Volunteering abroad from the perspective of a former volunteer

Rather then utilising this space to conduct a research analysis of “voluntourism”, I’m going to write about my time spent volunteering abroad, what I learnt from the experience and debunking a few myths that revolve around volunteering.

Firstly, I found this topic to be a touchy one. I 100% comprehend and understand the problems surrounding volunteering, or voluntourism, but I found that I somewhat disagree with some of the arguments that were being made.
We’ll start off with my story. In 2011 I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS rehab centre in Nepal. To put it short, this trip was very eye opening, educational and at times hard. A criticism that is often made with regards to volunteering is the ideologies that the “privileged white people volunteers” go over thinking; I’m doing something good for me and society, I am helping those less fortunate than I, I am going to have fun and see touristy sites whilst playing with children etc etc. None of these reasons for wanting to volunteer are ill intentioned, so it’s not so much a criticism that is being made, but perhaps a warning.
If you’re going abroad with that mind-set, let me tell you, you’re in for a huge shock! To be honest, I didn’t go volunteering abroad with any mind-sets. If anything, I was just shit-scared! I had no idea what to expect of a, Nepal and b, my placement. Upon arrival in Nepal I experienced culture shock, something that you can’t prepare for! And going in to the rehab centre for the first time, I was apprehensive, until I met the infected children and their mothers, who were very welcoming and friendly.

A few things that I learnt abroad that are worth sharing:

  1. Research volunteer companies well! I was made well aware of this issue one night when talking to my host Mum, who told me how much money she received for each volunteer she housed. I was shocked to learn that she only received a small fraction of what I paid to be abroad! So make sure you take the time to find a company that isn’t thinking of dollar signs – a good starting point in deciphering is the less it costs, the better.
  1. Look for companies that require skills in their volunteers! I didn’t have any issues with this as the rehab centre I worked at was run by a local woman, who only used the volunteer company in order to find extra workers, so she knew what she wanted us to do. Typically my day looked like this:
    – 9am: admin/translating work in the office

– 11: children have a break from schoolwork so can spend time with them doing an organised activity (dancing, drawing,           origami etc)
– 12noon: Help prepare food for lunches/help clean up kitchen
– 2: Help nurse in station (organise meds/filing) or fix up anything that needed it or spend time with mothers.
– 4: home time.

However, there are lots of companies who seek volunteers with no skills, these companies are the ones to beware of!

 

  1. Don’t go with the intention to see tourist sites. A lot of companies sell themselves by stating how many sites you can see. If you want to go abroad to see things, don’t volunteer.
  2. Don’t expect to make a difference in a short period of time. Real change happens over a long period of time. Although, this doesn’t mean that your time spent volunteering abroad is a waste! Volunteering is great and does make a difference, and the time you spend helping (while it may only be short) is a vital part of the greater change!

    For me, I obviously didn’t see any miraculous changes whilst abroad. However, my time in Nepal has given me drive to make a change. I was very upset to see how ill-stigmatised HIV/AIDS still is in Nepal and a trip to the hospital with the children had me in an even greater state of disbelief (there was a hospital 10 minutes up the road from the rehab centre, yet HIV+ people were not allowed there and instead had to travel an hour to get to the nearest hospital that allowed HIV+ patients)!
    During that trip I promised myself that one day I will make a change. Since Nepal I have remained active in working for different HIV/AIDS awareness foundations, have volunteered at raising awareness events and now am just about to complete a degree that will act as a good base for making a change!

So to anyone wanting to volunteer, my message to you is this: Don’t be put off by the negative things we hear/read/see in the media. Instead, approach the topic with a realistic mind-set, research companies in order to find the right one for you and prepare to work hard!

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