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How To Prepare To Volunteer Abroad
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.
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.]