Volunteering “isn’t a simple summer vacation alternative or an excuse to travel to an exotic locale. It’s work. You signed up for it, and you should put as much effort into it as if you were getting paid.”
These are my words from “Volunteer Voice: 10 Tips for Surviving the Transition.”
While it’s true volunteering shouldn’t be undertaken purely out of a desire to travel, or to fulfill any other personal whim, there are benefits in scheduling some “exploration days” during a volunteer placement.
A personal trip can actually enhance your volunteer experience, on both an individual and a professional level. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Take a break
Admit it: maybe you need a little break. No shame there.
Some volunteer assignments are more taxing than others. If you’re working in a shelter for abused women, a daycare for disabled children, or somewhere equally draining, periodic time off could well be essential to your sanity.
Even those who aren’t placed in high-tension environments can benefit from some R&R. Your org doesn’t want you to burn out any more than you do.
Taking a step back can remind you of why you decided to volunteer in the first place and how your actions are making a difference. Whether you use this time to travel or not doesn’t matter.
2. Further your cultural education
Learning about the history and culture of your temporary home is as vital for volunteers abroad as it is for travelers—probably more so.
In Bolivia, my travels around the country have shown me the differences in quality of life between city dwellers of Cochabamba and livestock ranchers up on the high, cold Altiplano.
Studying the War of the Pacific, and then seeing firsthand the land Bolivia lost during that conflict, has shed light on the country’s contemporary relations with Chile and Peru.
Visiting the vast, amenity-less rural expanse that is the birthplace of President Evo Morales has informed my understanding of his socialist platform and activist-style political maneuvering.
And of course, learning the language can’t be stressed enough. It’s what allows you to interact with, influence, and assist the locals, which is the whole point of volunteering. Travel gives you the chance to practice your verb tenses in real-world settings, beyond your comfort zone.
3. Support the economy
You spend more when you travel, and your money is spread more widely.
Tourism is a central industry in many regions popular with volunteers, and your support can have a positive impact.
Just make sure any tour operators you use demonstrate a commitment to giving back to their communities and adhering to socially and environmentally responsible standards.
Knowing your money is going where it’s needed can feel almost as good as volunteering itself.
4. Link to your project
Personal travel doesn’t have to mean a vacation from your volunteer work. Depending on what you’re doing, there may be a way to merge the two.
One of my current projects with the Cochabamba-based green energy developer Energética is the creation of a publication featuring interviews and photographs on the theme of energy in rural Bolivia.
I recently had the chance to take a 5-day tour of the country’s “Southwest Circuit.” Though heavily touristed, much of the population in this region is highly dispersed and quite poor.
During the tour, I talked to people—from village students to proprietors of tourist accommodations—about how energy, or the lack of it, affects their lives, and I’ll be including this material in my publication.
5. Research future opportunities
Volunteer opportunities are practically innumerable; all you have to do is find them. You may think you’ve landed the most rewarding gig in the world, but a trip to the other side of the country could uncover something you’re even better suited for.
Once you finish your original assignment, you can take that experience to a new post. You can bet they’ll be happy to have you.
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Hal Amen is managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.
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