Thinking of traveling abroad, but want to make an impact at the same time? Try volunteering! There are a lot of articles out there discussing the cons of voluntourism, but speaking from experience, it was one of the best times of my life. I lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for two months volunteering in a favela and below is what I would suggest considering if you’re thinking of volunteering abroad.
Pick the right program. Do your research.
One of the biggest critiques of voluntourism is that the work you do doesn’t actually benefit the community. That might be true if you volunteer to build a house without any construction skills to begin with. Choose a program that you know you have something to contribute to. Personally, I chose childcare as I have a lot of past experience working with kids, but there were several different programs to choose from – helping the community prepare for Carnaval, construction, sports/recreation, teaching English, environmental research, etc. The company I traveled with, works with nonprofits already existing in each country – that way, each organization is familiar with the community and knows what it is they need the most help with.
Pick a location that you want to fully immerse yourself in.
We learned to deal with the day-to-day issues of life in Brazil. We dealt with the morning commute just like the rest of the country, we figured out the right route, where all the unmarked stops are, and took the bus to work every day. Since my program was stationed at the top of a local favela, we had to hike up a mountain each morning after the bus to reach the school we were assigned to. We had to grocery shop each week and deal with the city drought just like every other home. We knew our neighbors, our local food stands, and how much a good bottle of cachaça should cost. A few of my roommates even got robbed at gunpoint. If you’re looking to only see the best of a country, this probably isn’t the best option for you. If you want to see a country for everything that it is, give it a shot.
Make the most of your time off.
The majority of your trip will likely be work, but on the weekends or the time off you’re given – explore! This is your chance to take trips to other parts of the country, to walk around and do the touristy things you’ve always wanted to see. Spend time with locals or your fellow volunteers. I lived in a house with 20+ other volunteers ranging from 18 to 65 year olds from all over the world. Build relationships with people you probably would not have met otherwise. Not only does the country make its mark on you, but the people you meet will too.
Expect that you’ll probably get more from them then they will from you.
Another common critique is the perpetuation of a “white savior” complex or the Western world coming to the rescue of developing nations. It’s important to remember that you should learn just as much from them as they are from you, if not more. The volunteers and the kids I worked with taught me a lot about myself, my values and my work ethic. It changes your entire worldview to see those with next to nothing live a happier life than yours back home. Your goal shouldn’t be to have these kids or residents remember you forever; your goal should be to give them something that they can then use to benefit themselves in the future. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Ashley is a perpetual traveler and film publicist living in Los Angeles. Follow her adventures on Instagram!