Read This Before You Plan Your Next Volunteer Trip
When it comes to travel, the world is changing. We have volunteer matching apps to satisfy our need for vacation alternatives that do more than the typical beach resort bliss. And more and more millennials are choosing this option. Need proof? Just check out these moms who are changing the world.
So, it’s no surprise that getting out to travel and volunteer — or as the travel industry calls it, “voluntourism” — has become the trend for this generation. But we’re aware, now more than ever, that our actions affect more than just ourselves. Our save-the-world attitude can be tweaked a bit to make an even better impact. Scroll on for key tips to make any traveler or voluntourist a culturally aware and awesome ambassador for our country.
1. Expect culture shock. Until someone goes through this, it’s hard to know what to anticipate. Brad Gillings, founder and director of Youth International, described the signs as reacting rather than relating. He told us, “People who are visiting a developing country for the first time (or really any new place for the first time) tend to become rather quickly both elated and frustrated.”
He gently reminds us that the reality of volunteering isn’t exactly sunshine and roses. You’re going to be challenged, but if you “stay there for long enough and are willing to make yourself vulnerable enough, you will eventually start to adopt some of the traits from that culture. Some of the things that might even have seemed ‘crazy’ in the beginning can start to make a lot of sense.”
2. Connect with locals. This is hands down the most important part of any traveling experience, which is why volunteer programs like Youth International make it their core objective. Brad explained, “We do not go in with the illusion, or the goal, that we will dramatically change the standard of living in any place. We just want to get involved and give something back to the people in these communities who are opening their arms to us.” Rather than seeing locals as photo opportunities, set out to make real connections. That way, everyone will walk away with a better, more profound experience.
3. Get advice. Enough millennials have been through the stages of voluntourism to report back with some pretty important and surprising tips. Courtney Martin’s article “The ‘Third World’ Is Not Your Classroom” has taken the Medium community by storm with this globally trending topic.
Diving into a host of controversial issues — like colonialism and cultural ignorance — her writing gives advice on how to proceed with caution. Courtney says that, “Perhaps even more essential, but far less straightforward, is humility on the part of visiting Americans. Humility, put simply, is our capacity to know that there is much we don’t know, and act accordingly.”
4. Don’t donate. This goes against what we think we’re supposed to do, but organizations like Friends International advise against donating money to begging children and orphanages. Their program, ChildSafe, is working to educate the world on the realities of this one. They claim that kids who make money on the streets are less likely to go to school, and education is everyone’s top priority for youth today.
James Sutherland, Friends International’s communications coordinator, explains, “ChildSafe is also behind our campaigns against orphanage tourism and how donors are unwittingly creating more ‘orphans.’” Their site further breaks down this counterintuitive concept that a lot of orphans actually have living parents. Fostering the system with donations actually encourages them to give up their children.
5. Think before you tour. “People passing through, asking if they can volunteer with the children for a day or a few hours, are often surprised to hear we do not allow any volunteers to interact directly with children we work with,” James told us. This is becoming more and more common with a wide range of volunteer programs.
Although it’s admirable to want to offer time and assistance, it can be counterproductive having to train new people every few days. The organization leaders recommend finding programs that either have long-term volunteer options or assisting with something you actually have skills in.
Do you have experience building things? Maybe look into Habitat for Humanity. Have a degree in social work? Check out UNICEF. Instead of looking out there for what’s needed, start by asking yourself what you can actually offer.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned while traveling or volunteering abroad? Tweet us your story @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)