By Sabina Livia
Volunteering overseas can be one of life’s most meaningful experiences. Even a short two-week volunteer vacation is more than enough to provide you with knowledge, memories, and new perspectives that will stay with you for many years.
Essentials for volunteering abroad
Before you take that first step, be sure to prepare yourself mentally and physically for this trip. Most importantly, take time to reflect on if you have the personality that can cope with what such an undertaking involves. For many volunteer activities, you will need to be flexible. Your tight schedule and wild preoccupation with time wasted has to take back seat, more so as such issues may actually draw you back instead of pushing you forward. Similarly, you may have lofty goals of what you expect to achieve; adjust these and be prepared to jump into the most basic tasks. Keep sight of your goal while being there. More often than not, you will be outdoors, so be ready to be clad in modest clothing and to adjust your behaviour accordingly.
Since you are going on a trip, your timeline and budget are key to what you will achieve while you’re away. Match your expectations to the realities offered by your budget and free time. Your goals should linger in your mind but humble yourself in respect to your expectations. You may wish to focus on new goals such as learning a new language or absorbing as much as possible of the new culture and surroundings. You may not ‘save the world’, but you just might get to teach a whole bunch of people on the importance and proper use of mosquito nets.
When choosing a volunteer experience remember to take into consideration your needs. Particularly health needs. For example, you may be suffering from a condition that does not allow you to miss your daily hot shower. Take all aspects into account, a great opportunity ending with a trip back after a serious asthma attack is not memorable in the right way. What you set out to achieve will often help decide what kind of overseas volunteer opportunity is best for you. For example, do you want a volunteer experience or an immersion experience? You may even want to consider what part of the world you are curious about. Keep in mind that each aspect of your trip requires different degrees of preparation. Make sure your participation begins and ends on a favourable note.
Prior to making a choice, take time to explore different volunteer programmes, including independent volunteer options. Where budget constraints exist, remember that there are worthy independent experiences out there, so look around. To help you with this, make a list of as many as five possible options and contact past volunteers from these particular programmes who can answer questions that will narrow down this list. Brochures and websites can be glamorous, but first-hand information is often more reliable. Read any information you receive in detail and take enough time to raise the required funds. If others you know are ready to go this summer, then let them, as you stand to benefit from their account of the trip and, by doing this, you will make a better decision for yourself.
Useful tips for volunteering abroad
You may want to take time to reflect on your hosts and how you can help make your stay pleasant for all involved. Often variations in personality and perspectives are the result of life experiences so listen to their experiences as it may shed light on your differences. What obstacles do your hosts face in their lives? Daily challenges? Some people around the world walk miles over rugged terrain just to get to a low paying and unsatisfying job. The circumstances all contribute to the personality of an individual; keep in mind that people are all human and they hurt when it pinches.
In addition to personal adjustments, take heed to the warnings you encounter, such as those regarding weather, insecurity, and unscrupulous agencies. Many governments issue advisory warnings. For your personal well-being, take the advice into account.
Since you are visiting a foreign land and may be doing so independently, it is advisable to prepare a small medical package. Coming down with an illness in the middle of your journey can be costly and may ruin your volunteer experience. When sick, you may spend huge amounts of money on medication or you may end up buying counterfeit drugs, further complicating your situation. Some medications you may consider carrying, depending on where you are headed, include anti-diarrheal drugs, drugs to cope with allergic reactions, laxatives to soften stool, and antifungal skin cream. The food, water, and living conditions you encounter may be new and may cause some unexpected reactions. In these cases, it is best to be prepared with what could save you embarrassment or just repeated discomfort. See your doctor and have them advice or prescribe drugs that can help keep you healthy in the region you intend to visit.
Lastly, though you intend to combine your holiday with this activity, keep in mind that the prevailing culture will influence how you are treated while there. Take time to learn a bit about your destination and pack appropriate clothing. If you intend to teach women good reproductive health techniques and have booty shorts on, in some cultures they may think you have warped morals and want to ‘poison’ their women. You may not get the turnout or the response you expected. This also applies to instructing rural farmers in a remote corner of the world on modern farming techniques while sipping a cold can of beer. In case of doubt, it helps to get the local perspective, so whenever possible make an effort to bond with some locals. For many volunteers, approaching the world with an open mind, interacting, and asking questions is all there is to a rewarding and memorable experience. Keep in mind you are a visitor from far away and most of the people you encounter are excited and interested to learn about your life and your experiences .