Advice for the First-Time Volunteer

By  Rosanna Wyatt March 16, 2011

When I set off for Central America on my own at the age of 18 with grand ideas about "helping out" in the developing world, I had no idea what I was in for.

Here are some things that I wish I had been told before embarking, in the hopes that they will benefit all of you starry-eyed do-gooders like myself.

  1. Know how to get where you're going. If you're doing work with an organization or programme and they are picking you up from the airport, always make sure that you have the contact information for the appropriate person and a way to contact him or her. It sounds obvious, but in the midst of all the things to do and prepare, it can slip through the cracks. Take it from me, it's no fun being alone in a foreign country with no idea where to go!
  2. Know why you're going. Are you there because you want to help others, or to assuage your feelings of privilege-based guilt? It's up to you to decide if this even matters to you, but it's worth figuring out. It can really help guide your efforts and the way you approach your work.
  3. Be proactive. This was one of the hardest things for me when I started doing volunteer work in Nicaragua. I was placed in a youth centre and no one told me what to do, so I just sort of sat there and took part in activities. It didn't feel right; I wasn't actually doing anything. I talked to the volunteer coordinator and she explained that you have to be proactive. If you make the centre think up something for you to do, then you're actually creating work for them, which brings me to my next point...
  4. Remember that they don't need you. You're there to help, which means you are aiding the process - whatever it is - but you have to keep in mind that the work could go on without you. This mostly refers to volunteer work done in institutions and organizations. Don't assume that they have a job for you, because odds are they can function just fine without you there. The best thing that you can do is figure out what special skill(s) you have that you can offer them. That being said...
  5. Be open to learning. Keep your ego in check and let them teach you if and when they want to. Volunteering abroad is really about an exchange of skill sets and wisdom. You are there to use your knowledge and know-how to help, but always remember that it goes both ways. The most valuable thing that you can earn in life is knowledge.
  6. Don't get mad when they tell you that you're doing something wrong. They have a certain way of doing things and it's not your place to try to change it (unless they ask for your advice).
  7. Have fun! Make friends and form bonds. Join this big, old, happy global community.

This is the winning article for the Verge Storyboard for the week of March 14, 2011. Click here to check it out and submit your own story!

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