5 Ways to Know if a Volunteer Program is Right for You

May 11, 2015
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I did my fair share of volunteering in high school, but all the opportunities available to me once I began university drove me to search for more unique chances that high school did not offer me. During my freshman spring break at Yale, I went abroad to Panama and volunteered for Medical Brigades, an organization that provides healthcare to communities that would otherwise not be able to afford it. This was a short trip, just one week, but the value I found in my time in the country cannot be replaced.

My next voluntourism experience came during the summer of 2014 when I volunteered in Cape Town, South Africa at SANCCOB, a seabird rehabilitation center based in Table View, where I had the exceptional opportunity to care for wild African penguins. It was this 6-week trip that made me fall head over heels in love with South Africa, penguins, beaches, traveling, and volunteering. Since then, I’ve already made plans to do volunteer work at a wildlife clinic in Belize, as well as the Galapagos Islands.

So what made me choose this kind of volunteering in the first place, and why do I keep coming back?

5 Ways to Know if a Volunteer Program is Right for You

1. The Project

Clearly, the volunteer project we choose plays some sort of role in our decision to volunteer abroad. What I’ve realized is that the US has plenty of opportunities for volunteering, but there are projects all over the world that could never be available in the States. Children’s home care in the townships of South Africa. Rescue elephant volunteering in Thailand. Penguin rehabilitation in Cape Town. Medical care in underprivileged countries. Going abroad gives us the chance to see real situations that require real, present volunteers in countries besides our own.

2. The Meaning

Don’t do something for the Instagram post or for the sake of Facebook likes; if you’ll be spending the money to travel and live abroad, make sure it is something you want to do. Not only that, but something that will be meaningful to you personally. I’ve wanted to volunteer with penguins ever since I was about 8 years old, and when I chose to apply to vet school, working with penguins became even more appealing.

I began searching “penguin volunteering abroad” on Google during November of my freshman year in hopes of finding some opportunities to combine my passions. Very few exist, but even so, after I read up on SANCCOB’s work, I knew this would be the one I’d appreciate the most. I spent my days feeding, medicating, and caring for penguins and other seabirds, and although the work was tiring, I knew how valuable this experience was. It was proven to me when I had the opportunity to release 12 endangered African penguins onto a beach in Simonstown, South Africa after I had spent previous weeks rehabilitating and preparing those particular birds for their release.

For me, the work meant more than getting to hold my favorite animal. It meant that I could contribute to saving the declining African penguin population. So in addition to doing something truly good for a population other than the one I was raised in, I fulfilled a personally meaningful goal and associate my time in Cape Town with the fulfillment of that goal.

5 Ways to Know if a Volunteer Program is Right for You
5 Ways to Know if a Volunteer Program is Right for You

3. The People

The best part about doing a specific volunteer program is that you can be sure almost every other person there feels the way you do about it, or has a sense of passion for the project you’re taking part in. Not only will people be diverse in their home country location, but you will all have diverse experiences and opinions, allowing a type of growth that cannot be matched. The time I spent in Cape Town at the volunteer home was filled with everyday things like movie nights, dinners prepared together, or walking to and from the laundromat. It was the people that help keep these memories in my head, not the activities themselves.

By the end of your time volunteering, you will have friends all over the world. After I left, I realized that I now have friends from all over the US, Canada, Poland, Germany, Ireland, England, Australia, and South Africa, and I have more friends to visit when I travel to their respective countries.

4. The Cultural Experience

We can spend hours, days even, reading up on another country to learn about its way of life, but there is nothing that can compete with visiting the country itself and experiencing the culture in person. There is so much to be said about the cultural experience of your travels, and how the environment affects you after you leave. This may lie in tradition or it may lie in a particularly difficult part of life in this country that you could never actually imagine living.

Maybe you end up finally understanding the political climate of a country because you’ve seen the tension between its opposition right in front of you as you volunteered for one side, or you observe a cultural tradition other countries would frown upon and your past opinion changes as you watch the people you’ve gotten to know embrace tradition in a new way. Or maybe you see a part of culture the way I did as I drove down the highway of Cape Town and saw immense poverty on one side, and incredible wealth on the other.

I lived with people who volunteered in townships where the threat of gunshots echoed in the neighborhoods on more than one occasion. Coming from a relatively safe suburb outside Chicago, this was a life I could never have imagined. These types of experiences put so many things in perspective and maybe that kind of exposure acts as a wake-up call, or simply a chance to see life through someone else’s eyes.

5. The Opportunity for Exploration

Let’s face it – it’s hard to drop a few thousand dollars on any old trip. It takes planning, researching, saving, etc. before it can be considered a potential reality. Luckily, so many volunteer programs come with housing included, and some with meals too! This way, part of the struggle is solved.

The question I asked myself was, how can I find time to just visit these countries while I have to do requirements for veterinary school, and while I want to get more hands-on experience working with animals? Volunteering in South Africa enabled me to combine my love of travel and animals. Also, because it isn’t easy to just fly to South Africa, volunteering allows me the justification to see a country I would otherwise potentially never get to see.

About Aga Galej

Aga has been traveling ever since she was old enough to walk. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, her family comes from Poland where she herself has spent a year of her life and many summers. Since then, she has traveled to over 30 states in the US and parts of Europe, done medical outreach in Panama, and rehabilitated penguins in Cape Town, South Africa. As part of her studies at Yale University, she will be taking her junior year abroad: fall in Ireland and spring in Australia. In addition to being a traveler, Aga is a lover of animals, photography, and horseback riding. Follow her adventures here.

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