How to Choose an International Volunteer Program
You’ve decided to incorporate some aspect of volunteering into your travels – now how do you choose the right international volunteer program for you? One of the biggest benefits of volunteering abroad is the opportunity to learn and experience another culture. So much of the travel experience is take-take-take and for many that rarely even involves a genuine cultural exchange.
But by including volunteering as part of your travels, you’re able to immerse yourself into a culture and give a little something back as a way of saying thanks. When I decided to take a career break in the summer of 2006, I knew that I wanted to include volunteering into my experience. And there were many factors that I considered that helped me decide what program was best for me.
1. Where did I want to volunteer?
For a while, Peru had been tugging at my heartstrings, yet I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of spending my career break there. I had been to other parts of Central and South America, but had never been to Africa. Did I want to explore another continent?
After some research, I realized that the heart doesn’t lie, and it belonged in Peru. Why else would I have spent the prior year reading up on the Incan civilization, eating ceviche as much as possible, and enrolling in Spanish classes?
2. What type of volunteer work did I want to do?
I’m not a trained doctor, vet, nurse or carpenter, and I don’t have business expertise to offer, so the type of work I’d be qualified to actually do was limiting. I am, however, a photographer and artistically inclined, so I was hoping that I could offer up those skills on some level. During my research, I kept coming across organizations that worked with children and schools, and felt that that would be the best area for me to pursue.
3. What did I want to get out of the experience?
I had pinpointed the type of work I wanted to do, but what else was I looking for? I had spent most of my travels hop-scotching across countries and continents, so I was looking forward to remaining in one place – Cusco. Still, I wanted to be able to explore the area and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
I also wanted the opportunity to practice my Spanish, something I find much easier to do when I am in situations where I have to use it. A cultural experience was high on my list.
4. How high was my comfort level?
I’m not adverse to new situations, but there were some areas that I felt strongly about. I wanted to bond with members of the community, but I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable doing a homestay the whole time. I also didn’t want to live on my own, as so much of the travel experience is meeting new people. Ideally I was looking for an opportunity to live with my fellow volunteers.
5. What type of organization did I want?
There are many levels of opportunities out there, from the local NGOs that rely on volunteers to be completely pro-active to companies that offer a great deal of in-country support but cost more.
Given that I was going to be in Cusco for just six weeks, I knew I wouldn’t have the time to make the in-roads I would need to find a grassroots organization, plus worry about accommodation. Yet I still wanted a smaller organization that had their roots on a local level but offered volunteer support. I was willing to pay for just such an organization.
6. How to find an organization that met all my needs?
I started my research flipping through Lonely Planet’s Gap Year Book because it offered great resources for this type of experience. However, the book’s audience is more based out of the UK and skewered to the “just graduated high school” level.
I also found that most of the organizations listed were based in the UK and priced in pounds. I was willing to pay for this opportunity, but given the weakness of the dollar, the prices were too high. (Note: they have since come out with a Career Break book.)
So I turned to Idealist – a great online resource I use to find volunteer opportunities and employment on a local level. I decided to give their international resources a test run, and because I had such a strong list of requirements, I was able to find the perfect experience for me!
Peru’s Challenge is a local organization based outside of Cusco and they work with the local communities on sustainable projects. Because one of its founders is from Peru, the organization understands the needs of the community. And because the other founder is from Australia, they also understand the needs and expectations of the western volunteer coming into the experience.
I had the opportunity to work with the people of Pumamarca, a community whose members survive on their agricultural products but one in which the Department of Education does not support. We helped with the renovation of the school, teaching art and gym classes, and working with the Women’s Group.
I was also able to put my photography skills to use. I photographed the children of the community and helped design a fundraising calendar for the organization. Funds raised went towards an emergency medical fund for the village.
In addition to meeting my “what can I do” needs, Peru’s Challenge also fulfilled my “what do I want to get out of it” needs. Their program fee included housing for me and my fellow volunteers (we did our own shopping and cooking) and great cultural activities, including Spanish, cooking, and dancing lessons. They also offered several tours of the area (including the Sacred Valley) and organized my Inca Trail trek.
My experience was fulfilling on every level and I attribute that to the thought and research I put in beforehand. (Read more about my volunteer experience in Destinations: Cusco, Peru and in the Peru’s Challenge newsletter.)
So make sure you do your homework. Otherwise pre-conceived expectations will only set you up for disappointment. And don’t anticipate your work will change the world – in many cases it’s about an honest cultural exchange.
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