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Why Travelers Should Volunteer in Their Hometowns

by Jake Reed Apr 2, 2013

If you asked me where I most wanted to volunteer, I wouldn’t know. My mind would jump from Uganda to Uruguay to Eritrea, but I can tell you what I wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t pick any place in my home country, and I definitely wouldn’t pick my hometown. And by doing so, I would be performing a massive disservice to myself and those around me that need help.

It’s hard to look past the world’s worst problems to see the humbler problems at home. It’s hard to read Matador articles about volunteers rescuing elephants in Malaysia or caring for impoverished children in Zambia and not want to join the ranks of the rock-star volunteer.

My county is in the top three wealthiest in the United States. Its citizens drive cars that cost more than the lifetime earnings of most people in the world. They live in palaces and bring in six-figure earnings. And yet every winter, our homeless shelters are overflowing and we have to partner with over a dozen local churches to bring in everyone from the cold and snow. Our state and local parks have trails and facilities in need of maintenance. We have students who need after-school tutoring, families that aren’t sure of their next meal, and animal shelters struggling to take care of abandoned pets.

The biggest obstacle to local volunteering is recognizing there’s a problem at all. It’s easy to look at a developing nation or disappearing rainforest and see need, but who would have thought a homeless community lives in the forest next to your school? In our hometowns we feel comfortable — it may surprise you to discover the layer of need hidden beneath the familiar surroundings.

Grab your phone.

How do we discover this need and volunteer our services? We search for it. There are no organizations that help find and coordinate volunteers for local groups — it’s up to the volunteers themselves and the small, overworked, and underpaid staff they want to help. That staff might not have application forms or orientation sessions.

In high school I spent a summer maintaining a local nature preserve that had one man on staff who worked two days a week — I don’t even think they had a website. My application and orientation consisted of calling him on a Tuesday night, asking if the preserve needed any work, and proposing a few projects for the summer. I didn’t even meet him until late July.

Prepare to take initiative. A lot.

It’s not uncommon to volunteer your services to a local nonprofit, only to discover they have no idea what to do with you. There could be a dozen different needs, but they may not have enough experience with volunteers to decide and guide you in a particular role. Take this opportunity to shape your volunteer project and put your skills to work.

By observing what the organization needed and making helpful suggestions about how I could serve, my volunteer experiences have included taking care of bald eagles and building brand-new trails to open up a new part of the nature preserve. I’ve taught technology to local students in my community, worked events with local restaurants and wineries to raise money for hospice care, and participated in a multi-year grassland restoration project so dramatic the results could be photographed from space.

All of these stemmed from seeing a need, proposing an idea, and working hard to make it happen.

Build a community.

You may not be flying across the world to help out, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a support system. The easiest way to do this is to invite someone to volunteer with you.

In high school, I volunteered with my dad. It was our way of “bonding without speaking” by spending eight hours every Saturday clearing two miles of trails or dragging downed trees from grassland clearings. Invite a friend or take your spouse — you’ll have the incredible experience of working together in pursuit of a common good, and you’ll be there for one another when your motivation wanes and the struggles seem large.

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