Want to immerse yourself in another culture and give back to the community at the same time? Join the club! Voluntourism, where travellers wishing to see the world and do some good while they’re at it, has taken off in the last little while.

But if you’re thinking of signing up for a volunteer travel program or seeking volunteer travel opportunities, there are a few things you should know!

Here’s my story along with 7 things I wish I’d known before setting off on my volunteer adventure:

It was nearly midnight when our taxi pulled up to a walled compound deep in the dense, green banana plantations of Machala, Ecuador.  An armed guard opened the gate and three massive German Shepherds followed us into the yard. Sitting down with Sister Isabella*, my friend and I learned we’d be spending the next 3 months in a locked facility for at-risk girls.

waterfall in the ecuador jungle
Banos Waterfalls by Trevor Klatko is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

But how was I going to help when I didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t have any teachable skills? I should have considered this and more before quitting my job and embarking on a 6-month foray into South America. Right then and there, we decided I’d teach art! (A difficult endeavor when there were no supplies on site or in the surrounding area for that matter.)

Don’t want to find yourself in a situation like this? Consider these tips before committing!

1)     Get informed and know your volunteer travel program options.

There are some great opportunities for volunteering in Canada and abroad. Depending on your budget or your comfort level, you may prefer to pay for an organization to arrange your placement, or do it on your own! My friend and I had been planning this trip for a year, but had no idea where we’d actually be volunteering until we got there! We were surprised to discover we’d committed to 3 months in a locked facility equipped with guard dogs and all.

The Government of Canada has a great resource for starting your search, so does Volunteer Canada.

2)     Choose a volunteer organization that fits your values.

Are you a nature nut or a people person?  Do you mind if the organization has a religious affiliation or is secular? Consider these things and more before committing…you’ll be volunteering your time, so you’ll want your values to align with the organization’s. I’m definitely a people person, and working with the girls turned out to be an amazing, life-changing experience. In my 3 months with them, I think they taught me more than I could have taught them in a lifetime.

3)     Make sure you have something to contribute and know what’s expected of you before you show up.

Unable to communicate and with no skill to offer, was I more of a hindrance than a help? My hosts weren’t wealthy, but they were very generous, providing room and board for free. In 2006, it was the age of email, so I was able to contact friends for art project ideas. And family helped out with some money for supplies. In the end, the girls enjoyed getting to know me and doing some fun projects, but I often wished there was more I could offer.

Voluntourism- Working on a plaster mask art project in Ecuador!
Volunteering abroad-Goofing around in plaster masks!

4)     No matter where you go, safety first!

Before you go, register with Registration of Canadians Abroad. This free service offered by the Canadian government keeps you connected to Canada, in case of an emergency. Also watch what you eat or drink and know where and when it’s safe to walk alone, etc. Some of the country roads near Machala were known to be unsafe for walking after dark. At our host’s recommendation, when we left the compound at night, we always hired a cab to take us to town.

5)     Be prepared for scrapes and bruises and medical emergencies!

If you’re somewhere long enough, chances are you might need a little medical attention…whether you’re in need of a band-aid or an injection…when you’re away from home, you’ll take comfort in being prepared!

While in Ecuador, I got extremely sick; so sick that I ended up in the local hospital. Before we arrived, our host picked up a syringe for an injection I’d have to have. I was out of my head, so willingly accepted this injection, not knowing whether or not the needle was sterile. Afterwards I realized I’d put myself in a precarious position.

Get a comprehensive travel medical insurance plan and pack a first aid kit containing:

  • Band-aids
  • Antibiotics
  • Sterile cotton wipes
  • Pepto Bismol
  • Mosquito repellant
  • Hypodermic needles
  • And more…

 

6)     Be ready to keep an open heart and open mind.

Things will not be like at home. No matter where you are. For example, after a pig was butchered outside my room, I was served his snout. And sitting at the front of the dining room, the girls watched me in anticipation, knowing I’d love it. Not something I’d normally eat at home, I nibbled a little bit and thanked them for the honour. They were showing me respect by offering me a choice piece of the pig, so I had to show it back. I felt happy to make them smile.

7)     Enjoy being out of your comfort zone!

Meeting new people, learning a new language, eating new food is all part of the fun of volunteering abroad. Enjoy every minute of it, even if your bed is lumpy, it’s 40 degrees in the shade, and the mosquitos are the size of bumble bees. This may just be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Have your own volunteering abroad tips? Share below!

Safe travels,

Sarah

Need some more inspiration? Check out Pack These Volunteering Tips!

*Name has been changed

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