There’s a reason why volunteering is for life and not just a one-off travel experience. Volunteering shouldn’t be something you do just because it’s the ‘done thing’ to do as a backpacker, or because you added it to your bucket list and you can easily cross it off. It’s not about pity and feeling as if you have to do something to make yourself feel like a better person. If volunteering as part of travel, you should have an inherent want to do it or feel compelled to help after witnessing a situation first hand. It means you don’t fall into the camp of people who ‘turn a blind eye.’
Most importantly, it’s about giving people a step up to help them change their lives. To give them the education and resources from which to live independently and eventually without aid, which is why I have always lived by this Chinese Proverb when it comes to charitable endeavours:
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
If I make an impact on only one person out of the hundreds I will meet during various volunteer posts on my round the world trip, then I have completed my mission. Because that one person will ‘pass it on’ and help another, and the cycle will always continue.
Madagascar – My First Step on the Volunteer Ladder
Ever since my first volunteering stint in Madagascar in 2009, I knew that volunteering wouldn’t be a one-off, but forever high up on my agenda of things that absolutely had to be included not only during this big trip but for the rest of my travelling life.
I realised when I returned home that it had changed me for the better because it wasn’t just something I tried out. Volunteering was raw, gritty, hard work. It was tiring and it played havoc with my emotions. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but the rewards overshadowed everything – to the point where it became one of the pivotal factors as to why I wanted to travel more: so that I could come across worthy projects and groups of people that would make me continue to see the world differently.
I volunteered in Madagascar through a work project. It was a case of being very lucky that the opportunity came about. I worked on a PR campaign for a parenting brand which partnered with and raised money for Operation Smile (a children’s charity treating facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palates all around the world) and I got to organise the press trip and take journalists to report on the amazing work being done.
And the fantastic thing was that we weren’t just there to observe from a media perspective, we all had to muck in too! Those five days in Antsirabe count towards some of the most wonderful experiences of my travel life. Aside from seeing a small part of an incredibly beautiful country, I met medical workers who gave up two weeks of their annual holiday every single year to help others, members of the Peace Corps who supported the cause, alongside development and charity staff whose sole mission in life was to give something back to others.
I got to shadow doctors, nurses, surgeons, psychologists, fundraisers and many others who I learnt so much from. More notably I met local people from Madagascar, who I couldn’t communicate with except via a simple hello, a handshake or a hug – people who trekked for days through the rainforest to get to this one part of Madagascar so that their child had a chance of getting surgery. People who, in just those few seconds of interaction touched your life in the same way that you hope you changed theirs. For the better. You could say it put a lot of life’s little stresses into perspective.
Finding Time, However Small, for Worthy Causes During my Travels
Since then, I’ve tried to fit in time for visits to worthwhile projects when I have been on my travels. When in Kenya, I longed to see some of the real life outside of the resort (yes, I was on a resort as a compromise to a non-backpacker) and so I booked a car to take us on a tour around the town and also asked to visit a local orphanage and school as well as Masai village. We only spent a few hours at each but there but it was a great opportunity to help the children with their English, see how their lessons were planned, meet their teachers and make a donation.
When trekking in Northern Thailand we were told we could visit a school and help out within one of the classes. Again, this was only for a few hours, but the four of us became a part of the lesson (and the hyperactive fun and games that later ensued). More importantly, though, it meant that we were not just another strange western face passing through their village like many others and even if we are only just a small memory today, I hope it is a happy one.
My next mission was in Cambodia. I went there in November 2010 and I came back and never stopped thinking about the place. About how it is a Country full of the most wonderful, friendly and beautiful people despite the atrocities of that occurred there and the damage that still lingers – the begging children, the poverty, the lack of affordable education and the displaced victims of genocide within shattered communities left to survive day to day.
So I set about finding somewhere to volunteer. Unfortunately there are a lot of people in Cambodia whose intentions are more exploitative than charitable but luckily I have Cambodian friends and contacts in that part of the World so I managed to find something pretty easily. I spent three months at the New Hope organisation in Siem Reap working as a teaching assistant and in outreach support.
This charity provides aid and support for displaced families and broken communities in Mondul 3, one of the poorest slum areas in Siem Reap – many people are unaware of what lies beyond the realms of Angkor Wat and Pub Street.
It’s also supported by the G Adventures Planeterra scheme, which is another means of how I came to know about its genuine nature. By approaching the charity directly I haven’t had to pay a ridiculous weekly fee to a third party either. They asked me to raise a minimum of $400 and pay for my living expenses. I decided this time that I didn’t want to volunteer for a week or two but that I actually want to work somewhere properly and not just be a passing face that leaves after a couple of weeks.
I really wanted to get to know people and become a part of their lives, live locally and try and make the biggest difference that I possibly can. I also wanted to use the time to make a decision on whether I would like to live and work in Cambodia long term after my other travels – to carve a career in the direction of charity and development and put my communications skills to more valuable use.
I saw things that broke my heart and rendered me speechless, and things that I could never post about on here. Yet, I also walk away with memories and friendships that last a lifetime as well as skills to take with me in the travel and tourism space to promote best practice.
My Top Tips for Volunteering
1. Volunteer doing something close to your heart, such as working with animals, construction or teaching. Don’t just choose something based on price or because it seems easy. Volunteering can be hard work but passion overrides the pain.
2. Where possible, offer to volunteer after you have seen a charity in operation first hand. That way you will know how the charity works, know if the type of volunteer works suits you and feel confident that the charity is one you want to support.
3. If you are using an organised tour for certain parts of your travels, look at ones which combine general sightseeing with volunteer stints interwoven. G Adventures does some brilliant trips which include all the sightseeing highlights as well as an opportunity to visit some of their project bases.
4. If you really can, try and volunteer for more than a couple of weeks. This means that you are a regular and trusted face amongst those you are helping. Many charities, especially those working with children, now request this to promote stability.