“Some travel to see the difference. Others travel to be the difference.”
About ten years ago I was at work, staring at my computer, eating yet another, bland, microwaved Lean Cuisine lunch at my desk. And then my life changed with the click of a button. I was searching the web for something to hold my attention and stumbled upon an article about a woman.
International volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes. You don’t have to hang out with ferocious lions. You can teach English, play sports with kids, conduct environmental research and yes, hang out with wild animals. The possibilities are virtually endless.
What you do need to do is make the decision. Do your research. Buy your plane ticket. And get out there. Life is short. People and the environment and the animals need your help. But it’s really up to you to pull the proverbial trigger.
So what has to happen for this dream of yours to become reality? Here are a few suggestions:
- WHAT: Decide what kind of volunteering you want to do. What makes your heart sing? Is it saving the rain forest or building bridges or working with local communities to enhance educational opportunities for children? If you don’t know – jump online and read about others’ experiences. There are countless blogs and articles where you can get inspired (see lists of organizations below – many of them have blogs or testimonials).
Also – thoroughly read about the projects that interest you. Make sure you understand what will be expected (i.e. manual labor, language skills, sleeping in dormitory settings, cold showers only, etc.). And spend adequate time clarifying the opportunity … For instance, if you’re an animal lover and want to actually be with the animals – make sure that’s really what you’ll get to do. Several animal organizations only offer administrative or environmental opportunities – understandably keeping humans at arms’ length from fragile sloths or orangutans.
- WHERE: Once you’ve landed on the kind of work you want to do – figure out where you want to go. If elephants are your passion – you can volunteer in SE Asia or India or Africa. So many choices! Same with every other kind of volunteering. Teach English in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka or Tanzania! Take the time to explore various regions. Read about the culture, the language, the quality of life. How remote do you want to go? How important are creature comforts? Are you planning on traveling before and/or after your volunteering? If so – consider a volunteering gig in an area that will allow you to easily explore.
- WHEN: A highly important consideration. Once you figure out the what and where – assess the best time of the year to travel. For instance – you do NOT want to be in Africa during the “hot” season and you certainly want to avoid anything resembling a “monsoon season” wherever you go. is a great article that lists several reliable weather sites.
Another important part of the “when” equation … determine when you’ll volunteer WAY in advance of when you hope to travel (I started planning five months before I departed). This will allow you ample time for a number of pesky details including:
- Filling out application forms, securing your spot, communicating with your chosen organization’s staff
- Ensuring your passport is up to date and valid for an ample amount of time
- Figuring out if you’ll need a travel visa (your volunteer organization should be able to help with this)
- Getting any and all necessary immunizations (some countries mandate immunizations that you’ll need to get far in advance of your departure date – again your volunteer organization should be able to answer any questions here)
- All that preparation! Finding the right luggage, clothes, shoes, toiletries, mosquito nets, medications, camera equipment, etc. (all that said – travel LIGHT. Seriously. This could be another article entirely. For some good tips on global travel – check out this amazing resource)
- WHO: Once you start typing in the words “global volunteering” you are going to receive a ton of information. A seemingly overwhelming amount, frankly.
But here is one of the most important bits of advice I can share.
Take the time to evaluate the volunteer organization you hope to work with. There are great ones. There are not-so-great ones. I heard a horror story of a woman whose daughter signed up to teach English in a foreign land and, upon her arrival (and after shelling out a lot of money), she found … nothing. No one to welcome her, no organization, no school. Nada. So – some suggestions for evaluating organizations:
- Before you register to volunteer – ask for references from the organization. Not just ones that live on a website but an actual person you can contact.
- Look at an organization’s social media/online presence. Do they have a Facebook page? Have they been written about elsewhere? What are people saying about them?
- There are roundups that do the work for you – like this one. Or this one.
- And from personal experience, I can recommend African Impact (I did two lion projects in Zimbabwe and Zambia and one dolphin/marine conservation project in Zanzibar) and Globalteer (I did an elephant project in Cambodia).
- WHY: This one is, perhaps, the most vital. Why are you interested in traveling across the world, spending your hard earned money (because global volunteering is not free, I’m afraid), and donating your precious time? It is a big decision. And the question that made all the difference for me … why would I NOT volunteer? What were the reasons that would keep me from living my dream? What came up… Money. Time. My job.
The reason the “why” and “why not” questions were so paramount, at least for me … ultimately, the “why’s” far outweighed the “why not’s”. My decision became clear. And that decision – to volunteer in 2005 with lions and then again in 2015-16 with lions, dolphins and elephants – was the best one I have ever made in my life.
A few closing thoughts… In case you need a little persuading – here are a few reflections on what I gained from my volunteering:
- I got to see and do things few tourists ever get to see or do. Like eat authentic, homemade meals in the homes of local villagers – seeing them beam proudly as they laid bowl after bowl, platter after platter of deliciously foreign fare in front of us.
- I gained greater insight into local cultures… whether it was talking with a young boy in Zanzibar about village life or watching a little girl’s eyes light up as she successfully spelled out the word D-O-G in Zambia.
- I got to make a difference. I helped prepare materials to better educate locals about their environmental impact on dolphin populations, I fed and cleaned up after lions and I raised awareness – and continue to – about the challenging plight of elephants.
- I was able to commune with people on a level not possible for people simply passing through. On the last day of my dolphin volunteer project in Zanzibar, our young boat captain quietly pulled me aside, a heavy paper bag hidden behind his back. He then pulled out a beautifully carved wooden dolphin. He shyly looked down as he handed it to me, explaining that his friend had carved it from local Baobab trees (my favorite tree on earth, of course). I immediately teared up … but I held it together long enough to brush off my Swahili and thank him in a trembling voice (Asanta Sana Rama!!!). He then simply bowed his head and said in a soft voice, “I will miss you, madam.”
For more from Kathryn visit onwardvoyage.com