I have always been a volunteer. When I was in elementary school, I would walk to the local library after class and spend hours shelving and organizing books. I hosted bake sales and other fundraisers and all but single-handedly funded their young adult section in my early teen years. I was a member of the local Leo Club and always involved in some community activity, whether it was participating in Christmas for Kids or making blankets for the homeless.
In high school, I set my sites a little higher and organized a book event with over 20 authors to raise money for libraries, several years in a row. Then I turned my attention internationally when I made my first trip to Guatemala to help out at a school.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about volunteering – that it’s not always good (but it’s not always bad) and that there are plenty of things to consider before choosing a volunteer placement. I will be writing more about this later but, in the meantime, I suggest utilizing Grassroots Volunteering and this book.
When I decided to travel to Central America was never a doubt that I would be volunteering. At this point, it’s in my blood – it’s what I do. That alone is reason enough for me, however, here are a few more reasons I’ll be volunteering.
Cultural Immersion – I wholeheartedly believe that volunteering is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a culture. Work next to those you are helping and put yourself in their shoes. You will see life in ways you would not otherwise have the opportunity to.
Encourages slow travel. Volunteering encourages slow travel as most reputable organizations require a minimum commitment of 6 weeks-3 months. I try to travel slowly in general but I often get caught up in city-hopping as well (which is fun at times). When I volunteer, slow travel is the only option – it forces me to slow down and truly immerse myself in the area I am working.
Provides opportunity to develop relationships. A popular travel tip always seems to be “make friends with locals”. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. After all, how many strangers in your town do you invite for dinner? When you volunteer and work side-by-side with the locals, you are engaging in organic relationship development. It provides a true opportunity to know others, to see others frequently, engage in their day-to-day life. The people you volunteer with are the people who become your foreign families, the friends you stay in touch with beyond your stay abroad.
Keeps costs down. One of the biggest reasons I volunteer is to keep the costs down. I purposely seek out volunteer placements with no volunteer fee and one that charges a reasonable room and board fee. For example, both my placement in Honduras and my placement in Nicaragua offer housing at less than $50 per week. Food is available at local markets and will amount to only a few dollars a day. My expenses, altogether, will average $300 or so a month. This, of course, excludes any major activities or excursions but how else can you spend $300 a month for full room and board?
I don’t want to be a tourist. This is my main reason for volunteering, beyond the fact I just want to give back. When I travel, I want to take a look beyond the what everyone else sees. I want to experience life in other cultures and immerse myself as much as possible and I think this is one of the best ways to do so without completely moving to a foreign country. It can also help provide an idea of whether or not I would want to live in that country, as is the case with me and Guatemala.
Above all, volunteering is in my blood. Volunteering abroad was just something I always assumed I would do and I know it’s going to enrich my trip and allow me new experiences in ways that attraction-hopping never would.