5 essential steps to consider before volunteering abroad

When I was 16, my mother encouraged me to volunteer at a kid’s rehabilitation hospital and since then I have been committed to giving back to my community. Volunteering allows you to grow in so many ways beyond what’s visible on your resume. Through my years of involvement with Diabetes Canada in Toronto, I have met new friends, colleagues and community members who inspire me daily. These amazing people have guided me in my career and life, opened my eyes to new things, and allowed me to work in new ways towards a shared goal. Volunteering draws people from all walks of life and gives you the opportunity to give back, challenge, and learn about yourself.

Recently, I decided to try something new and volunteer abroad with a nutrition program in the remote island of Fiji.

I have always been fascinated and inspired by stories from people who have worked abroad, and I came to a point in my career and life where I thought, if not now, when? But before making the decision to go abroad, I learned there were many things I had to consider leading up to departure. If you find yourself interested in going abroad, here are some tips I’ve put together to help plan your journey:

Step 1: Ask yourself the right question

There are many volunteer organizations out there, from animal rescue and care in Nepal to working on farms in New Zealand, the possibilities are endless. Make sure to ask yourself the right questions to find out what interests you the most: Why do you want to do this? Where do you want to go? What do you want to learn? Specifically, ask yourself what you have to give, and where you can give the most value. I did a lot of google searching to find a placement that I thought would suit my needs. I attended a few volunteering expos in Toronto that helped me learn about organizations and gather information. I also spoke to colleagues, friends, and family to see if anyone had gone abroad. I found out that my family doctor had volunteered with a vision clinic in South America when he was in med school and recently volunteered in Africa. These conversations are truly inspirational and provide valuable insight.

Here’s a list of organizations to start with (but Google will be your friend, options are endless so look around):

Step 2: Length of time

Organizations and projects may be recruiting for specific times, for example a one year term starting in October versus 1-2 weeks in May. Be realistic when estimating how much time you have available and start planning from there. If you work, do you have vacation time to support your trip? If not, can you organize a leave of absence? Will your employer support your volunteer work or benefit from your experience? Other things to consider when thinking about timelines are civic holidays, cultural festivals or school breaks that may impact the nature of your work. For example, volunteering as a teacher during summer months may be a different experience compared to the regular school year. In the end, I decided to volunteer for one month, and gave myself an extra week to relax and travel.

Step 3: Budget your trip and plan for it

There are costs associated with going abroad to volunteer. Depending on the program, length of time and location, costs can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. Your fees will typically include medical insurance, accommodation and meals, and training for your position. Some organizations may cover flight costs, travel vaccinations and visas, but this will vary so read the fine print to get a better understanding of your total cost. Depending on your budget, think about any extra money you would want to set aside for tourist attractions, going out, shopping/souvenirs, and any other traveling you’d like to do. Also, think about ongoing costs at home, such as a mortgage or rent, car insurance, and your cell phone bill that you still need to take care of.

Step 4: Living accommodation, location, lifestyle and safety

Depending on the type of person you are, you may have certain expectations for living accommodations. Maybe you can’t deal with extreme heat, roommates or bugs? Whatever it is, be sure to inquire about your accommodations during your placement, including location and proximity to work. Volunteer opportunities are usually in less developed countries than North America, so you’ll need to be adaptable to any situation and lifestyle. Organizations will go to great lengths to make sure you are safe and taken care of, but it’s better to be aware of what you’re getting into. For me, all volunteers were set up with a host family. Mine was a home that accommodated a couple with a young daughter, two nieces and their grandfather. The home was a 5 minute walk to the office. Though I had requested my own room, I ended up with a roommate for my first week, but this was a blessing as it helped me settle into my role and my new lifestyle. Fiji is hot, needless to say there were a lot of geckos. We also lived near a field, so there were a lot of frogs outside the house. The home was free from cockroaches, but others had several. My home had a washing machine, but not all did, which meant some volunteers had to hand wash their clothes. Adapting to any lifestyle and being flexible is key to surviving and enjoying your experience – if you can’t embrace it, you will end up hating it.

Step 5: Put your fears at ease and connect

Make a point to connect with the organization or attend an open house. Find out everything you can to resolve any hesitations you may have, and ask to reach out to alumni of the program. Ask all of the questions you wouldn’t find in the FAQ section of the website. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • What happens after you arrive at the airport?
  • How was it working with the local team? What were your hours like?
  • What were your tasks like? How did the team work together?
  • What was your favourite part / least favourite part about volunteering with the organization?
  • What tips would you give someone looking to volunteer there? What do I need to do to prepare myself?
  • What is the culture like? What is the food like? What is the temperature like?
  • What tourist attractions did you visit? Any recommendations? What extra budget would you suggest for my spare time?
  • How long did you go for? How long would you recommend going for?

I connected with someone who did the same program a few months earlier. My email exchanges with him were extremely helpful in making my decision and gave me a better sense of what my life would be like for the time I was gone.

Volunteering abroad can be a great experience, and everyone I know who has done it has never regretted it. It’s not for everyone, but if you have extra time and are looking for a way to contribute back to your community, look for local organizations that you can join. These experiences can provide a lot of benefits to your social circle, your career path, and most importantly, the ability to grow in new ways as a person. The act of being kind and selfless will keep you grounded to this chaotic world.

Read Part 2 of my “Toronto to Fiji, how volunteering can change your life” series where I talk about what I did on the little island that will always hold a special place in my heart!

 

About the author

Growing up, Shilpa has always been passionate about health and wellness. Following her degree in Applied Human Nutrition from The University of Guelph, and MSc in Health Promotion from King’s College at The University of London in England, she returned to Toronto to begin her career journey. Alongside her passion for globetrotting, she’s been actively working in various aspects of public health and is a dedicated volunteer assisting with diabetes prevention education and outreach throughout the Greater Toronto Area.