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The Rewards of Volunteering Overseas

Midway through his project, Andrew shares his thoughts on how to make the greatest contribution as international volunteer.

So we’re over the volunteer project hump now, with only three more weeks to go. It’s almost hard to believe. People say that two months is a long time, but in reality it flies by. So with five weeks under our belts, it’s probably about time I discussed why I’m really here, which is the work (volunteer) aspect of the project.

We’ve had a very interesting, and often bumpy, road to follow, but things haven’t been a total waste. This project has definitely been a learning curve for Leah, Evan and me! It isn’t that much of a surprise and not such a bad thing though considering it is our first experience working overseas.
Here are some things that I’ve observed and learned that can hopefully be helpful for anybody planning to do an overseas volunteer project in the future:

Be informed and don’t feel like you can’t help shape your project.

Try to absorb as much information you can about the organization, host country, project site and project details—and maybe buff up on some information about your home too—it never hurts! Generally, people get to know you as volunteers first, then individuals afterwards. I don’t know whether it’s more so a Guyanese thing, but many people here are genuinely interested in hearing about who, what, where, when, why and how you are doing. Knowing your project inside and out makes for a great icebreaker and will make working much more productive and efficient. Also, being clear on project goals and outcomes will eliminate any disappointments that may arise during the project.

Don’t be shy. Make yourself heard.

If there is a problem, whether it is before, during or after the project, make sure you voice your opinions and concerns right away. Ask questions and make sure they get answered!

Be patient. Things don’t always work out the way we expect!

Keep in mind that such things as time, work and many other things that may impede project progress and speed can be attributed to differences in cultures. Flashing back to an earlier theme in one of my blogs, being optimistic is not always a bad thing!

These few ideas are some of the things that are sometimes forgotten when preparing for a project. How do these things tie into the work? Well, projects are not only about the people you’re working with, but also about personal growth and development. Between doing physical labour (ie. painting, cleaning, etc), facilitating various workshops, doing administrative work (calls, emails, updates, etc.) and many other things, you may or may not be worked off your feet. Even though you may feel like you are not always being productive, helpful or used effectively, the work you do usually means a lot to someone else.

One Saturday (technically our weekend and not a work day), we went to a woman’s farm to help with pruning and to make harvesting and such more accessible. It was really simple work and something that we did as an outing more than anything. We only did a few hours work, but our reward was worth a lot more. To show their gratitude, the farmer’s family cooked us a big meal, gave us a bunch of their fresh fruit and what’s more, we became lasting friends. Even though we thought nothing of it, this woman’s whole family has since become our friends and often talks about the day on the farm.

To sum up my ramblings, I’d just like to say that project work may not always be what you expect. What to do? Take a step back and evaluate it from all sides. I know that’s easier said than done, but try it out.

Also, start early and don’t be afraid to admit defeat! Every experience is different, and it depends a lot on the people you volunteer with as well as the community members that you are working with. Everything is an experience, and you have to make the best of your situation. Your project is, in part, what you make it and put into it.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Andrew O'Dea

Andrew O’Dea is a 20-year-old from St. John’s, Newfoundland. He's currently studying at Memorial University, working towards an honours in Biochemistry. He loves getting to know the world through travel, which is why he’s volunteering in Guyana with Youth Challenge International.

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