There is no platonic form for a voluntourist. While we may imagine the “gap-year” 18-year-old first, the reality is that many of the most prolific and committed voluntourists are well outside that demographic. Volunteering at any age is a rewarding experience, but if you happen to be a bit older with grown children, it may be deeply personally healing as well.
As we’ve discussed on the blog over the past few weeks, voluntouring is a potentially life-changing experience for both the volunteer and the people she helps. It is a real, accessible option for people with full lives, families, and tight budgets. The voluntour opportunities out there are as varied as the people of the world. Of course, with such an overwhelming number of voluntour organizations in operation, some of them are bound to be better than others. Here are some important things to look for when planning your voluntour.
Deciding to go on a voluntour is a big decision. You’re giving your time—time that may be in short supply if you’ve got a full-time job or a family (or both)—but you know the experience you have will be worth every second you put into it. Unfortunately, for some people, voluntours end up being negative experiences. Often this is because their expectations didn’t match up with the reality of their trip, or because the nature of the work they were asked to do was beyond their physical or emotional abilities. Or sometimes the voluntour organization is just in it for the money (check back for tomorrow’s post on how to evaluate voluntour companies). Making sure you have a positive experience starts with some deep thinking about where you want to be and what you want to do. It also requires you to be realistic about your individual strengths and weaknesses.
The more I learn about voluntouring and the people who do it, the more I seem to stumble on stories of lives diverted in dramatically new directions, and always for the better. Take, for example, the story of Tammy Babcock, a security supervisor at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. Babcock was just like us, our friends, or our neighbors—a professional young woman leading a quiet, comfortable life. And like many of the stories I’ve read lately, a single event turned all that around.
There was a time, several years ago, when I didn’t have any money. I was just out of college, didn’t have a job, and was trying to pay rent, student loans, bills, and to eat (if there was anything left). It was the first time in my life that I felt the real stress of poverty. It could have been worse—I had an education—but I couldn’t find a job and didn’t know when I would. I was two months late on rent and looking at eviction, desperately trying to sell everything I owned to raise the funds. Then one morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. My leg was swollen to three times its size and I was in incredible pain. After years of ballet spent abusing my feet, I’d neglected to care for the blister on my heel, and now it was festering. I knew I needed medical attention but didn’t have money, let alone insurance. Lucky for me, I found Dr. Bob.