It may not at first, seem like everyone’s cup of tea; and for some it never will be. But volunteering abroad has become a popular alternative to the traditional gap year for school-leavers and career-changers alike. It is certainly a good way to up sticks and leave without feeling too guilty about it.
One volunteer organisation alone sends over 8000 people on projects each year and there seems to be an endless amount of these groups around. Some of the most popular destinations include India and South Africa. America and Australia tend to be the favourites for working abroad and summer school opportunities whereas the more remote areas of South America and Indonesia are popular for wildlife projects. Volunteer teachers can find placements pretty much anywhere but often it will be the poorer third world countries that are chosen as people often feel, rightly or wrongly, that this is where volunteers are most needed.
The country may indeed be an important factor when deciding on a project but it is the project activity itself that should make up most of your considerations. Volunteering after all is not a holiday; you will be working in some form or another. Therefore you need to choose something that you have an interest in and that you think you will enjoy doing. It may seem obvious to some, but it would be unwise to choose a teaching project because the country sounds amazing and is somewhere you have always wanted to visit, if you don’t actually like children! You may get free time to enjoy the country but the majority of your time will be spent volunteering so choosing the wrong project could ruin your trip all together.
There is no quick fix way to find the right project however. There are many organisations with hundreds of projects. All in different countries with varying expectations, living conditions and prices. To find your perfect trip, the only thing to do is to shop around and do your research. Ideally look for reviews and ask people who have actually been and importantly read all of the information available.
When it comes to living conditions, this should be another factor in your decision making process. If you want a social atmosphere with younger people then often camp or dormitory living will be the best option. If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture and improve your language skills then a home stay with a local family could be more suitable. You will in that case though, be living under someone else’s house rules which will not be for everyone.
If you’re considering volunteering as an option, it is likely you’re planning to travel alone. This can be a daunting prospect for some but you shouldn’t let it put you off. Nine times out of ten everything will go smoothly, more so in fact, than if you have a family in tow! But if you really don’t fancy it there are many organisations which will send out a group of people at a time, allowing you to meet up with your fellow volunteers en-route, at the airport or even beforehand.
Once you’ve chosen your project and country, you’ll be likely to receive some guidelines to help you prepare further. These can be very useful and should be read carefully but if possible it is always a good idea to talk to people that have been or, even better, are there at the time. They will be able to give you the most accurate idea of what you will and won’t need to take.
After all the preparations are finally over and you’re about to arrive there are a few last important things to remember.
- Firstly – Be prepared to expect the unexpected. However much research you did and however many people you spoke to, actually being there will always vary and may turn out not to be how you thought it would be at all. But if you’re prepared for that and for the fact you could be a very long way from any home comforts you may be used to, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
- Secondly – Get involved! It may be daunting, especially if you are somewhere completely out of your comfort zone, but the quicker you throw yourself into it the quicker you’ll settle in.
- Lastly – Remember that, like in everyday life, you may not necessarily click with everyone straight away or find that you take to the project immediately. But give it time and make sure there you know who is available to talk to if you have any issues. If there are many of you then you are likely to all be there for similar reasons and should have things in common. In such different conditions, having people around to talk to will be important and after only a few weeks you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever.
The most vital thing is to remember to enjoy yourself once you are there – no matter what happens, how hard you have to work or who you meet, make the most of every moment because for most people, it will be a once in a lifetime experience.