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.]

LivingSocial offers first volunteer vacation to New Orleans

LivingSocial, the site that brings you discount deals on everything from microdermabrasions to movie tickets, has been offering travel deals as part of its LivingSocial Escapes branch since Fall 2010. Today, the company announced its first volunteer vacation opportunity – a curated trip to help Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.

For $265, travelers who want to do a little good while they visit the Big Easy will get a two-night stay for two in the French Quarter; one full day of volunteering on-site with Habitat for Humanity; transportation to the work site; and some meals. Reservations are available Monday through Friday (sorry, no weekend getaway!) and there are blackout dates every month through the deal’s expiration on December 31, so check the fine print before booking. The Big Easy Volunteer Vacation must be purchased before August 30, 2011.

The timing for the LivingSocial Escapes deal is impeccable: this week marks the sixth anniversary since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, devastating the city of New Orleans as well as wide swathes of coastline from Louisiana to Florida. While New Orleans has seen quite a rebirth since Katrina, as witnessed by Gadling’s Paul Brady this summer on his Traveling the American Road trip, the need for volunteers in the recovery effort remains. This volunteer weekend jaunt may be just the opportunity to give back while experiencing one of America’s great cities.

[Photo credit Madeline Fox on Flickr]

Planeterra Foundation gives sight to the blind in Tibet

Tibet is one of the most visually stunning places on Earth, but many Tibetans can’t see it.

Blindness is a serious problem in the developing world. Poverty and lack of rural health care means that millions of people around the world go blind because of easily curable maladies such as cataracts.

One of the organizations fighting to stop curable blindness is the Planeterra Foundation, which recently announced a fund raiser and a video contest. For the past two years Planeterra has set up eye clinics in rural Tibetan villages and performed hundreds of surgeries.

“Tibet has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world. Most of this blindness is due to cataracts, a disease associated with aging but also prevalent among children and the working class. Many are unable to reach a hospital because of poverty and lack of transportation. With scattered populations spread across great distances, surgical eye camps are the most efficient way to treat the high rate of disease,” said Planeterra director Richard Edwards.

Such clinics are very cost effective. A donation of $50 pays for cataract surgery, so if you’ve enjoyed the beauty of the Himalayas, this is a good way to give back.

If you’re handy with a video camera, check out the “Her Sight Is Worth It.” video contest sponsored by Planeterra‘s partner Seva Canada. Young, aspiring filmmakers will create a short videos about vision impairment and gender, with the grand prize winner getting a new MacBook. Three winning videos will be screened at the World Community Film Festival and be honored by having sight restored to one girl and one woman in their name.

Planeterra believes in responsible travel and through its parent company Gap Adventures runs “Voluntours” where travelers can help out in schools in Zambia, study sea turtles in Costa Rica, or assisting street children in Peru. All Voluntours include several days of sightseeing too. Planeterra and Gap Travel are co-winners of the 2009 Responsible Travel and Tourism Forum (RTTF) Leadership Award presented by Baxter Travel Media and Air Canada.

Having trekked around a lot of different countries, I’ve seen many, many people stuck in sightless poverty because they can’t afford such a cheap and simple operation. Luckily Planeterra and Seva Canada aren’t the only folks out there tackling the problem. A number of agencies are fighting blindness. When I went to the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India, in 2001, there was one guru who had set up a free eye clinic and performed hundreds of cataract surgeries. It must have felt like a miracle for the patients to have their sight restored at Hinduism’s holiest festival.


Make a difference in December (in warm Costa Rica)

Those of you living in southern states, granted, may not feel the need to disappear when the December winds start to blow. I hear it all around me in New York every winter: it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s awful. Frankly, I dig winter, but I realize I’m in the minority, especially when the temperatures hit rock bottom. And New York’s got nothin’ on the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine. Well, if you yearn for a warm place when the frigid temperatures hit, Holiday Project 2009 will make you warm on the outside and on the inside.

For nine days, you can soak up the sun in Costa Rica with Tropical Adventures. Raft down a river, feel unfettered freedom on a zip line and make a difference in a local community. This new program costs $1,595 (for adults, $985 for kids) and includes all on-the-ground transportation, two nights at a hotel in San Jose, four nights with a host family in Puerto Viejo and two nights on the indigenous reservation. You’ll mingle with local children and seniors at three holiday parties and take three adventure tours. It’s a packed itinerary that includes thrills and a chance to make the world a better place.

So, when you start to plan your winter escape, maybe you can mix in a bit of holiday goodwill. The trip runs from December 19 – 27, 2009, and you have to book by November 30.

Voluntourism in Costa Rica doesn’t have to be expensive

Tropical Adventures is making it pretty easy for travelers to save the world. The company’s new Cultural Encounter Package offers a six-night/seven-day package at a steep discount of 45 percent. The first two nights are at the historic Hotel Don Carlos, with the other four in the Bamboo Cultural Center’s rustic accommodations in the Talmanaca Indigenous Region. The package includes all meals and some snacks, as well as upgraded transfers to all locations.

Once in Costa Rica, you can take advantage of volunteering opportunities at an elementary school, retirement home and indigenous cultural center. Also, a five-hour local farm tour is available, where you’ll get the chance to see exotic and unusual frogs, birds and butterflies, among other animals.

Based on double-occupancy, the trip costs $899, and the package is good through the last day of February next year.