment would have to wait. We’d hiked nearly two hours from our base to the work site—so, I kept quiet and kept working. And this, to me, perfectly illustrates what the volunteer experience is like: you’re often unsteady, occasionally uncomfortable, but if you persevere, you’ll regain your footing and make a meaningful contribution.

I volunteered in six locations around the world, from China to Kenya to the West Bank, in a midlife-crisis attempt to find meaning and help others. Each stay was no more than two weeks, an experience called voluntourism or volunteer vacations, mini-Peace Corps programs that can last anywhere one week to three months. Here is some advice to embark on your own volunteer adventure.

Find the Right Organization  There’s no shortage of nonprofits offering volunteer opportunities: the reference book, Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, profiles over 150 organizations. Websites such as, and allow you to enter relevant data—where you want to go, what you want to do—and provide a list of options. Unfortunately, these trips are not cheap. In addition to your travel costs, you’ll likely pay a program fee that covers such basics as your food, lodging and transportation. Most trips are tax deductible, but if you need financial assistance, ask the volunteer organization about options, and check out fundraising sites like

Ask the Right Questions  Volunteer travel isn’t as simple as a weekend jaunt to the beach. As you become interested in certain organizations, ask questions. How will my money be spent? Is the organization creating partnerships with local people or dependency? I’d usually ask to speak with previous volunteers for their input on the local community and whether the work they did was useful. And, just as you're scrutinizing volunteer groups, they should scrutinize you. I was often required to fill out a skills questionnaire or write an essay explaining why I wanted to volunteer. When working with children, I provided references and submitted to a background check. Organizations that do not do these things should raise a warning flag.

Look for Intangible Benefits  Nine months after Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with a group called Rebuilding Together. The organization was accepting unskilled volunteers, and I thought, this is perfect because I have no skills whatsoever—I’m a writer, which makes me better at polishing prose than installing roofs. The best volunteers offer in-demand skills, from nursing to carpentry, but everywhere I went, I still contributed. In Ecuador, for example, the researchers could run more projects when they had volunteer labor. Sometimes the work you do is less important than the connections you make. When you’re sweating and laughing with locals—when you escape the usual tourist cocoon—it changes how people see each other, which benefits everyone.

Think Hard Before Volunteering at an Orphanage  In 2010, my wife and I worked for two weeks at a children's home in Kenya. The home’s three “mothers” cared for nearly 40 children, so we provided simple, yet useful, work, from folding clothes to washing dishes. But working in orphanages is controversial, due largely to the exploitation of children in Cambodia, where corrupt operators trap kids in squalor to draw donations from tourists and volunteers. Even in well-run homes, orphans can become attached to volunteers, creating a cycle of abandonment. Some critics believe volunteers should avoid orphanages altogether, but in a stable environment, volunteers can still make positive contributions. In 2013, a former Ugandan orphan named Wycliffe Sande, addressed the criticism in an essay for the Huffington Post. Meeting volunteers, he said, gave him “an attitude that anything is possible, which was something that had certainly never been encouraged before.” A British volunteer sponsored his education, and Sande now runs his own travel company.

Bottom line for you, do your homework before volunteering, and when you do volunteer, work hard, be humble and don’t forget that you’re the guest. When you experience cultural differences, do not expect your hosts to change for you. And, don’t get discouraged—many volunteers naively hope to change the world, but even small contributions are important. “Who knows where I would be today,” Sande says in his essay, “if it hadn't been for volunteers.”

Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. All of his earnings from the book are contributed to the organizations and places where he volunteered. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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