Volunteering overseas or at home is not a decision to be taken lightly. When you agree to volunteer, especially overseas, you accept responsibility to share your skills and help improve the quality of life for those less fortunate than yourself. The romantic notion of sweeping in to a small village or school and completely changing their world for the better in one week is, well, slightly unrealistic.
The reality of volunteering in a foreign country is that it is hard work. It takes time for you to adjust to the culture and way of life, the food, the lack of first world technologies, the language, and even the malaria medication. But it’s not to say you won’t have an amazing experience. There are just a few things you should consider before making the decision or heading off somewhere to volunteer…
1. What skills do I have?
Remember volunteering is about you helping someone else. It’s not just an activity undertaken so you can tell everyone that you volunteer, or to make you feel good about yourself. Volunteering is about sharing skills and knowledge with locals to build their capacity. In other words, when you leave, you leave a new skill set with the people so that they can continue on the work you started with them. This can be in the form of agricultural and farming best practices, teaching techniques that fit with the countries curriculum, or computing skills that assist people to effectively word process for business or education. When you finish your time volunteering, the aim is that you will have taught someone a new skill, that they can then teach to others (and therefore build the capacity of more local people).
2. Don’t make assumptions
Cultural differences, language translations, and many more factors can make for some confusing communications. Don’t assume that the rural village you are volunteering in has the same standards and expectations that are set in your home country. Particularly when it comes to living and education standards, what is appropriate behaviour guidance (discipline) at home may not be the same where you are volunteering. Speak to the teachers, elders, or leaders where you are volunteering to find out more about what is normal practice.
3. Be respectful
You are visiting another country, and most likely another culture. Find out what kind of clothes you should wear while volunteering. It is embarrassing for you and could be disrespectful to the locals to rock up in short shorts, when the knees are not to be seen, etc. By dressing in an appropriate way it will help to build a relationship between yourself and the locals you are working with, as they will see that you respect them and their culture.
4. Plan ahead
Don’t turn up unprepared. It could ruin your time volunteering and leave you feeling negative about the whole experience and place. Take resources with you, as you don’t know what they will (or won’t) have available to use. Take your malaria tablets at night, before going to bed. If you are going to have a reaction to them, it will kick in about 30-60 minutes after taking the tablet. If you can fall asleep before you start to feel dizzy, nausea, or headaches, you can by-pass the worst part of the reaction. Take water purifying resources, as a back up to bottled water.
5. Volunteering doesn’t end when you leave
Just because your time is up doesn’t mean you can’t continue participating and being involved in the project. Ask about what you can do to help from home. Are there resources you can collect to send over? Can you spread the word to others about your experience and encourage them to help or volunteer? Could you organise a fundraiser or start a charity in your home town? The possibilities are endless and only limited by you. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment, even small things like sending (post or email) new teaching ideas/techniques, as a follow-up from something you did while volunteering, can be helpful. And they continue to build capacity in the local community, which is the end goal of a volunteer’s visit.