How To Prepare To Volunteer Abroad

Volunteering abroad is a worthwhile experience that allows you to help a community while really getting to know a culture. While rewarding, there is a lot of preparation, both physical and mental, that is necessary to get you ready for a volunteer vacation. To help you prepare, use the tips below.

Do Your Homework

Not all volunteer agencies are created equal. While some are scams, others are legitimate but charge astronomical fees. You’ll also want to look at what’s included in the price, and what type of accommodation you’ll be set up in. For example, when I volunteer I don’t like being put in a hotel. Instead, I prefer doing a homestay to get closer to the local culture. The volunteer placement board SE7EN does not use a middleman, so you’ll usually get to volunteer for free or very cheap, and stay with a family. Likewise, International Volunteer Headquarters, the company I always go through, offers affordable programs that include homestays and local activities. If you’d like to talk to someone knowledgeable in person before embarking on the trip, go with a global organization that has local chapters, like Habitat for Humanity.Connect With Past Volunteers

To get an idea of what to expect, it’s a good idea to connect with past volunteers. Ask them their opinion of the organization, what went well, what went wrong, what to expect and what to pack. For example, when I volunteered to teach English in Thailand, I had no idea what to bring, or how the project would be run. I used the organization’s Facebook page to find past volunteers, and learned about how lesson planning worked, what supplies to bring and that packing a roll of toilet paper was a must.

Apply For A Program That Fits Your Skills

To really make a difference, try to find a project where you can really utilize your skills. If you’ve studied medicine, help take care of sick children or do hospital work. If you’re good with kids or enjoy teaching, sign up for an orphanage project or teach English. And if you’re not sure where you’d be best placed, ask the organization you’re going through where the most help is needed.

Learn The Customs Of The Country

This is an important step that many travelers often overlook. You should never just show up in a country without researching the local customs. This is especially true when you’re representing a volunteer organization or staying with a family, because you don’t want to offend anyone. For instance, in Thailand it’s considered offensive to enter a room with shoes on, touch another person’s head or point your feet at someone. These are all things I do at home, so it was good to know beforehand. Likewise, punishments for certain offenses vary depending on where you are. For instance, while chewing gum is fine in Western countries, you can incur a hefty fine for doing this in Singapore.

Become Familiar With The Work You’ll Be Doing

Know beforehand what exactly you’ll be doing so you can efficiently prepare. If you know you’ll be working in an orphanage, bring some small toys to give to the children. Teaching English? Print out some worksheets and pack extra school supplies.

Find Out What The Dress Code Is

I made this mistake when teaching in Thailand. Although I knew I would be working in a rural village, I packed slacks and dress shirts, because I wanted to look professional. When I arrived, however, everyone was in baggy capris and T-shirts. If only I’d have found out beforehand, I could have saved myself the trouble of having to ship clothing home and buy new outfits.


Whether you put the money towards your program costs or donate it straight to the organization you’re helping, fundraising is worthwhile. If you have the time, try planning a benefit dinner, concert or sporting event. Moreover, you could try to piggyback on an event that’s already going on, and ask for a cut of the profits. Selling food, leaving a donation can at your local pizza place, having a social media contest or holding a meetup are other effective ways to fundraise.

Get In The Right Mindset

One thing to remember is that there will be culture shock. You’ll not only be experiencing a new culture, but also seeing things that aren’t easy to look at, like hungry children or wounded animals. Additionally, you’re probably not going to be able to change everything while you’re there. Mentally prepare yourself beforehand, and remind yourself that every little bit of aid helps to move things in the right direction.

[images via Svadilfari, Intropin, Jessie on a Journey, J.J.]

10 Volunteer Programs For Budget Travelers

Pay to volunteer? While many people assume volunteering is always free, going abroad to participate in community service projects often costs money. I realized this the first time I volunteered abroad teaching English in Thailand. After doing weeks of research, I found there are a lot of companies charging a small fortune ‒ sometimes thousands of dollars ‒ to have travelers come over and spend their time helping other communities.

Every program is different. Some are completely free but offer no housing or meals. Others may charge a program fee but set you up with accommodation and a local chef. Sometimes programs will also include orientations, airport pickup, language courses, cultural activities and 24/7 support. Keep in mind what you want to get out of your experience while browsing the following list of budget-friendly international volunteer programs.


WWOOFing is one of the best networks to use for having a worthwhile volunteer experience on a budget. The acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and allows volunteers to browse countries from all over the world to choose an organic farming project that most interests them. In exchange for labor, volunteers usually receive room, board and the chance to experience a culture from a local point of view. Opportunities can be anything from strawberry picking to working with animals to harvesting grapes on a vineyard and making wine. By participating in these types of projects, you’ll be contributing to positive ecotourism and helping to create a healthier planet.SE7EN

SE7EN is a free and low-cost volunteer opportunity network. Their focus is on social and environmental projects from around the world. What makes this option so affordable is that the middleman is cut out, as SE7EN simply lists the projects on their site and allows you to contact hosts directly. Usually, room and board is either provided or very cheap. Some project examples include:

International Volunteer Headquarters

I’ve used International Volunteer Headquarters many times and highly recommend them. Their placements are very reasonably priced, and are especially great for people who have never volunteered abroad before, as full-time support, an orientation and airport pickup are included. Instead of putting you in a fancy hotel, they allow you to stay with local families and in local villages to really get to know the culture and help the people. Furthermore, certain recreational activities are often included in the price. Their programs, which generally include room and board, are located all around the world and range from about $200-$2,300, depending how long and where your program is. Some placement examples include:

Peace Corps

If you’re really interested in doing community service abroad, have a couple years to spare and want to earn some money; Peace Corps may be for you. There are placements in 75 countries, and volunteers get the chance to work with a community in need for 27 months. The Peace Corps’ mission is to “promote world peace and friendship,” and areas of focus for programs include: health, education, youth and community development, business and information, and communications technology, environment and agriculture. What’s great about going overseas with Peace Corps is they provide you with language, cross-cultural, and technical training, so it can be great for your resume. There are also a lot of benefits, like possible deferment or partial cancellation of your student loans, a monthly stipend and $7,245 payment once the project is completed, free flights to and from the country, vacation days, free medical and dental care during the project and affordable health insurance for 18 months after. It’s more like having a very proactive job than the usual volunteer experience, and you won’t have to pay any kind of fees to participate.


VAOPS is a directory of free and low-cost volunteer opportunities, which allows you to save money by cutting out the middleman. Because everyone has different needs and wants, their programs vary in price, style, and what’s included. Some examples include:

United Nations

The United Nations is one of the most famous organizations in the world for helping communities in need and working to keep moral responsibility in check. What some people may not know is along with their staffed projects, they also host a volunteer program called United Nations Volunteers (UNV). Volunteers usually work for six to 12 months and can choose from placements in about 130 countries. Projects focus mainly on human rights, agriculture, education, health, information and communication technology, community development, popular, industry and vocational training. It’s free to volunteer with the United Nations and you’ll also be given a monthly stipend, medical insurance and annual leave.

Volunteer South America

Want to volunteer in one of the most naturally beautiful continents in the world? Volunteer South America is designed with backpackers and budget-travelers in mind. There are no middleman or agency fees associated with the programs, making them drastically cheaper than many others that exist. Although room and board will not always be included, being able to choose how you will live and eat for yourself can help you save a lot money, especially if you opt for a homestay. Some projects available include:


While a bit more competitive than some of the other programs, Winrock places volunteers in diverse programs all around the world and even pays for airfare. When a volunteer position opens up, Winrock places the most qualified individual in the program. Some of their current volunteer opportunities include:


UBELONG offers one week to six-month volunteer opportunities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. While not free, their programs are very affordable and offer all accommodation and meals, orientation, 24/7 support and project supervision. There are also recreational and cultural activities included to help volunteers get to know the country better. Prices for placements range from $250 for two weeks in Peru to $4,320 for six months in the Galapagos, although most six month placements average around $2,300. Some program examples include:

Katelios Group

Located in Greece, the Katelios Group works to help sea turtles. The main objective of the group is to “protect the natural environment on the island of Kefalonia, Greece.” There is no program fee to participate, although room and board is not included. The organization does work to provide volunteers with low-cost accommodation and suggests that participants cook meals together to save money. To give you an idea of how much you will spend, accommodation is usually about $200-$250 per month, while food is normally about $40 per week.

Tips for teaching English abroad without speaking the local language

When people hear I spent a summer teaching English in Thailand, they often assume I speak fluent Thai. The truth is, you don’t need to be fluent in the local language to teach English abroad. I’m not saying that it doesn’t help, however, it isn’t necessarily required, as the goal is creating an environment of English-language immersion.

Teaching English is a great experience for all parties involved, and if it’s something you’re interested in doing you shouldn’t let fear of not speaking the local language fluently hold you back. Not only will you get the chance to have an eye-opening experience and get a unique perspective of the culture, you’ll also be helping educate children and getting the chance to share your unique background with them.

To help you get the most of your experience teaching English abroad, here are some tips.

Figure out if you want to get paid or volunteer

When I taught English in Thailand, I volunteered with an affordable organization called International Volunteer Headquarters. Basically I paid a small fee which included having 24/7 support, accommodations, meals, school supplies, and cultural activities like elephant trekking and a weekend homestay experience. A portion of the money also went toward benefiting the local community. You can also search through the SE7EN database for free and low-cost opportunities. The truth is, there are a lot of expensive volunteer programs out there for this kind of project, and while many of them are reputable, there’s really no need to spend a fortune to volunteer, especially if you want a truly local experience.

If you’re looking to teach English long-term and want to get paid for your work, I would recommend signing up for a TEFL, TESOL, or CELTA course, as many schools require that you have a certification. While it’s not impossible to get a job without one, you’ll have less choices in the positions you can apply for. Some excellent resources for these kinds of jobs include Dave’s ESL Cafe, ESL JOBS, and Teaching Opportunities Abroad.Educate yourself before you go

Whether you’re teaching English or just traveling, doing a bit of research on the culture before you go is always important. Knowing the etiquette and customs of a community will help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes or possibly offending somebody. Even little things that you may do on a daily basis at home may not be acceptable in other countries. For example, in Thailand sitting with your legs extended out in the direction of another person, touching someone’s head, handing something to someone with your left hand, and raising your voice are all considered offensive. These are things you’ll definitely want to know before arriving to the school you’ll be teaching at.

Understand cultural differences

While certain teaching tactics may work at a school in your hometown, they may not work where you’re teaching English abroad. Certain methods not only may not work, but can also be detrimental to the child’s learning. For example, in my New York high school it wasn’t really a big deal to have a teacher crack a joke about their students or poke fun at them, and while getting yelled at by an instructor was never fun, it wasn’t something that would scar you for life. However, this is not the case all over the world. For example, in Thailand and many Asian countries where “saving face” is of utmost importance, being called on by a teacher and not knowing the answer to the question can be crippling, especially if the teacher yells or loses their patience. What I would often do was have the children work in small groups and then go around to speak with them individually.

Learn some basic phrases

While you don’t need to be fluent in the local language, it doesn’t hurt to know some basic phrases and be able to make small talk. This is true whether you are teaching English or just traveling. While you’ll want to immerse the students in an environment of only English speaking, it’s inevitable that there will be side conversations in the local language, and sometimes giving them short commands in their language and then translating to English can be helpful.

Be prepared

This is one of the most important rules of all. Always make sure to plan out your lessons the night before, knowing what you want to teach as well as how you will teach it. Practice and time out the lessons so that you can feel confident when teaching and will have enough material to take up the entire class period. It can also be helpful to see what other classes before you have done if that information is available.

Visual aids are helpful

Remember that words aren’t the only resource you have to get your point across. Obviously, if a student doesn’t know what a “slide” or a “pineapple” is in English, showing them a picture and saying the word is a helpful tool. I also found charades and acting words out to be useful and fun, although be mindful that cows don’t say “moo” and cats don’t say “meow” all over the world.

Tailor lessons to the age group

Think about what kind of information will be helpful to the group, and the best ways to impart your knowledge. While coloring in letters and pictures and doing crafts may be a worthwhile lesson activity for young children, this will not help children at the higher levels trying to learn networking and job skills. Moreover, remember that the older the students are, the more grammar, sentence construction, and conversational lessons you will need to be utilizing, as teaching English is not just about vocabulary.

Use online resources

If you’re stuck on how to make a lesson plan effective and fun, utilize the myriad online resources there are for ESL teachers. Some of my personal favorites include California State University, Northridge, Total ESL, and Reach to Teach.

Be confident in your abilities

You were selected for this position because you’re a native English speaker. Be confident in your abilities and know that you have the knowledge and resources necessary to do the job; the trick is simply finding effective ways to disseminate it.

10 tips for doing a homestay

Doing a homestay in another country is a great way to get to know the culture from a first-hand perspective. By living with a family, you get to see how a local’s daily life is, from what they eat, to how to they dress, to what their before-bed ritual is. With such a unique opportunity being given to you, it’s important to get the most out of the experience while also being respectful. To help, here are some tips on how to enjoy a successful homestay.

Try new foods

When I did a homestay in Ghana, Africa, there were many meals that I was less than thrilled about. As a health-nut, I never would have made fried chicken a normal part of my diet, and eating (or drinking) rice water for breakfast left me less than satisfied. However, instead of getting upset about the food situation think about how much effort your host is putting into making your stay with them pleasant by spending time cooking for you and letting you stay in their home. Thank your host for every meal, even if you don’t like it. And if there’s something you really can’t stomach, find a way to make it edible. With rice water, I learned to add chocolate powder and stir it into the mix. Moreover, to help myself feel better about eating fried foods I began going for morning runs, which also gave me the opportunity to see the village market stalls being set up in the morning, something I usually would have slept through.Dress appropriately

While it may be okay to walk around your own home in your underwear or short shorts, think about how it might make others feel. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and even if they don’t say it makes them uncomfortable, it probably does, so just make sure to cover up. Also, in certain cultures showing your shoulders and knees is inappropriate, so just be aware of a culture’s etiquette.

Help out

Because this person/family is allowing you to live in their house, it is respectful to help out. That doesn’t just mean doing your dishes and making your bed; offer to do everyone’s dishes, help cook a meal, sweep the floor, or go to town and get groceries. It’s a nice gesture to the host as well as a unique way to learn about the culture and what it’s like to perform an everyday task.

Keep an open mind

While you probably realize the culture is different in terms of what you will be eating, bathroom habits, and house design, there are sometimes more drastic contrasts that you should be prepared for. When I did a homestay in Thailand, I remember at first having a little bit of a hard time getting used to the squat toilets, bucket showers, and always having frogs and lizards in the bathroom with me as I changed my clothes. What really took me off guard was one night when we were having chicken for dinner seeing my host mother literally chop a live chicken’s head off. Of course, you know it happens, but it’s definitely a little off-putting to see it first hand. There were a lot of adjustments for me in Ghana, as well. Once or twice a week, my host would have a prayer group over at 3AM to sing hymns until 6AM, which meant once or twice a week I didn’t get to sleep. While it bothered me at first I began to go watch the group sing and tried to make it into a learning experience. Remember, you won’t be here forever, so try to open yourself up to as many unique learning opportunities as possible.

Be conservative

While this could mean how you dress, it also means in general. While you may be used to taking hour-long hot showers while leaving all of the lights on and scarfing a bag of Doritos at home, you’ve got to remember you’re now living on someone else’s dime. Moreover, it is also possible that the area your homestay is in doesn’t have the natural resources that your home town does, so try to conserve as best as you can. In Achiase, Ghana, the town would turn on the taps for about 3 hours per week, and everyone would rush to fill up as many buckets with water as possible so that we could wash dishes, do laundry, and take bucket showers during the week. While it may not be the easiest thing to get used to, you’ll come to learn that showering and doing laundry every single day isn’t a necessity.

Spend time with the host

Don’t think of your homestay as a budget-friendly alternative to a hotel. Instead, get to know your host and form a relationship. Not only is it more respectful, it’s also very rewarding. It’ll give you the chance to gain a better understanding of life in the city as well as the opportunity to do activities that you may not have otherwise gotten the chance to do. In Ghana, I got the opportunity to attend church with my host mom. While I could have done this on my own, it was a whole different experience going with a local congregation member, and the pastor even had an interpreter sit next to me. I also got the chance to play soccer with the local team in Achiase because I would go running with my host brother in the morning. This was something I never would have been able to do if I had kept to myself, and it gave me a first-hand account of team interactions and sports in the country.

Learn something

The best part about traveling to another country is immersing yourself in the culture and learning everything you can. Partaking in a homestay is a great first step to doing this and the perfect opportunity to learn something. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact. If you see your host cooking, ask them what they are making and if you can have the recipe. If you like your host sibling’s clothing, ask them what it’s made of and what the local fashion is like. Help them with their school work and see what they are being taught. Depending on how close you get with the host and what the cultural norms are, you can even learn about more personal topics like community issues, relationships, and gender roles, which leads me to my next point.

Learn cultural norms before you go

If you know that talking about religion or the government is taboo in a culture, don’t ask about it. That being said, I’ve done homestays in places where I was told a topic was off-limits yet became close with a family member and was able to have these touchy conversations; however, I allowed them to bring up the issue. In Ghana, the locals were very open to talking about everything, and would actually take me off guard with the questions they would ask. That being said, I got to learn a lot about dating norms, marriage proposals, government corruption, religious beliefs, diet regimes, and the religious structuring in the schools.

Learning the cultural norms goes farther than what you say; it also includes gestures, clothing styles, and rituals. For example, I researched Thailand before doing my homestay there and learned that it is rude to sit with your feet sticking straight out. This is something I do all of the time at home, especially if I’m eating while sitting on the floor, and was so grateful to have been given this information beforehand as all of our meals were taken on the living room carpet.

Teach something

While you want to learn about the culture from your host family, they are most likely excited to learn more about your culture, as well. Bring photos from home of your friends, family, places you go, foods you like, your neighborhood; anything that you think someone who has never been to your city might want to know about. You can also teach them recipes, games, songs, dances, art skills, and other fun activities that you think might be interesting.

Exchange contact information

After your homestay is complete, you shouldn’t just leave and drop off the face of the Earth. Most likely, you’ve established some kind of connection with these people, and even if you haven’t, they were still nice enough to host you. Once you return home, a follow-up thanking them for their kindness is appropriate. Moreover, if you took photos your host family will probably be interested in seeing them. During both my Thailand and Ghana homestays I was living with families who didn’t own cameras. I took photos of them and their families and the community and mailed them over for them to have for themselves. For both families, it was the first photos they’d ever owned, and both told me that the gift meant a lot.

Bound South: 3 brothers cycle from Alaska to Argentina to raise money for charity

Every once in awhile, I read something really inspirational that makes me see the real potential of society. After learning about the Berg brother’s bike ride from Anchorage, Alaska, to Patagonia in Argentina, to raise money to build a house for the Lake Agassiz Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, I knew it was one of those times.

Since August 11, 2011, Nathan Berg, 24, Isaiah Berg, 22, and David Berg, 19, have been cycling over the Pan-American Highway, living on $10 a day by buying donuts on sale and covering then in peanut butter. The boys are aiming to raise $60,000, enough to build one house for a person in need. Their goal is to cross the border of Mexico by late November and make it to Argentina by May.

While this particular ride was inspired by the boys’ sense of adventure, they are being fueled by their desire to help others. They also aim to document a trek full of beautiful and moving landscapes as well as off-the-beaten path travel. The kindness of strangers has also helped them along the way, including an inspired group of elementary school children from their home state of North Dakota writing them letters, people offering a place to sleep, or being given a generous meal.

So, what sets this charity ride apart from the others? On their Bound South Facebook Page, the boys write:

“Many charity rides spend a great deal on various amenities and promotional efforts. We wanted something different. Bound South is a rugged journey of reflection, a fully self-supported trek across some of the most inhospitable places in the Americas. Supporting our cause allows you to become a part of our story. Every dollar you donate will go directly to Habitat for Humanity to build a home.”

For more information on their trek, or to donate to their cause, visit their blog, Bound South.