I volunteer mostly here in the States, with great organizations such as 826, as well as in university programs, but I love volunteering abroad even more. The cultural immersion aspect is immensely appealing to the anthropologist inside me. More important, however, is that I am learning about and actively addressing social problems in a parallel reality. Volunteering and traveling were meant to go together, for me at least, but there are problems in combining the two.
“Voluntourism” has become a major market. The incredibly rapid and comprehensive commercialization of volunteer opportunities in developing countries has placed a high price tag on volunteering. It is difficult to wade through all the bureaucracy and fees today when searching for ways to give back to a different community. Of course, these programs make volunteering relatively easy for those who can afford them, since they take care of most details and even provide touristic side trips. Yet, I believe that catering to the expectations and desires of the tourists takes something away from the volunteering. In real life, volunteering for a couple of months in another country is not going to change a whole lot. Even the Peace Corps will tell ya not to get your hopes up. That’s why I am very discerning about the organizations I want to give my time to. I want to make sure that they really do need volunteers, that I am performing some important service to the community, and that the whole exchange is less about me and my money, but about the community and their voice. If I’m not going to change a lot, at least I want to be a part of some very necessary change. Some organizations that do this necessarily require volunteers to pay some fees. I believe that that money is well spent, but alas, I am in no position to be paying even relatively small fees to volunteer in other countries. It’s quite a problem, since I do want to help.
How I did it
My experiences independently volunteering aren’t picture perfect, even in comparison to voluntourism. To begin with, it’s a struggle for me to even travel. I’m the only child of a single mom, and I’ve held a job for as long as I can remember, even babysitting others about a year younger than myself at the time. Yet I went to Ecuador for six weeks after highschool, with volunteering firmly on my agenda. I was able to do so because I had applied for a scholarship from Youth for Understanding, an international exchange organization. I was to live with a host family in Quito, Ecuador for 6 weeks. I had been traveling on scholarship since middle school, but I was finally at an age, 17, where I felt that I should do something more during my travels. While YFU did not provide any volunteer opportunities, I was determined to find my own once there.
Of course, my lower-middle class host family had understandably little experience or knowledge of volunteering – the rich white tourists volunteered, not the struggling Ecuadoreans. Everywhere I called or Googled, it looked the same: $300 application fee here, $500 donation there, and I was getting frustrated. Finally, I had the bright, or perhaps lucky, idea of searching ONLY for volunteer opportunities for Ecuadoreans. My Spanish was good enough that I fooled the person on the phone who answered for Quito Joven Voluntario
, and the next thing that I knew, I was looking at a bemused Program Assistant and taking a group interview with six other Ecuadorean youths. The program didn’t require a cent since most Ecuadoreans wouldn’t want to or be able to pay to volunteer either. I was ultimately accepted and allowed to work at a daycare center and meal kitchen near Plaza Francisco and Calle Ocho de Mayo in the heart of historic downtown. It was a wonderful experience, but independent volunteer fatigue set in
. It was incredibly lonely
, since I lived an hour and a half away from the site, and none of the other exchange students volunteered. I had to bid adieu to the other volunteers every day after work so that I could take the bus and return to my host family. I also felt unsafe
after about two days, and I discovered that the area which I had chosen was considered the most dangerous of all the neighborhoods in Quito only after my camera had impressively vanished. In the future, I will definitely ask about every single neighborhood which I will travel to. Finally, the only organized aspect of the entire program was that the kids seemed to get fed every day. Other than that, the volunteers never felt more useful than moving and talking mannequins
. The center seemed to use all of its government funds into decorating the place, but the volunteers and myself never taught the kids anything useful. In fact, one day I was coerced into giving the girls a ‘modeling’ class, seemingly to pass the time and to enforce gender stereotyped aspirations.
Still, I have hope
Nevertheless, the experience taught me a great deal, out of which this site was partially born. Volunteering in Ecuador has shown me how difficult the search for independent volunteer can be, and the need for such resources and personal evaluation. As a solo-travelling female livin’ on the cheap, I want worthwhile and safe volunteer work. I will therefore provide as many independent volunteer resources as I can, and describe the process of procuring an opportunity as well as my experiences abroad so that you all can get a better idea of the best organizations out there to give your precious time.
This summer, I will volunteer in Peru for 3 weeks. I am in the process of securing a free volunteer opportunity, so I will update you guys on that. I am looking at teaching English atLa Casa de Mayten, which is a grassroots effort to address the residual and long-standing damage from the 2007 earthquake, or researching for the Perupedia, a developing social and cultural Peruvian directory, as a Karikuy volunteer. Both opportunities are completely free and provide accomodations. I am looking at a couple of others, as well, all found on the links on this blog to the right. Then, to feed my starving bank account, I will work as an au pair in Paris. Au pairing is a wonderful opportunity for living abroad and immersing oneself in another culture while making enough money to get by and perhaps even save up. Perhaps I will also get to volunteer in Paris or some other part of France or Europe, so I will update you guys on that as well.
It is liberating and inspiring to know that it is possible to travel the world, learn about important social issues and try to address them, with very little money but a lot of discernment, passion and fortitude. I want to tell everybody that it is possible, people are doing it, and it is worth it. Well, until next time!