By Chelsy Ranard
Travelling is a need that many of us will go to great lengths to fulfill. When I was in college I took out extra loans and scraped up every cent I had to get to Alaska to work over the summer. I ended up working in that same town in Alaska, working at a few different places, for about five years seasonally. Many young people are doing the same thing while finding unique ways to travel the world while they are in school or as recent grads. Many are working seasonally, studying abroad, or opting to volunteer overseas. These volunteer programs are growing in popularity and help to fulfill the need for people to see the world while helping the world.
Volunteer programs aren’t all beach tanning and clubbing, though. Of course, you should always do your research and make sure that what you are planning to do will make a genuine difference. For example, I’m sure there are plenty of people to whom the idea of being an orphanage volunteer is attractive but, actually, it could potentially be doing more harm than good. Many areas that need volunteers are not in flashy tourist areas, but in low-income areas that need teachers, medics, or help rebuilding. Many volunteers stay with host families in poor locations without many of the amenities that we are used to. Showers, a hair brush, clean clothes, and air conditioning are many things that a lot of volunteers grow accustomed to living without. Volunteering may not always be a vacation, but there are many aspects of volunteering abroad that are fun. There is still some play mixed in the work that volunteers do while travelling.
Volunteers are drawn to the adventure. They enjoy the prospect of visiting a country completely foreign to them and jumping in with two feet. The adventure involved in volunteer travelling is an abundant part of the whole experience. Everything is new, everyone you meet is a stranger, and most of your experiences are completely alien. It’s important for volunteers to soak up the adventure and take a lot of photos, learn as much as they can, try new things, and say yes to everything.
Volunteering abroad is not the same as travelling or even studying abroad. Volunteers are immersed in the culture of the city they are helping and experience the hardships that many of the locals experience. Fortunately, this also allows volunteers to experience the beautiful parts of the city in a similar way. The adventurous part of volunteering is being dropped in a foreign country and seeing all sides of it from a fresh perspective without the conveniences that traditional travelers get.
Culture can mean so many different things and so many of them are fun experiences for volunteers; for one, the food. Most meals for volunteers aren’t going to be at five star restaurants, but rather eating fresh, local food that the locals eat. This isn’t always a positive experience for some volunteers, but eating the food is definitely a way to jump into the culture and understand the area you are in.
Cultural festivals and events are experiences that help volunteers really understand the spirituality and social aspects of the country they are in. Host families welcome volunteers in with open arms and treat them like one of the family teaching them the language, customs, and how to make life easier. Many volunteers will still experience culture shock and need to learn to ease the cultural transition of living in a new country, but once the initial adjustment happens it’s easier for volunteers to enjoy being submerged in the culture, attending ceremonies, and enjoying the amazing local cuisine.
Volunteer programs are designed to help areas in need. These are typically areas without the usual vacation activities like nice restaurants, excursions, or fancy hotel rooms. Finding activities to enjoy your time in a new country aren’t as easy to find as they are in other areas of the same country, but they are there. Fortunately, the activities available to volunteers who are working abroad are just as exciting and are much more authentic than any activities available to traditional travelers.
There are options for travel, hiking, swimming, and exploring. There are flea markets, guided tours from locals, fishing, photography, and amazing scenery. Volunteers can backpack through amazing landscapes and see parts of the world that so few get to see. Organizations that keep their volunteers not only help place their volunteers, but also create a sense of community within their volunteers. They offer get-togethers, trips, and meals for their volunteers so they are able to enjoy some cultural activities along with their work as volunteers. So it’s not all local immersion, the activities available to volunteers allow them to enjoy their program as well.
Making a Difference
Volunteers that sacrifice their time and money to volunteering abroad don’t just do it in order to gain experience in travelling and having fun. If that were the case, they’d be spending their time travelling in a much different medium. But, also, volunteers don’t want to enter a volunteer experience and be miserable either. Fortunately, the main thing keeping volunteers around is the fact that they are making a tangible difference in the community they are helping. The experiences that volunteers have while volunteering are some that will last a lifetime and have a positive influence on other areas of their lives.
The friends that volunteers make while overseas together are friends that will be around forever. They were immersed in a new experience together and share a common goal of providing aid to those in need. When times get hard while volunteering whether it’s missing home, experiencing culture shock, being overwhelmed, or experiencing harsh conditions, volunteers and the friends they make support each other and know that, regardless of their emotions, they really are making a difference.
The volunteer experience isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s important to know that it’s not all a harsh experience that volunteers need to be prepared to endure. There is travel and adventure, authentic food and festivals, backpacking and swimming, and friends and fulfillment. Volunteers need to understand that it won’t be a vacation, but it won’t be miserable either. They won’t save the world, but they will get to enjoy the culture of their city and know that they are responsible for making a difference.
Author bio: Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in Missoula in 2012. She enjoys road-tripping with good friends, exploring the outdoors, travelling, drinking good beer, and drinking not-so-good beer. Follow her on Twitter!