Volunteer Abroad

So you’ve decided to take those two weeks of vacation time and use them for good instead of evil – you decided to volunteer abroad. The last time I had paid vacation, I started at a bar with a shot of whisky and woke up two weeks later in a bathtub full of ice in a Tijuana motel with my spleen removed. Best. Vacation. Ever.

But okay Mother Theresa, You’ve got morals, and ethics,and you already donated your spleen to science. You’re going to turn your vacation into an experience volunteering abroad – and we respect that. As a matter of fact, we applaud it!

A lot of the time you actually have to pay to do these Volunteer abroad programs. Most volunteer programs will provide housing, food, and often training; costs that can certainly add up. Saving money and seeking donations can help you to have an enjoyable charitable experience that can last for up to a year or more, and you’ll get some valuable training out the deal. Remember: you’re doing this to help people, it’s not a vacation. (plan on returning with your spleen intact.)

When volunteering in war-torn or poverty-stricken areas, you can’t expect miracles. You will likely be helping out with tedious tasks, but every little bit helps. Try not to be negative and instead focus on the little things and be patient. Even if you don’t see an initial impact, think of the individual people you are helping – they’re sure to be thankful for you.

No matter where you end up volunteering, remember that your volunteer abroad experience is meant to be just that – an experience. So make the most out of your time overseas (or wherever you volunteer). Befriend the locals, explore the area, and have fun while lending a helping hand.

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  • Student Travel Hostels

    It’s amazing how much volunteer abroad has changed just in the past three years. I remember when your option was Peace Corps for 2 years, and that was it. Now you can go for 2 weeks with organizations like Cross Cultural Solutions, i to i, and Global Crossroads.

    I have also found a statistic that 85% of all Fortune 500 company CEOS’ have international work experience. So you travel, and it looks good on the resume!

  • Jack

    It was my last night in Cambodia that had the biggest effect on me. I’d spent a long day touring Angkor Wat and had just arrived back at my guesthouse. I planned to go straight to bed because I had an early bus to catch for the Thai border the next morning, when I ran into an Australian grad student whom I’d met the day before in one Angkor’s temples. She asked me if I wanted to go see a play that some local children were putting on, and before I could even get up to my room I was the third person on a tiny moto-taxi speeding off to the landmine museum. The children were all landmine victims, many of them missing limbs, and the play was for younger children in the village to educate them about what to do if they came across a landmine while working in the rice fields. My Aussie friend was so moved that she changed her travel plans and stayed to volunteer at the museum. I left the next day for Thailand, and almost immediately wished I’d stayed to help too. It was a missed opportunity but one that’s always stayed with me. A few months later I was back in California and started working for a non-profit dedicated to banning the use of landmines.

  • Eugenia

    Volunteering abroad really slaps your life back into perspective. Three summers ago, I volunteered in China and taught English at a summer program. The summer after that, I volunteered at an orphanage in the Philippines for 6 weeks (and it changed my life). The following is a snippet from one of my journal entries toward the later part of my trip in the Philippines:

    Last night, over our usual fish and banana ketchup lunch, one of our caregiver trainees asked me, “Is it true that in America, when you go to college, you have a system called study now, pay later?” I answered yes, figuring she was talking about student loans. She was amazed. In the Philippines, the government gives no financial aid to go to college, but Filipinos value education. That trainee was worried about putting her four children through school.

    At that moment, I realized that just by living in the U.S., I’m automatically rich. One of the most trying things about the Philippines was hearing everybody brand me a thousand labels once the words “I’m American” slipped from my mouth: “Oh, you must be rich.” “Haha, will you be treating all of us?” “You must have a lot of money here.”

    I wanted to say that living in a rich country doesn’t automatically make somebody rich. But talking to that woman, I realized that it does. At school, it’s a running joke: I’m poor. I take out loans to go to school. Scholarships don’t even cut it. But I’m definitely not poor. My government thinks I have a future. It trusts me to pay it back. Twenty hours at my workstudy desk job pays the same as a month’s full-time work for a caregiver from the Philippines. I’m rich.

  • Lincoln

    I volunteered at the Harold Acton Library in Firenze, re-shelving libretti and the genius that is Dante. From the window of the main room, I could look out onto the Arno or view the motorini vying for space on the little road that runs by the library. The library was a veritable melting pot, students from various study abroad programs congregated there, as well as scholars, professors, and tourists. The experience will never leave me…like an image of Beatrice that beckons in the theater of my mind.

  • bridget

    When I came home for Christmas a few months ago, I was deeply tanned and covered in itchy mosquito bites. I had been volunteering for nearly four months at an NGO in Granada, Nicaragua. Working both as a Spanish tutor for underprivileged first-graders and as the supervisor for a women’s crafts group, I really had my hands full.

    The days were long and hot, with the power often cut for long periods of time. So many nights I was sweating on my sheets in the still, humid night, the roosters outside making a racket as I prayed for the fan to come back on. It wasn’t easy sometimes. I didn’t leave school everyday with a sense of righteous accomplishment, not by a long shot. But the frustrations have been proportional to the incomparable rewards of watching a child learning to read, or seeing one of the women make profits off her hard work. When it was time to leave Nicaragua, I almost would rather have stayed. Readjusting to the overwhelming wealth, comfort, and excess of the US after my time in a very poor community was another challenge I am still trying to handle.

  • Christine

    It’s interesting to watch who you become as a volunteer abroad. For me, aside from becoming a more confident, socially aware member of our global community, I also became the best plumber in the south of Thailand.
    For our friends stateside, visions of building huts and planting gardens likely come to mind when imagining a volunteer position abroad (they certainly did for me, once). Wading in raw sewage and installing septic tanks might be the last in the line of benevolent deeds one would think of.
    For me, however, my station in Khao Lak, Thailand was exactly that: I was a sweaty, smelly plumber, charged with allocating past and future sewage.
    How did I get dragged into such a stinky position? I chose it. Sure, there were the posts as a carpenter or gardener, but all came with lines of eager foreigners ready to jump right in. The line for septic tank removal and installation? Non-existent.
    I didn’t travel abroad in search of something easy. I didn’t volunteer hoping that my job would be glamorous, and I didn’t travel to the Tsunami-destroyed Khao Lak to offer a hand with something that had hundreds while there were other necessities that desperately needed aid.
    Volunteering abroad is not always pretty. I didn’t leave with rolls and rolls of film to show off to friends at home, as my camera would have been in treacherous waters (pun intended) where I worked. I did, however, make an actual, tangible difference, as well as found myself in a community that welcomed and appreciated me.
    Oh, and I can still install a mean sewage system.

  • e-chun

    I volunteered abroad once, as a restoration worker in a castle in Southern France. It The castle stood on top of a hill beside a small village, surrounded by vineyards. Every morning, we mixed concrete, filled the bricks or carried the buckets. Afternoon was our free time. People either did their own things or hang out in groups. However, what I remembered most was reading under the tree with sun filtering through leaves and falling asleep inside the stoney house(no tv or phone) with stars looking down from the sky.

  • Megan

    No one told me that I’d have to cut down bamboo. And I suppose, in retrospect, that I wouldn’t have said no to the job if they’d told me all my duties in advance. But, it was the principle of the thing. I was going to Japan, to work in an orphanage, for free, for my entire summer. The orphanage was called a “children’s home” and none of my friends who’d grown up in Kyoto had any idea that this place, or other institutions like it, existed. A man on the plane postulated that that I might be witness to the “underbelly” of the country. I think he was right.

    I was called an onaysan, the formal term for big sister. The kids called me onaaaay chan or Maaaayyganchan. They thought it was a hoot that my name could be written as eyes and nose in Chinese characters, especially since I was a white girl, thus blessed with the hana nagai– long nose– that the kids really liked to pull on.

    The kids were my whole universe. There were babies and toddlers who were working on personalities, but ultimately were just the same as all babies and toddlers worldwide. They were precious and stinky with runny noses and various whimpers and whines to curdle your heart. The kids got interesting, again as in most places, when they put year five under their belts. Then, they were something to consider.

    These kids were mostly abandoned, by the death, delinquency or divorce of ultimately loving parents, but many were also wards of the state. They were kids who the government removed out of family houses for various reasons that I judged harshly: mom was single and working too late and neighbors didn’t think she could handle it; dad was trying to learn the role of a mom who’d passed. These parents came to visit every weekend, and stayed in expensive rooms nearby so they could play with their children, read to them, brush their hair and share meals with them until Sunday evening came.

    My volunteer position meant that everyone wanted to be really nice to me, but the home’s administration also needed support. I helped children with english homework, and math, and even Japanese up to about the second grade. At that point, the kids passed me up and our roles reversed. I also did dishes, and fixed dinners, and folded laundry, listened to teenage boys who wondered about America, and teenage girls who wondered about teenage boys.

    When the summer rains started, the school’s big boss decided that we needed to clear out the bamboo forest. I had broken a finger doing some stupid thing, but that didn’t stop the boss from seeking me out with an ax and a saw– “you choose,” he said– leading me to the forest and marking large bamboo stalks with yellow chalk. Gambate, he cheered. You can do it. Then he left me alone. The kids, of course, surrounded me, and I realized that, though a woman, I was about half a foot taller than the largest man. I guess that the big cheese thought that made me the right one for the job.

    I still can’t believe that I actually felled a tree, or six. I ended up with abrasions on my cheeks, legs, shoulders, stomach and butt. And the kids sang songs about me whacking into the bamboo for the remainder of my stay.

  • Jeremy

    India is a mother of many. Cradling in it’s arms the rolling Himalayan mountains, the beautiful Ganga River and of course thousands of crammed buses; India is a land of extreme beauty and harsh reality.

    It was then, in the midst of harsh reality, while riding one of India’s over crowded buses, that I began to question just exactly what it was I had set out to do in this enormous country.

    Being a volunteer in a strange land and a white tourist I am definitely the eye candy of my bus ride. Giggles and smiles float toward me from front to back and invade my space. I blush, pretending like I have been living here my whole life by yawning and looking bored. But really I’m not.

    Halting to a stop we crumple into a passenger ball and I am re-assured of my unity with the people around me, we are most certainly all one.

    Like an adopted child wandering confused and lost in a city of 8 million, with the south Indian sun blazing the back of my neck; I step out of the 1950′s style bus and flag down an auto rik shaw. After arguing about the fare for 10 minutes, I manage to save 10 rupees (22 cents American) and my pride, as I head into the Bangalore traffic yet again risking my life; only now, on a tiny motorcycle

    Just missing a head on collision with an overly stuffed bus, I begin to search my brain for a sane reason as to why I am here, and then it begins to dawn on me. I suddenly remember the previous week as if it were yesterday. I was living in the outskirts of the city, in the country side with 30 street kids from the Bangalore slum district.

    We had lived together and shared each others company in the mountains of South India for one whole week. Even though we could not speak a word to each other, with the help of a local and certified Art of Living teacher we engaged in a full seven days of yoga, meditation, hygiene awareness, and most importantly abstinence from drugs and alcohol.
    A task not easy for some, a sober week was a new experience to many of the children.

    Every evening after the day’s processes and de-toxing, we would gather around our portions of rice and laugh, for no reason at all. Remembering the beams of light in their eyes I catch a reflection of sun bouncing from the chrome of a scooter carrying an entire family of five. Maneuvering through traffic with a five year old standing between her father’s legs the image snaps me back to the present.

    With Bazar’s whizzing by and with palm trees swaying to the temple chanting, I can hear a whisper.
    Chiming in low and soft, far beneath the Chaos of the city, I hear an ancient voice.
    Seeing my bewilderment my cabbie asks me,
    “What is the matter sir?”
    As I gather my bearings, and focus my eyes into his, it comes out before I can use my western discretion.

    “Trust”, is what I heard her say. “Trust and Serve.”

    I couldn’t beleive it. Mother India had whispered to me, a tiny foreign volunteer, in her enormous and magnificent land.
    I smiled to myself feeling rather expanded and ducked an upcoming dust cloud.

  • arden

    Mungu Ibariki Africa. God Bless Africa. My heart began to beat uncontrollably in anger at the plight of the impoverished people of Tanzania as their prayer echoed in my ears. Braving the harsh fervour of the African sun, it was the youth with whom I worked as an advocate of HIV/AIDS awareness over three months in a rural village of Tanzania who would ultimately make a world of difference in their community and the global fight against a deadly disease. From running educational workshops to running each morning through the village, every step brought me closer to understanding the world around me, and the importance of helping those who are too often lost or forgotten in the sea of inequalities that plague the world today.

  • Shoshana

    You could feel it in the spine, the hands, and the feet. Sixty backs hunched over in the sun, leaning over shovels and digging into the earth. You could feel the dirt cave in little by little until a mountain had become a hole. In the remote region of Buen Pastor, Honduras, bodies were alive.

    Students from several universities in the United States had volunteered to spend their spring break working in this village, helping to build Buen Pastor’s first local school and to dig a pathway for its first functoning water system. I was among these students, and like the others pledged to do my best to help out and make a change. But the biggest realization I was to have was how little needed to be changed by us.

    Lush green plants surrounded the village. Children snapped sugar cane in pieces to suck on the sweet juice, taking a break from lifting and carrying huge sacks of flour for their parents. Men sang songs as they quickly shovelled dirt from their paths, picking up pesky beetles and tossing them without flinching. Women skillfully tossed corn flour between their hands, preparing tortillas for dinner while some students, attempting to learn the skill, fumbled with the yellow mixture. I tried to help, stumbling with my shovel and pick, barely making a dent in the earth. But so much had already been accomplished, so much already existed, and I was just a body.

    The last day of our trip the villagers thanked us for coming out to help. They told us that it meant so much to them, and nobody from the United States had ever come to see them before. It was then that I realized that they did not need our help to dig paths or build schools, but rather to be someone they could connect to outside their village and outside their country. We were sixty bodies, and we could feel the earth fall under our spine, our hands, our feet.

  • Allaina

    A lot of groups offer volunteering at a hefty price because they turn a nice little profit in administration fees. They are the go between and offer the security of having someone to turn to in emergencies. A more economical option is to go through Volunteers for Peace. Their database offers short and long term volunteer projects by date, location and type of work. The fee they charge to register for a trip (usually no more than $250) can be bypassed by going directly to the site of the organization listing with them (try searching google if no website is listed). This leaves only a small amount for room and board. Where a big company might charge a few thousand dollars for a month, going through VFW will likely cost no more than $500. They offer the usual opportunities in Africa, Latin America and Asia, but also have projects in Australia, the Middle East and Europe.


  • Allaina

    WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a great way to do short or long term and last minute volunteering. Each country involved has its own site and membership fee (less than $50 for a year). This fee gives members access to the directory of farmers looking for help in that particular country. The work is usually 6 hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board. Wwoofers stay as little as a few days and as long as several months. It is a great way to meet the people, spend less money and learn about organic farming methods. http://www.wwoof.org/

  • Anna

    Volunteering is a two in one deal. Not only is it altruistic, but it contributes to the community. It’s a great way to meet new people; potential friends, possibly aid in your career, and give some routine to your care free days abroad. While I lived in Melbourne I volunteered for a Save the Children art exhibition. Unlike a formal job, volunteering was casual and social. I even worked side by side with the artist. Volunteering was a fantastic chance to participate in an exciting new project, work with a great team of people, and do something meaningful with my time in Melbourne.

  • Anna

    Traveling abroad, especially by yourself, can leave you feeling lonely and even (gasp) bored. I lived in Melbourne for 2 months, and while I worked in exchange for accommodation at the North Melbourne YHA, I still had a lot of time on my hands. I decided to volunteer for a community art project debuting New Years Eve. Volunteering was a great chance to meet new people, a few I still keep in touch with, and unlike a formal job it was relaxed and fun. I had the opportunity to meet and chat with the artist and creator of the event. The exhibition debuted over Federation Square and it was great to know I was part of it.

  • Hazel

    Sitting in pitch darkness at 3 a.m., guarding sea turtle nests while swatting at blood thirsty mosquitoes may not sound as fun as sipping margaritas at some exotic resort. But that’s how I spent my first paid vacation, working as a volunteer for sea turtle conservation on a beach in Costa Rica.

    Sure, I got the bewildered looks from co-workers who called my venture “random,” and while it may not be the conventional tourist fare, volunteering abroad gives the unconventional tourist something other than what a lot of spring breakers-gone-wild might not get – a vacation they’ll remember!

    Whether you enjoy working with children or animals, nature preservation, or you would like to put your handyman skills to work while building a new house for a needy family – i-to-i (the agency I volunteered for) has a cause to meet nearly every volunteer’s desires.
    Inspired by my love for endangered sea turtles, I signed up for a weeklong conservation project in Costa Rica. I also got to ride some of Costa Rica’s famous waves during surfing lessons included in the program.

    The tropical Central American country of Costa Rica is a lush world of eco-friendly adventure amid beautiful beaches and rainforests filled with thousands of unique species and plants. For the most part of my project, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, taking two hour shifts to either join in on beach patrols looking for nesting turtles or guarding nests from poachers and preying animals.

    If a nest hatches, volunteers get to release the tiny babies into the ocean. Before you start envisioning petting and holding baby turtles every day, remember that it takes 40-60 days for a nest to hatch. Agencies will warn volunteers that they might not actually see a turtle during the whole time they are there!

    Our accommodations were basic at best. Our co-ed living quarter was a hut and flushing toilets were nonexistent in our humble abode. We took baths by a well deep in a forest, much to the amusement of the monkeys watching from trees above!

    Despite uneven sleep patterns and rustic lodging, coaxing my first baby turtles out of their nest was a magical experience. I got to release them out into the ocean and watch their little heads bob in the moonlit sea. The best part was catching a giant greenback mother turtle lay her eggs on the beach.

    People have asked me why I paid to be a volunteer, and I tell them being able to watch animals perform prehistoric rituals and help to preserve that phenomenon is something no tour guide can ever give you. I also got to meet volunteers from a round the world, catch my first wave during surfing lessons and chat with locals – some who have dedicated their lives to saving endangered sea turtles.

    That experience is priceless.

    Visit http://www.i-to-i.com for more information.

  • jenny.jojo

    Many people with short time frames and limited international experience seek out large companies who can fit them into a tidy packaged volunteer program in the country of their choice. These options have a lot of benefits. Especially if you are busy with work or studies, it’s nice to have someone take care of all the details from health insurance to flight tickets.

    But as a budget traveler, I’ve never had the cash for those ventures. To be honest, I just can’t afford to pay $2000 for a two-week volunteer stint in a country where the cost of living is probably less than $200.

    The good news is that for someone with a good sense of adventure, who is willing to take a few risks, there are plenty of options out there. A large number of local organizations would love a skilled volunteer from abroad, even for a short term. If your budget isn’t big enough for one of the larger international volunteer organizations, here’s a few tips from someone who’s volunteered more than a few times in several countries across South East Asia:

    1. Pick a country

    2. Identify your skills: Volunteering is about helping other people, so take some time to seriously consider what you have to offer.

    3. Research local organizations: With the internet, you should be able to find and contact a number of organizations working out of the country of your choice from large international non governmental organizations, to small grassroots outfits.

    4. Make contact: Narrow down your search to those groups you think might best benefit from the skills you have to offer. Then send out a few emails making contact with the organization. Try and be brief and succinct. Introduce yourself and describe your skills and qualifications. State your time frame and availablility. If the organization is interested, suggest they contact you to continue discussions, or ask that they suggest another local group who may be interested.

    5. Make plans: Once you’ve got an organization that’s interested in working with you, you can begin to make plans. In addition to looking for a good deal on plane tickets and health insurance (defintiely buy travel insurance), you should also be preparing for whatever task or project you are going to undertake abroad. Make as many preparations and gather as many materials as you think you made need. You could be totally wrong, but you could save valuable time as well. Especially if you will only be in the country for a short time, you want to maximize your impact as much as possible.

    6. Make back-up plans: Obviously, the danger with arranging things yourself is that you might fall on some unscrupulous liar who only wants to take advantage of you. These are far fewer in between than you fear, but it can happen, which is why you should always have a back up plan, whenever you travel. Sometimes even something as simple as miscommunication can make you unhappy and frustrated with your volunteer project. So make contingency plans. Even once you have settled on an organization to volunteer with, bring along the names and contact information of other groups in the region. That way, if things don’t work out, you know of other people you could still work with. Even if someone is meeting you at the airport, make sure you have the name of a hotel and some local currency with you, just in case.

    7. Get on that plane, and have that adventure! If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into your volunteer experience but the chances are that despite all the frustrations and the exertion, it will be worth it. You’ll have the pleasure of knowing you are providing a community with the best you have to provide and the satisfaction of having planned the whole thing on your own. Quite likely you’ll have saved yourself a few bucks in the meantime and that means the local economy is more likely to benefit from the extra cash you have to spend.

    Volunteering abroad, the alternative way can often get you the experience and contacts you need for the job of your dreams, but it’s also likely to get you friends forever and memories that will last you for the rest of your life.