Today’s guest post comes from Sky, who left Pennsylvania at the age of 20 to travel around the world. She’s currently in Central America, volunteering her way from Costa Rica to Mexico. She blogs about volunteering abroad, learning Spanish, and solo travel through Central America. Follow her journey at SkyvsWorld.com
“Anacielo! Anacielo!” I barely register the sound before I am attacked by a group of first graders clinging to my legs and grabbing my hand. It’s been a year since I last saw them but they recognize me instantly, warming my heart. This is it, this is why I returned.
I first met this group of children the previous year when I joined a school volunteer trip to Guatemala. Though the trip lasted only ten days it was a life-changing experience of interacting with children from another culture, teaching, and painting the school. When the trip was announced the following year, I was the first to join.
Volunteering with these children gave me an opportunity to see a side of Guatemala I may have missed otherwise. While I was able to give something to them – a few words of English, some crayons and paper – they gave me so much more. As cliche as it may be, they opened my eyes to an entire new world.
Since then, volunteering while traveling has been a priority. I’m currently traveling through Central America spending a minimum of 3 months each in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala to volunteer with children.
Some of my most rewarding travel experiences have been the result of my volunteer projects. With the rise of voluntourism and guided international trips with a volunteer focus, more and more people are turning their attention to volunteering abroad.
Looking back on my experiences, it’s easy to see the allure of volunteering.
Volunteering allows you to see the country beyond the tourist trail. Most volunteer projects are in rural areas so you get to see how the locals live. Or, particularly if you’re working with animals, you get to have an experience that many never will, such as releasing turtles on the beach in Costa Rica or volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
When you volunteer you’re touching the lives of those around you. Whether you’re teaching, building a house, or working at an animal rescue center, your time and energy makes a difference.
Volunteering makes your time abroad feel more meaningful. I can assure you that while I enjoyed being a tourist in Guatemala, I enjoyed my days spent with the kids even more.
And, though it’s a selfish reason, volunteering feels good. Giving back feels good.
However, volunteering has its downsides – more often to those you are trying to help than to you.
Volunteering with children is a sticky subject. If you only have a short period of time, it’s not recommended. Children have a habit of getting attached quickly and while they may come to love you in only a few short days, it will take them longer to forget you. For children who have already been abandoned by family, this can have a particularly detrimental effect.
Sometimes places just don’t need volunteers. This was the case in Panama when my friends and I tried to volunteer at an after school program. There was nothing for us to do besides stand around and I felt our presence was more harmful than appreciated.
Other times organizations allow volunteers to help with jobs that locals could easily do. While it might feel good to build a house in Africa, you may well be taking a job away from a local. Sometimes the better solution is to donate the money to buy the supplies and provide jobs to those in the community.
This is not to say you shouldn’t volunteer – obviously that’s not the case! But, before signing on to a project take a few moments to consider how helpful you really will be and whether or not someone else could do the job. And, please, if you only have a week or two, find an alternative to volunteering with children.
For a great resource on volunteer ethics and great organizations across the globe, check out GrassrootsVolunteering.org.