Preparing to Leave as an International Volunteer

International volunteering is something many career breakers are interested in doing. And we are no strangers to the experience! Between the two of us (Michaela and Sherry), we have volunteered abroad in Peru, Thailand, Nepal and India. And we’ve discussed how to choose the right volunteer program for you. Now that you have – how do you actually prepare for the experience? Jane Stanfield, of Where Is She Heading, shares some advice with us.

Phase one is complete. You have decided which volunteer project will benefit from your enthusiasm, expertise, and time. Congratulations!  Take a short breather because you are about to enter phase two – preparing to leave.

[singlepic=1901,300,,,right]TELL ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE what you will do, where it is, and when it will happen. Help them imagine it by giving them glorious details of what you will see, hear, taste, and smell. Describe what it will be like to do the work and how wonderful you will feel upon completion. This is done, of course, in a non-smug way because your intention is not to instill envy, but gain enthusiasm for your volunteer work.

CREATE YOUR TO DO LIST of everything that needs to be accomplished, not only before you leave, but also while you are abroad. Decide how you want your affairs handled.  Immediate family can do many of the items if you are only gone for a month. If you will be gone for an extended period however, you may need a team of people to keep your home life rolling while you are away.  As this topic is covered in detail through the Briefcase to Backpack program, I suggest a preliminary list of topics to be considered:

  • Job
  • Legal issues
  • Bills
  • Insurance
  • Mail
  • Home – Possessions, Pets and Plants
  • Car
  • Special Events
  • Commitments to others.

Brainstorm other issues specific to you and your trip with your family.

ENLIST YOUR “A” TEAM by enrolling your family and friends in your passion for the volunteer project. They will want to feel connected to your experience even from a distance. When they ask “HOW CAN I HELP?”, show them your list. They may have suggestions on additional things needing to be handled or other ways to be helpful.

When your “A” Team is in place, make a contact list with names, contact information, and what they will do for you during your absence. Distribute the list to your entire team and take a copy with you.

GET PHYSICALLY FIT and plan a training schedule at least six months before your trip, or as soon as you decide to go abroad.

Start with your doctor.  You may need a check-up based in the project selected and possibly shots and medicines specific for our destination. Many routine shots are available from your doctor.  Certain shots come in a series that can take up to six months to complete.  Ask your doctor for strategies for how you can stay healthy overseas.

Specialized vaccines and travel related prescriptions are usually available from the local travel clinic.  These clinics have up-to-date information on health issues abroad, and offer great advice on how to stay healthy. They may also know which medical supplies should be carried from home versus what brands are available abroad.

Consider your current level of fitness and what will be needed for your volunteer work.  Begin any exercise or fitness program WELL IN ADVANCE of departure.  If you will need a certification such as SCUBA, or will work with equipment you haven’t used recently, check it out, clean it up, and get comfortable using it before you go.

Figure out what you do to stay healthy at home (diet, exercise, vitamins, yoga, rest), and find ways to incorporate those practices when you are away.

GET MENTALLY PREPARED and start building momentum for your trip before you depart.  Find out as much as you can about the city, country and culture you will enter.  Begin to explore while you are still at home with as many senses as possible. See if you can speak with people from the actual country, as they can be a great resource.

  • Read – Magazines, guidebooks, novels, blogs and newsletters about the specific country
  • See – Documentaries, movies, TV shows or travel presentations
  • Listen – Take language lessons or use language tapes. See if there are recent émigrés to your area and volunteer to be an English coach.
  • Smell and Taste – Locate a restaurant that serves the cuisine. Work with the waiters and the chef to find dishes that fit your dietary preferences or allergies.
  • Touch – Go to global markets and fair-trade shows to find products from the country.

[singlepic=1903,200,,,right]The time you spend with due diligence on both the logistics for your home life and researching the new culture can have a huge impact on the overall quality of your foreign volunteer experience.  The more prepared you are as you leave home, the easier it is to move your home life to the back burner when you are away. The more cultural research done prior to departure, the faster you will assimilate and begin making a difference to yourself and the world around you.

I wish you the best and trust you will have an amazing time as an international volunteer!

Additional Resources for International Volunteers

For additional information on how to prepare to be a powerful international volunteer, check out the articles KNOW THYSELF and VOLUNTEER ETIQUETTE.

Other resources that “would be” international travelers and volunteers have found useful include:

Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation by Jane Stanfield – This workbook provides a sequence of steps to follow to find, plan, prepare, pack, go on, and then return from an international volunteer trip.

Journeywomen – A marvelous free newsletter with suggestions from women who travel.

[singlepic=1902,125,,,right]Jane Stanfield has a huge passion for animals, volunteering and international travel such that she quit her job to travel around the world completing 12 volunteer jobs, seven with wildlife, within one year.

Upon her return, Jane established her company, Where Is She Heading, which offers presentations, workshops, coaching and classes on how to find a volunteer vacation to suit your heart, interest, time frame and budget.

Jane’s first book, Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation, assists prospective volunteers find, create, plan, pack, and return from an international volunteer vacation.  Jane offers a class based on the book at Arapahoe and Front Range Community Colleges and teaches an introductory volunteer vacation class at Colorado Free University. Her chapter,  “The Color of Poo”, was published in The Voluntary Traveler in August 2009. Currently, she is getting ready to publish a series of E-Books for international volunteers and is planning her next international volunteer vacation for 2011.

Other comments

3 Comments on "Preparing to Leave as an International Volunteer"

  1. Tweets that mention Preparing to Leave as an International Volunteer | Briefcase to Backpack - Travel Advice for Career Breaks or Sabbaticals -- on Mon, 1st Nov 2010 2:03 pm 

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sherry Ott and Sherry Ott, BriefcasetoBackpack. BriefcasetoBackpack said: RT @ottsworld: Preparing to leave for your international #volunteer trip – great tips @CareerBreakHQs #travel […]

  2. Lacy on Tue, 2nd Nov 2010 11:43 am 

    This is a fantastic and helpful entry. Preparing well to go on a volunteer trip is so important and you’ve got a great list here to help people get started.

    I’ll be sure to share this article. Thanks again!

  3. November’s Snapshot | Volunteer Card Blog on Tue, 2nd Nov 2010 12:39 pm 

    […] is Briefcase to Backpack. We found out about Briefcase to Backpack via this great article, “Preparing to Leave as an International Volunteer” (which, of course, is something we’re passionate about!). Here’s how Briefcase to […]

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