Volunteering Abroad: What You Need to Know
Volunteering abroad is a great way to see hidden gems around the world. I often feel as though there is an abundance of information when it comes to mission trips and other religious-centered travel programs and there is an abundance of information pertaining to pleasure travel but there’s not much out there for the average Jane who wants to leave a place a little bit better than the way she found it.
I got hooked on volunteering while traveling in college when I was a member of a service team. Every year we took a trip somewhere and mixed pleasure travel with volunteering. And I LOVED it! It was such a fun way to see the world but also leave a positive impact. As a heads up, in this article I’m not talking about mission trips or trips whose sole purpose is volunteering. Rather, I am talking about incorporating volunteering into a trip that you’ve already planned or a trip that you’re planning to take for pleasure.
I’ve got lots of thoughts on the matter so without further ado, here are some advantages to volunteering abroad:
Volunteering abroad is a great way to get involved in the culture in a way you otherwise wouldn’t have. When you’re volunteering, you get up close and personal with the culture of the country. You see the ins and outs of what makes a country tick. I especially noticed this when our service team took a trip to Ireland. As a service team, we’re used to long days of volunteering and not stopping until the work is done. No matter what we were in the middle of doing, though, our Irish hosts would make us stop for tea time in the morning. Every day. No matter what. And if we tried to keep working and fly under the radar, someone would come find us and drag us to tea time. The Irish culture really values their tea time and conversation and that was exactly what we did every day.
You’ll also get to see what ails a country and what it needs. Volunteering puts you face-to-face with a very vulnerable side of people. It’s hard for people to admit when they need help and by volunteering, you’re right in the thick of things. It’s pretty dang cool to look around and realize that you’re being accepted into the thread of a culture by pitching in.
Get off the beaten path
When you’re traveling internationally, volunteering doesn’t usually happen in the midst of the touristy areas. The places that need attention or could use a little extra help are often located farther away from the city center and are in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t have wandered into on your own.
You’ll also end up finding out about places and organizations that you otherwise wouldn’t have. When we were volunteering in Virginia Beach, we helped out at an equine therapy facility. Many of us didn’t even know what equine therapy was and it was a cool opportunity to learn about something new. When you’re abroad, you might end up volunteering at some little-known organizations and in some hidden areas. Take the opportunity to ask questions and learn! And even better, maybe you’ll meet some locals who will be willing to show you around. Which brings me to my next point…
Get to know the (real) locals
As you’ve gathered by now, volunteering abroad takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy areas. As a result, you’ll now be interacting with the real locals. Yes, some people are great at meeting locals on their own but when you’re off in a hidden neighborhood you’ll be hard-pressed to find other tourists. And generally, you’ll be working side-by-side with locals. When we volunteered in Dublin, our hosts showered us with treats, cards, and tea, sang for us (my favorite part), and gave us tons of recommendations for things to do and see that we would not otherwise have found. Something about putting in a little elbow grease next to someone brings people together! Don’t be afraid to jump into a conversation with someone!
Open your eyes
Volunteering as part of a pleasure travel trip tends to open your eyes to the fact that people everywhere need help. You may have seen me mention Dublin or Virginia Beach and thought, “But those aren’t developing areas. Why would you volunteer there?” That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Seeing that people everywhere need help is a huge realization. You don’t have to take a 3-week mission trip to Uganda to be able to help people. Don’t get me wrong, those trips are amazing as well but you can truly make a difference anywhere in the world and just add it on to your normal travel routine. Just because a country isn’t considered a developing nation doesn’t mean they don’t need help.
On our service team, we helped all kinds of organizations ranging from non-profits where we wrapped presents for children all the way to state parks that needed help building fire pits. People everywhere need help and if you’re willing to ask, you can pitch in just about anywhere.
Volunteering abroad is a great way to get to know a country and culture in a different way! You’ll get up close and personal with a whole different side of the people and you can leave with the satisfaction of knowing that you left a place a little better than when you found it. And after all, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
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Very informative post. I recently went to a hill near my place. There is a big NGO operating there and volunteer tourism bring encouraged. They are teaching in the school that they have setup there, working in the farm and doing so many other things. It was heart-touching to see how the locals are benefiting and the tourists also getting a sense of contribution
I LOVE that kind of setup! So happy that responsible tourism/volunteering is becoming more trendy!
Genuinely loved this post! My husband and I did mission work for a summer in Australia a few years back and we will never forget the experiences we had there. Completely agree that it allows you to see a culture and place through the eyes of a local which is a unique experience in itself!
Oh wow that is amazing!! It’s just such a great feeling to feel like 1. you’re actually making a difference and 2. that you’re an integral part of their society and culture.
Such a informative post for the people who want to volunteer abroad. I will also love to do some day…
Sara - I do what I want to
A little over a year ago I spend my time and my effort volunteering in a far away place (not Uganda but really close). After my experience, I can say two things: 1) volunteering is great but you need to know what you are doing “helping” isn’t really helping if they have to come after you to fix it (lots of other volunteers I met didn’t even know what they were doing); 2) I think I left things better than when I arrived but for sure I came back home with more than what I had left. I absolutely recommend the experience of volunteering in things that you can do (and believe me you know how to do more things than you think & there is a wide range of needs in the world). Thanks for sharing
That seriously sounds like something we need to pick up. Can one teach English in a few places?
Travel is a great catalyst and it works a slow transformation within us. Volunteering as part of travel takes it to another level altogether. There are so many ways that one can volunteer and contribute to the local society and environment while traveling.
Love this post! We are always talking about incorporating some selfless volunteer work on our trips. You’ve reminded me to stop just thinking about it and actually DO IT!