While travel itself is filled with uncertainty, there is one thing that's for sure: volunteering abroad is a life changing experience. For those who really put their effort into helping a humanitarian cause, the rewards and lessons learned can be priceless. After spending time teaching English in Thailand and doing orphanage volunteer work in Ghana, I've come away with some valuable lessons.
Here are the top ten things I learned from volunteering abroad:
#1. Small changes make a big impact.
One thing many people wonder before signing up to volunteer abroad is "Can I really make a difference?" Yes, you can. Even if you do something as small as teaching a child their ABCs or read a book with a youth, you're making a difference, because you're building a base for them to further their learning in a way that they may not have had before.
#2. Being adaptable makes the experience more enriching.
There's a good chance you won't be living in a Western-style accommodation or eating your usual foods. Instead of complaining about sleeping on a yoga mat, eating rice three times a day, or having to fetch water for your bucket shower, embrace the fact that you're getting to have such a unique experience.
#3. Hot water, electricity, showers, and toilets are luxuries.
While many people view their hot showers, flushing toilets, and manual light switch as necessities, there are many people all over the world living without these things (and living happily, I might add). I never heard my house father in Thailand complain about not having a hot shower or my house mother in Ghana whine about the lack of Wi-Fi hotspots. Learn to live more simply for a little while and you'll start to see that it isn't so bad.
#4. It's a great opportunity to get a firsthand account of another culture.
Even if you travel regularly, it's rare to get an accurate depiction of another culture. However, living and interacting with locals on a daily basis will give you the chance to really see the unseen aspects of a community – things you won't find in a guidebook. Examples of insider knowledge you may gain include: dating habits, daily rituals, cooking procedures, laundry techniques, and the minutiae of relationship interactions.
#5. Don’t spoil the children.
Remember, even if you're working with children everyday, they're still not your children. Be respectful. How would you like if someone came and gave your child a whole new wardrobe or expensive gifts that you couldn't afford to give them? Small gifts like candy and school supplies are nice; just make sure you have enough for everyone, as giving something to one child and not another can cause rivalry.
#6. You're not just getting to know a new community; they're getting to know you.
Without a doubt, you'll learn a lot from working with the population, and being the visitor, it's easy to see the learning as a one-way street. In reality, most of these people have never left their cities and would love to learn more about where you’re from. Bring photos from home, teach them games, songs, and dances, and tell them about what your culture is like.
#7. People respect you more when you speak their language.
While English is a language that many people from all over the world speak, it's still nice to at least be able to exchange small talk with your new community in their local language. They'll respect you more and see that you're truly making an effort to immerse yourself in their way of life, not just coming to stay back and watch.
#8. Your culture is not better.
It can be easy to adopt a certain egotistical mindset when working with people who need help, especially when the culture is very foreign to what you know. Remember that your culture is not better than any other culture, no matter how much money you have; it's just different. Both in Thailand and Ghana, I've been able to pick up ways of thinking that I wished were more central to American culture, like practicing the policy of peace and smiles in Thailand and finding instant happiness at a simple drum beat in Ghana.
#9. New project ideas have a lot of ability.
Try to draw from your knowledge and background to come up with a new project to help the population that you’re working with. Sometimes, the answer is so simple that it's staring right at you. For example, in Ghana, one of the volunteers came up with the idea of building a chicken coop to not only help the children get protein but also to sell eggs in the market to raise money. This basic idea had the ability to assuage the children’s health in a significant way.
#10. Smiles are universal.
If you can do nothing else, make someone smile. In fact, make it your mission to make as many people as possible smile each day. It may not feel like much, but you'll be making a big impact.
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Photos courtesy of Visions Service Adventures and Jessica Festa.