so you want to volunteer abroad? have some notes to ponder

…and get ready for what will be one of the most incredible, awesome experiences of your life.

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Since the funding of work-abroad grants has pretty well fallen by the wayside, it seems, a new industry has boomed in recent years: voluntourism. And understandably so. If going somewhere new around the world isn’t awesome enough, being able to do something good while you’re there is the cherry on the cupcake. Whether you’re interested in helping to rebuild homes after natural disasters, teaching children, or assisting with wildlife rehabilitation (my personal fave, no offence kids), there are oodles and oodles of opportunities all around the world just waiting for people to sign up and be able to turn their travels into a chance to do something good.

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You can check out one of the many pre-arranged volunteer sites (some of these include GoEco, GoVoluntouring, etc etc), but the pros and cons could have a battle to the death if you let them.

For all the conveniences they provide – which include quite a few, like being able to select regions/countries, type of work, type of animal, etc to hone your search, not to mention handling all the nitty-gritty effort of, y’know, actually booking – there lies a larger mystery with the organization. Since you’re pretty well doing a trust-fall with these kinds of things, sometimes it’s helpful to know more about what you’re getting yourself into. But sometimes the surprise is what makes it that much more amazing. (like I said: battle.)

A typical “day in the life” is a good place to start, and you can usually get that from the voluntourism blog as well as from previous volunteers’ posts, but if you want to be a little more conscientious about the organization you will be volunteering at (for things like their M.O., are they a registered charity?, where do the animals come from? and where are they going to?), you have to dig deeper or get in touch, and even when it came down to me wanting to confirm my airport pick-up for one of my volunteer experiences, the voluntourism group would not put me in direct touch, but resolutely remained the middle man.

Again, on the one hand, you can shut your eyes with your arms wide and whimsically sigh “trust fall” as you surrender (which is actually incredibly liberating), but you also have this nagging frustration that if there was ever any kind of emergency or last minute flight delay or general curiosity of who was actually coming to pick you up in that foreign land where you may or may not speak the local dialect, it would be so much more reassuring to have a phone number, an email, a company name. (Yeah, try filling THAT out on a custom’s form. “Address during visit: I don’t know, but it came highly recommended by a website I googled.”)

The other thing to just be aware of, is that those types of volunteer organizations can  very easily mislead you about the type of centre you are volunteering at… ie: Don’t necessarily take it at face value when they say “orphaned lion cubs” if you are planning a trip to South Africa… The cubs were likely bred in captivity (or come from an over-crowded zoo) and separated from their mothers to be hand-reared by volunteers (like yourself). It’s hard to know if the centre rears them solely for educational purposes or if they might eventually be sold to game reserves or into the only-recently-made-illegal practice of canned hunting. Sound sketchy? I thought so too. So did learning that the centre was funded solely by volunteers which wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing except that it is basically a glorified petting zoo. I digress.)

Which is far from the conservation/rehabilitative work you might have been hoping for…

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Those volunteer organizations also charge an overhead for themselves. Yes, it keeps those people in work and it certainly makes life a lot easier when you can just easily browse through a website by location, or type of work you’re interested in, but if you would genuinely rather have your money going to support the volunteer project of your choosing, do your homework and you might be able to get in touch directly with your top choices and save a few bucks while you’re at it.

That being said, those volunteer organizations can be especially helpful if you’re new to the whole thing. The websites are easy to navigate and can really inspire you to explore all your options. They can connect you with some excellent, passionate centres that you might otherwise would never have heard of (ie: the monkey rescue). So how do you know?

It’s easier than you might think. Connect via social media reaching out to past volunteers who have done the program(s) you’re interested in and see if the company represents what you believe in. It also helps to take advantage of Facebook’s “you might also like…” feature, as well as the “likes” and connections on the pages you are checking out to see even more options, and learn about even more centres, what they really do, and if the atmosphere jives with what you are hoping for.

That being said, a personal philosophy of your’s truly tends to lay parallel to the fine art of “winging it” and seeing how things work out. THAT can be incredibly rewarding too if you’re just looking for the new experience. At the end of it all, no matter what you choose to do, the best thing you can do is approach it all with an open mind and an open heart and enjoy every single moment. You are going to have an amazing, life-changing experience that you will cherish for the rest of your life.

All you need to remember, then, is to pack a camera, an extra SD card, and a journal. ;)

Oh, and look into plug converters.

And then remember to actually pack it.

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