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The mere mention of a vacation is enough to bring a smile to your face. But what if your vacation could bring smiles to other people’s faces too? What if your vacation allowed you to build not just a basket of happy memories but also helped your personal growth? Look no further, ‘voluntourism’ is the answer.
Whether you are a fresh-out-of-school 18-year-old or a 40-year-old looking for a new meaning to life, volunteer travel can be an immensely satisfying and enriching experience for everyone.
More and more youngsters are opting to take a break before they head for higher studies to go on volunteering trips, according to ‘Weltwaerts’, a program by the German government to encourage 18- to 28-year-olds without expert skills to support projects in developing countries for six to 24 months.
Weltwaerts has partnered with 270 recognized organizations such as the American Field Service (AFS), a non-profit international exchange organization operating in over 100 countries.
When Weltwaerts started in 2008, about 2,200 volunteers signed up in Germany that year. The number of volunteers swelled to about 3,800 in 2016, of which more than two-thirds were female. Volunteers were especially keen on projects in India, South Africa, Peru, Bolivia and Tanzania.
Before you start scribbling plans in your ‘good deeds book’, be mindful of the fact that choosing the right organization is very important. A wrong choice could prove to be a waste of time in the best-case scenario and land you in trouble in the worst case.
We got three young volunteers to share their experiences with us and give us tips on how to be good.
Sile volunteered for a month at an orphanage in Nepal through the Rural Community Development Program Nepal (RCDP-Nepal), a non-profit volunteer organization. Before she chose the project, she did extensively online research, even reading reviews from former volunteers at the project. Projects and organizations recognized or backed by governments tend to be safer than private ones. Do check the credentials of the organizations before signing up.
For Sile, the experience was an eye-opener. “You look at poverty like you have never seen before,” she says. “It changes you as a person if you go to poor countries.” Although Sile knows that it’s difficult to make a lasting difference with such short stints, she believes every contribution counts.
And yes, she plans to go back. “Next time, I will go as a doctor after my medical school,” she finishes.
Julia, who loves working with children and animals, went with a private organization to Chile. “I wanted to improve my Spanish, get to know new cultures and work with children or animals,” she recalls. Julia paid a rather high amount for registration and contact with a guest family in Chile but once she landed there, there was no way for her to get in touch the organization for further assistance.
Luckily, Julia spoke Spanish and managed to get around quite easily. But she warns that things could get rough for those who do not speak the local language or know anyone locally, should an emergency arise. Here, travel insurance can come to your rescue, with 24/7 hotlines and multilingual specialists there to help you deal with a range of problems from medical emergencies to trip interruption and lost baggage.
Julia not only helped disabled kids ride horses for ‘riding therapy’ but also volunteered at a home for stray dogs. “The experience helped me improve my language skills, make friends with young Chileans and it also made me stronger,” she says.
After finishing school, Jakob signed up for a project supported by Weltwaerts in Kasese, Uganda. Between August 2013 and March 2014, he taught schoolchildren and helped build a well. Weltwaerts paid for Jakob’s flight and vaccinations and gave him free accommodation and even some pocket money. But adversity visited him in the form of an illness. “In countries like Uganda, you should know that sooner or later you will get sick. I contracted malaria. Fortunately, I had bought international health insurance beforehand. So I didn’t end up spending out of my pocket for treatment.”
Homesickness is another thing you need to mentally prepare for. But Jakob has no regrets. He worked alongside roughly 35 people in a small school with 50 children and lent a hand in building a well at a farm, an experience that contributed to his career decision. “I decided to study geo-resources management, which is what I am doing now.” The trip also taught Jakob the value of mindful consumption. “There, you have to think about things that you don’t have to in developed countries like Germany. If you want water, you have to fetch it from a well. Making tea is also quite an effort with patchy electricity connection.”
Still, he plans to go back someday to visit his team in Uganda again.
Matthias Eckert, the co-founder of Salzburg, Austria-based travel and volunteering company Karmalaya, has seen an increase in the number of not just 20-somethings but also 40-plus volunteers.
“We see a growing number of people in their 40s who want to take sabbaticals and search for a new meaning in their lives. Finding the right projects for these volunteers is important for both sides to gain from the partnership,” he says.
Karmalaya focuses on projects in Nepal, Uganda and Indonesia. One of its projects - ‘Kaliare’ – enables women in Uganda to produce and sell jewelry online. Its ‘KALiiS life changing leadership program’ allows managers to support social entrepreneurs in Nepal, Uganda and Mexico. The company matches volunteers to the right initiatives depending on their goals.
Tourism and altruism, voluntourism mixes the best of both worlds. Take that enriching trip.
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