Volunteering and travels: stories of work opportunities (abroad or not)

posted in: 5 W's, Stories | 0

Volunteering (abroad or in our own town) can be done by anybody because, as I always say, there’s something to suit everybody’s wishes. Whatever is your passion, wherever your focus is, there’s always a chance to get involved. You can donate your skills, your knowledge or simply your time, it’s always worth it.

Since on this blog I mainly talk about my own experiences, you’ll mostly find what moves me from my comfort zone: poverty and children. Especially when these two meet.
But today I’d like to tell you something different to show you how diversified volunteering can be.

Volunteering wisely

When I say that volunteering is for everybody, I give for granted that people will use proper common sense. Sadly, sometimes passion and goodwill get abused and turned into a business that doesn’t do any good to neither the volunteers nor the communities. Do you remember the difference between volunteering and voluntourism? We talked about it some time ago. Veronica reminds us how important it is to choose the “right” project. A program that aims to support the beneficiary and not our own ego. That fits our skills and possibilities. That takes out the best of us for other’s good.

Choosing the “right” project
(by Veronica S.)

My boyfriend Daniele and myself volunteered for an NGO in Hanoi for 3 weeks. I had the desire to volunteer for a long time. It grew stronger when I started my studies and my first working experiences in humanitarian fields.
A volunteering trip abroad always scared me a little bit. Getting to know more and more how the non-profit world works helped me, this time, to make a conscious decision. It’s also been beautiful to share a part of myself with Daniele.

Volunteering can take on an international journey: here two volunteers pose in front of the rice terrace in Vietnam
Mixing tourism and volunteering to make the most out of the short time abroad.

It’s not been easy to choose a project that might be interesting for both of us. Eventually, we opted for the Vietnamese ONG CSDS (Center for Sustainable Development Studies), which works mainly on youth empowerment and sustainable development.

There were many areas we could have helped and we decided to take care of the back office. We were going to stay with CSDC for only 3 weeks and we thought that it would be better not to get involved with direct daily work with the children. When we arrived, we jumped in on some of their already running projects. For instance, we translated some documents into Italian, we did the research to write a project pitch and helped organize a self-esteem workshop for the youth that were following English classes organized by the organization.

The best experience during our volunteering time in Vietnam has been visiting a rural village. Here CSDS and other ONGs are working together to develop community tourism. We stayed 3 days in their homestay, sharing it with long term volunteers; we spent time, ate and danced with them. In just one month, they had set up many wells to bring water to the houses of the village. Those 3 days had been one of the most intense, emotional and (positively) incredible experiences ever. I talked about it in my post about volunteering in Vietnam (Italian only).

One of the well built by the volunteers in a rural Vietnamese village.-
Well in a Vietnamese village

Generally speaking, it’s been a beautiful experience because, besides spending the days with CSDS staff, we were living with other volunteers we really felt good with. One of the free weekends we went all together trekking in the rice fields of Sapa, in the north of Vietnam. We mixed volunteering with weekend trips, also adding a final week towards the south of the country when we ended our work with CSDS

If you have enough time to spend abroad, mixing up volunteering with travelling is a great opportunity to give back to the community that hosts you a little bit of what you receive. It’s also a good way to learn more about the population.
International volunteering, though, it’s a much more delicate topic than most can imagine. Even though many volunteers leave with the best intentions, their presence doesn’t always have a positive impact on the local situation. In the same way, it can happen that the organizer of international volunteering programs has secondary aims and is not necessarily thinking about the best outcome for the involved parties. I absolutely suggest everybody to volunteer, there are plenty of opportunities even close to where we live or online. And to those that would like to try an international volunteering travel out, I recommend studying the proposed project thoroughly. Look for information about it and make sure your impact will be a positive one for the final beneficiaries.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

There are long term volunteers, the ones called to do so; there are volunteers for a short time, like a holiday; and there are sabbatical volunteers. These last ones are those people that decide to take a breath and put everything else on pause. A time for reflection, for discovery, a test for a different life, maybe. Like Samanta, author of Hopeless Wanderer, who leaves everything behind and goes.

Volunteering as a change in life
(by Samanta B.)

There are decisions we take on instinct, without even realizing we are taking them. In April 2018, for instance, I left Germany behind, for a while at least, to do volunteering work. I had a couple of disappointing academic experiences and a safe but stagnant work in front of me. It was time to go. I invested some euros on a Workaway account and found an interesting contact in Portugal. In exchange for room and board, I would be working with animals in a residence that hosted families with disabled people. And there I go, with just a backpack I was ready to jump into a new adventure.

A volunteer cuddles a capybara in the protected field of the volunteering association
Highlight of the day: cuddle a capybara

In the south of Portugal, in Algarve, there’s the small village of Moncarapacho. There, I managed the animals living next to the resident, cleaning their yard and aviaries, preparing food, caring for them. Within a month I was in charge of all the other volunteers and the organization of the daily work.

After 5 months I left again and I moved to Catalonia, in Spain, to live with an Irish family, Sinéad and her husband James. They had started caring for street cats and abandoned animals a few years before. They offered them a roof and food on the porch of their colonial house. Slowly, more and more animals showed up and their project became so big they realized they needed help. When I arrived, I remember, there were 2 dogs, a sheep and about 20 cats. When I left them there were 2 more dogs and 2 more cats. The work here consisted of cleaning, providing food and other routine things to learn and take care of.

During both experiences, I had the chance to discover beautiful little towns and lovely villages in the regions where their projects were. In Portugal, I walked on the coastline and ventured to those little towns on the top of the dry hills. Except Albufeira, too touristic for my taste, I can proudly say I explored the entire Algarve! In Spain I managed to visit Barcelona multiple times, discovering little by little all its corners. I also had the chance to go to Tarragona and Sitges, beautiful cities that really deserve a visit.

Sometimes, this experience has been complicated: I didn’t speak any Portuguese and only a bit of Spanish. It happened that I had to talk with an elderly kind man that spoke only Catalan, for instance. But life out there was simple, frugal and minimalist. It was so different from what I used to call “home” before! When I went back to Berlin, ready to go back to my old life, I had to face daily things that somehow I didn’t recognize as mine anymore. Germany suddenly looked like a fiction creature from the future. Going back to previous habits took me time.

If you’re wondering if an international volunteering year gap is worth it, despite the unsafe future and the social pressure, I say: go for it. Do it for yourself and your future. In a way or another, believe me, you’ll come back different, maybe a better version of yourself and, with some luck, with your new vocation.

A volunteer hosts a cute friendly coati on top of her head
Befriend coatis: checked!

Graduate thesis, the good ones

Preparing this post, I looked far and wide for good tales, choosing different kind of experiences and interesting stories. And then one day a totally random answer to an article makes me discover that it’s possible to travel for volunteering even not going abroad. This is Laura. She participated in a project I didn’t even know volunteering for would be possible: the fight against mafia. Eco-mafia, specifically. I let her tell the story because she definitely knows way more than myself about this topic: she wrote her thesis about it!

Libera and eco-mafia
(by Laura)

I choose to volunteer with Libera – Associazioni, nomi e numeri contro le mafie, (Literally translated as Free – partnerships names and numbers against mafias) in 2015. I had just finished my bachelor degree with a thesis on eco-mafia. Before my research, I didn’t even know what eco-mafia was. I remember I read about this phenomenon in Roberto Saviano’s book “Gomorra” the year before.

After my graduation, I felt the desire to continue my commitment participating to a volunteering camp with Libera. Besides other initiatives, Libera organizes summer camps for children, teenagers and adults in buildings and lands confiscated from mafia families, bosses and, more in general, the entire organization. These camps called “E!State Liberi!” (an Italian word game between “free summer” and “stay free”) have two main goals. The first one is to give people the knowledge to be aware of what mafia has done in the territory. The second is to promote the social use of the properties once owned by mafia and now belonging to the community.

I chose to combine volunteering with beauty, opting for the spectacular Favignana, in Sicily, as my camp destination. During the week I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the local reality and listen to the testimonies of persons with a life story sadly linked to mafia. For instance, we met Margherita Asta, who has lost her mother and her siblings in the Pizzolungo mafia bombing, in 1985. Every day I was also busy with clean up and development of the territory not only of the ex mafia building, but also of public beaches.

 A volunteering travel doesn’t have to be abroad: a group of volunteers cleans a brach up in Favignana, where the water is crystal clear but the sand is full of rubbish
Libera summer camp volunteers in action

We participated in discussion groups about these difficult themes and situations, specifically related to the area of Favignana. I also had the chance to meet Don Ciotti, the founder of the organization and one of the main mafia opposers not belonging to public institutions.

Those 6 days of volunteering had been so full and packed with things to do that felt way more. Every day we cooked and ate together and, in the free time, we visited beautiful coves and swam in the crystal clear Sicilian sea.

I strongly suggest everybody to give Libera camps a try. It’s definitely a significant experience, you’ll see for yourself this still too present reality and you can go deep into its history. There’s no age limit and the cost is very low. Everybody can participate with a small but important contribution to the cause.

Group picture of the volunteers involved in a summer camp organized by Libera in Favignana
Libera volunteers in Favignana

A Mzungu in the south of Uganda

I know I said I would not have talked about children in this post, but I started laughing when I read about Valeria’s experience in Uganda! (Italian only). I came back from Uganda a few months ago and I 100% find myself in her words! Children touching your hair, overflowing classrooms, power cuts every time it rains (or even if it doesn’t!)… and then again the relationship between the Ugandans and the mzungu, the incredibly green south of the country and the mountain gorilla tracking I already told you about in another post. Many common experiences that made me remember and smile. Here is her tale: I hope it will make smile you too!

From back office to hands-on
(by Valeria S.)

My latest volunteering experience (and possibly the most significant) has been in 2018, in a small village in the south of Uganda. I’d already been a volunteer for Fondazione Mission Bambini (Foundation Mission Children) for quite some time. It distributes funds to projects in many different countries, especially for education and health programs. Up to that moment, I used to work in the headquarters, helping with collecting funds and writing reports about the projects. But I always said I would be ready to go out in the field too. Africa has always been my first choice. I have a deep connection with this continent and some kind of ancestral guilt feeling for how it’s always been treated by the western world.

International volunteering in Africa: a volunteer in a Ugandan class, with wooden desks and benches, children wearing school uniforms, sheets on the walls, notebooks and not much else.
A typical Ugandan class: many children wearing school uniforms

The project in the Kitanga community consists of a kindergarten and an elementary school. The complex developed around a church and his charismatic priest who participated in the writing of Ugandan constitution! It’s a private school and, as often happens in Africa, most of the children live in the compound. For many, in fact, it would be impossible to walk every day back and forth from home without affordable transportation. The children receive 3 meals every day, the youngest even 4. Thanks to the donations, the project can host children of those families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay the school fee.

The volunteers’ activity, first of all, is to check on the project on behalf of the foundation. The daily activities also include activities with the children: from organizing games to English classes, from sport hours to help with homework. The main goal is to promote a cultural exchange with the community that, being away from big towns, wouldn’t otherwise have any possibility to know what happens outside the village and the parish.

Adaptability is a very needed skill around here because hot water is not always available and there are plenty of power cuts. My cultural shock, though, has been mild. Almost everybody, children included, spoke some English and we were able to have decent conversations. The local staff tried to make us feel as comfortable as possible, very welcome guests. It can be tiring to be full time in the midst of these children: the classes, for instance, are very large, even 90 children each. And the little ones love the white guests so much that you constantly end up with 4 or 5 of them hanging from your arms. They want to touch your skin or comb your straight long hair. After hours at their mercy, in the evening I needed time alone to process the feelings of the past day.

An important matter to be prepared about before leaving for a volunteering trip in this area of the world is the undeniable imbalance between people. Whoever you meet there has very clear in his mind that you are a privileged, a mzungu, a white person. It’s difficult to deal with colleagues that ask you for gifts or favours. You are tempted to help but you know that dependency is not the way to establish proper relationships. You even feel used sometimes. But even these moments are useful for future reflections, discussion and to train an open mind.

My time in Kitanga gave me also the opportunity to discover a part of the country. I travelled during weekends and free time. Uganda is a very green place with a flourishing nature and Lake Bunyonyi is incredibly beautiful, worth a postcard picture. The best experience has been a dream in my bucket list that came true: I went trekking in Bwindi forest to see mountain gorilla in their habitat.

Pinterest image: international and “at home” volunteering travels: stories from the volunteers

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