Thinking of Volunteering Abroad? Do it!

Heather at Les Enfants de Dieu in Kigali, Rwanda. Volunteering Abroad.

Heather at Les Enfants de Dieu in Kigali, Rwanda

Thinking of volunteering abroad?  I am here to tell you STOP THINKING ABOUT IT AND DO IT.  Volunteering abroad has not only been my most favorite traveling experience; it has also been the best decision I have made to date.

I knew I wanted to volunteer abroad, and I knew I wanted to volunteer in Rwanda. In April 1994, I saw a very short clip on TV about what the US news was then calling a civil war. In reality, it was a genocide, and no one was stepping in to help. I don’t remember what it was about the news clip, but it grabbed me, and I started to seek out information about Rwanda. The more I learned, the more my need to go there grew.

One of the boys writing in his journal.

One of the boys writing in his journal.

So you know you want to volunteer abroad… Now, what? Before I volunteered, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what I needed to do – looking back now, wrong! Here are a few of the things I wish I had KNOWN (when I say known I mean believed and applied to my entire experience because some of these things I thought I knew and didn’t) before I volunteered.

Do your research! Volunteering abroad is a business, and there are organizations out there looking to make a buck vs. looking to make a difference. There are organizations that process your application and assign you to a local organization. They are more like facilitators. Or you can try to go through a direct local group. If you do your research and find the best organization for you, then the rest will more easily fall into place. Where to start – figure out, at least, one of these two details: what type of volunteer work you want to do and/or where you want to volunteer. There are lots of locations all over the world that need help. Not all sites provide the same opportunities for volunteers. Different organizations and different areas within the same organization may have different requirements. For instance, some locations may require English teachers to volunteer for at least three months or longer. Medical assistance opportunities may be 1-2 weeks only. Helping to rebuild a community after a disaster may have an open time frame. Each location and opportunity will be different. Be sure to get all the details before you apply.

Once you have at least one of these options chosen it will help to narrow your research. If you have no idea on either of these, start searching options and figure out what suits you best. Don’t worry if you are unsure. I knew I wanted to volunteer in Rwanda but had no idea what I wanted to do. The more I researched, the more I was able to pinpoint what I would like to do while in Rwanda.

One of the teaching classrooms.

One of the teaching classrooms.

One of the teaching classrooms.

One of the teaching classrooms.

Nowadays there are several volunteer abroad organizations found online. Some, but not all, of these organizations, take and process your application and then assign you to a local organization. ALL organizations should be checking references and providing background checks as part of your application fee. Yes, it may create a more expensive application fee, but it’s worth it. Think about it…do you want to work with or possibly room with someone whose background has not been screened?

Check for blogs or social media pages created for the particular organization, location or job. These are great ways to contact people direct who have volunteered. Reach out to as many as possible. It is an excellent way to get real stories, recommendations, advice – don’t forget to ask about what to do on your down time. Previous volunteers are a terrific source of things to do and places to go.

Net fishing in the center’s pond.

Net fishing in the center’s pond.

If you have questions, ask every question you have. Here are some general questions to ask. Quite often vague answers may be found on the organization web page, don’t be scared to ask for more detail. Ask how your application money is applied. Is there a deposit? Is the deposit refundable? Where and how are my fees used? How much goes to the initial organization? Will you be assigned to a local organization? How are they paid? Are you able to contact the local organization before departure? May they supply contacts for previous volunteers for the same program? Is there a blog website maintained by former volunteers? Is the local group a direct organization or will they, in turn, be assigning you to an additional body? May you get a list of current actual donations needed and how they are distributed once in country? What you may think you want to bring for donations may not be what is needed. If you want to collect donations to bring with you, Ask for specifics and buy quality vs. quantity. Get a description of housing? If roommates are assigned, ask for your roommate’s contact information. How far will your housing be from your work location? What are the transportation options/prices? Which, if any, meals are included in your fees? If you need additional money, is the Western Union available? Are the banks easy to use (you would be surprised at how hard it is to withdraw money at some locations)? Are there banks near the housing site? Are money transfers available? Is housing secured? How is my room secured? Do I need my a lock for my things? Is there plumbing?

Some of the donations Heather brought.

Some of the donations Heather brought.

One of the volunteers beds at the guest house.

One of the volunteers beds at the guest house.

Make sure to ask and understand if there are any issues or questions while working abroad who is your contact? What is the chain of command if you aren’t receiving valid answers? ALL organizations should be willing and able to answer any of your questions. If they are hesitant or not willing to give you adequate answers (not brush off answers) take that as a red flag.

Bathroom at the volunteer guest house.

Bathroom at the volunteer guest house.

Create a budget. Unless you have your own connections, volunteering abroad is not free. Set a budget. Your program fee will usually cover housing and maybe some food – Be sure to check! You will need to have money for your airfare, transportation for work and fun, food, entertainment, emergencies, toiletries, souvenirs, adventures, etc.. Depending on where you are going will determine how much you will need to bring.

Don’t let the fees scare you. If you want to volunteer, and the money is what is holding you back there are several ways to raise funds: Fundraising through email or social media sites, creating fund me pages, create a donation event within your community, work with your school or church to advertise and ask for help. Be creative

Your volunteer experience will depend on you, your attitude, your ability to adapt and the job/location you chose. For me, it was an incredible experience, and I loved the job I was assigned. I read some blogs and emailed some current volunteers before I arrived and had an idea of what to expect. I was an English tutor at an all boys orphanage. My previous teaching experience was minimal, and I walked in having no idea what I was supposed to do. The training was zero, so I made the best of it and winged it. These are all things I should have checked on before my arriving, but I didn’t. I figured it out and was fine with it. If you are a person that needs guidelines and organization, etc. be sure to ask questions and know what to expect beforehand. I don’t have a magic equation to give you to make sure you have a great time; the reality is not everyone has a positive experience. My best advice is to do your research and Be realistic!

The boys writing Thank You letters to US donors.

The boys writing Thank You letters to US donors.

Writing biography letters.

Writing biography letters.

I went into this thinking I was going to make a difference to a handful of kids. Do I think I made a difference? I am not sure six weeks was enough time to make a real difference. But I am certain I was there long enough for my leaving to hurt. When choosing your assignment, consider how will you make your bonds and how will you say goodbye, see you later, until next time, cheers, good luck? Now consider being one of the kids or adults you worked with and this “saying goodbye” experience was happening over and over. This isn’t something I thought of before arriving. But to this day, I consistently think of it. I have been lucky and have been able to stay in touch with the orphanage and most of the boys. But that isn’t always an option for everyone. Not everyone has access to electricity or computer or can afford to mail a letter, etc..

Heather and two of her boys.

Heather and two of her boys.

During my time in Rwanda, there were 8-10 rotating volunteers all staying at the same housing. We had different jobs, but on our off time, we would come together to share our days and bond over adventures in and around the country. Not only have I made some lifelong friends with the people I met while volunteering; I have also made some great friends through the people I met through social sites and blogs regarding the Rwanda volunteer experience. Volunteering isn’t just the job. There are lots of different aspects that help to make the entire experience. The other volunteers, the staff at your job, the staff at your housing location are all excellent opportunities for beautiful friendships.

The boys playing in the field.

The boys playing in the field.

Teaching the boys how to bowl.

Teaching the boys how to bowl.

Although I would not trade my first volunteer abroad experience, I can not in good conscience recommend the organization I chose.  I did not have any direct major issues with the company; however, I witnessed several issues experienced by other volunteers and felt uncomfortable with the way the organization employees chose to deal with the situations. If you can connect with a local organization direct rather than going through a facilitator organization, I highly recommend it. In my experience, the money seems to be better facilitated to where there is a need rather than to business pockets.

Heather's farewell game hosted by the boys and staff at EDD.

Heather’s farewell game hosted by the boys and staff at EDD.

Whichever organization you decide to volunteer with make sure you understand what is expected of you going in and know what you expect of yourself. This time is not a vacation so make sure to adjust your standards appropriately. Keep an open mind and enjoy yourself.

Neighbor boys playing checkers.

Neighbor boys playing checkers.

Have you volunteered abroad? Tell us about it!

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