Who to Go With
You can volunteer on your own, with a friend or family member, or on team-based projects with people you either do or do not know. Sometimes the choice is down to you but sometimes it is up to your sending agency. Some organizations prefer to place you either on your own or in pairs. Rachel Oxberry volunteered in Ecuador on her own and is a strong advocate of going solo: I went alone which I feel helped me get the most out of my experience. I had to immerse myself fully in the culture and language and work out how to deal with very challenging situations. I was often out of my comfort zone which made me much stronger as a person. Poonam Sattee, who volunteered in Guatemala, agrees: I went by myself and that worked out fine. Initially, until I made friends, it was an isolating experience, but after the first two months, I felt very settled. The pros of going by yourself are that you are much more independent and your Spanish will take off. It helps you take more initiative and I think you are more likely to make local friends as opposed to relying on your group or partner. The cons: the initial stages of settling in can be quite tough, but apart from this my experience worked out well. If you choose to volunteer alone, you will usually make friends pretty quickly when you arrive at your placement. But if your placement is an isolated one then your options may be limited. This is what Sharon Baxter experienced when she taught in Tibet
The thought of volunteering with a friend can give you more confidence, particularly before you leave home and just after you arrive. But in some cases, it can mean that making other friends is not as easy as it would be if you were on your own. In Linda Walsh’s experience, it didn’t make much difference to her stay in Brazil: I went with a friend but we did different work. There were obvious advantages in this – we supported each other, especially when we were living out at the farm with no one else around. When we were back in Rio with lots of other volunteers it didn’t make any difference as we worked different hours and had different friends. Overall, it was good to have a friend along, but not necessary. Volunteering with a partner is a popular option for long-term volunteers and has its own set of advantages and disadvantages (see the boxed text opposite written by Deborah Jordan and David Spinney on volunteering with your partner). Sometimes you can volunteer with children, too. It’s uncommon at this stage but is a growing trend. Jo Morgan volunteered with a monde challenge and taught in the Indian Himalayas with her seven-year-old son, Liam. She admits:
Do You Have What it Takes?
A good sense of humor. Lots of patience. An open mind – particularly to new ways of working, cultural norms, values, and traditions. An ability to speak the language – if you are learning the language as you go along, it can be frustrating for you and the people you work with if you spend more time trying to understand what has been said than getting stuck into work. Also important are enthusiasm, initiative, and dependability (the more you show the more responsibility you will be given). Patience is a quality that comes up time and time again. Jacqueline Hill, who volunteered in Bangladesh, had to find plenty of patience, along with some other key qualities: Flexibility and adaptability are key. These are the qualities that I developed hugely while I was away. Also important are appropriate self-confidence, the ability to work with others and not only accept, but make the most of, differences in approaches and ways of working. You need to build relationships too, often without the help of a common language. I found I had to ‘switch off’ quite a lot to generate the patience needed to get everyday things done. Everything took so much longer and was so much more complicated than at home – particularly anything to do with officialdom. Another thing I learned in Bangladesh was to ask for help. The ability to listen and think are much more important than telling other people what to do or rushing in and doing things.
To recap, here are the key questions to ask all the organizations you may be interested in volunteering with. Depending on their answers, you can then make your choice: ~ Organisation What are your aims and objectives? Are you a charity, not-for-profit organization, or limited company? How long have you been established? What are your policies on ecotourism and ethical tourism and how are they implemented? ~ Selection process What are your selection criteria and processes? Will the interview be in person? What is the average age of volunteers? If I am working with children or vulnerable adults, will I need to have a criminal records clearance? ~ The programs Do you work with local partner programs? If so, how many partner programs do you currently work with? How many of these partner programs have you worked with for more than three years? How do I know I’ll be working on a worthwhile, sustainable project that is needed by a local community? How will my work be continued after I leave? How many volunteers do you place annually? What job will I be doing and can you give me a brief job description? How do I know that my volunteering won’t take a paid job away from a local person? What is the time frame of the volunteer project I’ll be working on? What hours will I work? Will I need to speak?