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Advice for Parents if Your Child is Volunteering Abroad

Best Volunteer Experience

Your 19-year-old kid has just announced s/he wants to volunteer abroad this summer. What?! Before you shoot the idea down, take a moment to think about the possible benefits. Volunteering abroad can be a life-changing experience. Your child will become more open-minded and independent, and will gain a better understanding of the world. As you move forward, consider the following pieces of advice to help both you and your child prepare for the life-changing experience ahead.

1. Listen before you advise

The prospect of your child volunteering abroad may have taken you by surprise. If you're leery about the idea, give your child a chance to make his/her case. Discussing with your child why s/he wants to volunteer abroad will help clarify their expectations and motivations. It's also an opportunity to see how realistic s/he is being about the experience. Then you have a chance to voice your concerns.

Different volunteer programs

2. Do your homework

Whether or not you're completely on board with the idea of your child volunteering abroad, it's important to do your own research. Programs vary greatly in price, focus, location, size, length of time, and opportunities. The purpose of these organizations is to ease the logistics and provide a structure for your child. They typically set up airport transportation, accommodations, in-country orientation and training, and volunteer placement. They also provide on-call support throughout the duration of your child's stay. A volunteer program will also provide instant friends for your child and volunteers who have been around longer will help her/him to learn the ropes. You'll want to compare programs, and research different types of volunteer opportunities, to find one that fits your child's needs.

Remember that it's also possible to volunteer without a program. Plenty of organizations take independent volunteers. This would require your child to take care of the logistics independently. However, the organization will likely be able to provide plenty of advice and support as s/he tackles these challenges. If your child is an independent go-getter, this may be an option to consider.

One common question volunteers ask is why they have to pay to volunteer. The primary reason is that the companies that run these programs need financial support to maintain the programs. Figure out exactly where the program fees are going before you decide on a program. A final important step of planning is to familiarize yourself with the current political climate, historical events, and geography of the region. Follow the news and buy a travel guide about the country.

3. Speak with previous volunteers

If you're still concerned or have more specific questions, speak with previous volunteers from the program. They can give you a more realistic sense of what to expect, what to pack and the typical day-to-day life. Many organizations have country ambassadors whom are previous volunteers living in their home country and who are willing to speak on the phone or via email about their experiences. Getting your child in touch with them would also help them mentally prepare.

Be warned that a program isn't going to have you communicate with someone who had a terrible time, so it is always good to read reviews of programs on third party sites as well. Go Overseas is a great resource for this very thing!

4. Prepare a planning checklist

To ensure nothing is forgotten, sit down with your child and make a pre-trip checklist. Don't forget these important items.

  • Visit the travel clinic: Your child will need to complete all the necessary shots before departure. Also, check for any special medications, like malaria pills, that s/he may need.
  • Make sure you understand the safety conditions of the region: Visit the US government's travel safety site for current information on travel precautions throughout the world, including weather updates and details of ongoing conflicts. This site is alsso a good resource for information on passports, visas and legal issues abroad.
  • Obtain a visa, if necessary: Some countries require you to obtain a visa in your home country if you are going to stay for an extended period of time. Contact their embassy to find out the requirements.
  • Purchase health and travel insurance: Some health insurance companies do cover dependents while overseas. It would be prudent to purchase medevac insurance, in case of emergency. Travel insurance covers flight changes, theft, and other personal losses. Certain companies combine the two policies. Also, credit card companies like Capital One offer credit cards with travel insurance.
  • Alert your child's bank and shut off their cell phone: Because banks freeze accounts after unusual activity, you'll want to contact the bank to make sure they know your child will be using their card in another country. It's also smart to get a direct number to the personal security department, in case their card is denied. If your child will be gone for more than a month, you may want to consider turning off his/her cell phone so you don't have to pay for an unused phone.
  • Keep your eye on flights: Volunteer programs typically don't pay for or arrange flights. Watch the price of flights across several sites and set up an email alert that will let you know when prices drop.
  • Photocopy all important documents: Your child will want to have copies of their passport, visa, another form of ID and credit cards to ensure that if anything is stolen it will be easier to replace. You may also want to keep photocopies at home as well.
  • Start packing: Two words: Ziplock baggies - super helpful in organization and dryness. Research the climate of the region as well as the change in seasons. If this experience is part of a larger trip, be sure to consider the upcoming destinations as you pack. If your child is on special medications, make sure to obtain enough of the prescription to last the entire trip. If s/he is doing a homestay, consider buying a small gift for the family and packing photos of your own family and life at home that your child can share with them.

5. Schedule regular Skype dates

Thanks to modern technology, it's never been easier to be so far away yet so close to home. While some volunteer programs are extremely rural, most will have at least limited access to the internet. Schedule weekly Skype dates to keep up on your child's activities. It's far more fun to gush about an experience on the phone and seeing her/him face will prove s/he really is just fine.

Preparation pay off

6. Plan a visit

Maybe you never thought about visiting Sub-Saharan Africa. But now that your child is spending two months in Kenya, it seems like a pretty great excuse for a family vacation. Plus, it gives your teen a chance to share this life-changing experience with you! Or plan a trip after the program is over to further explore the region s/he's volunteering in.

7. Be supportive through homesickness

Volunteering abroad isn't like vacationing. The situations can be drastically different from what your child is used to at home and it will take some time to transition. The first couple of weeks especially can be quite a shock. When you receive that first email asking if s/he made a huge mistake, don't jump at buying them the next plane ticket home.

For one thing, you child said that this was something s/he wanted to do. You have to trust that and give them time to adjust. Smothering will not fix this situation. Let your kid vent and provide gentle advice.

Volunteering abroad can be a life-changing experience. Your child will become more open-minded and independent.

The most important thing to remember throughout this experience is to be a proud parent. Your child has grown up to be someone who wants to help others and make a difference in this world. And you had a big part in that! This is the ultimate form of parental bragging rights. Remind your child how proud you are of their ambitious, compassionate nature (and that you tell all your friends about the incredible work s/he's doing). At the end of a crazy day in Kenya, s/he'll be beaming when s/he gets an email from you talking about how impressed you are with what s/he's done.

Photo Credits: Global Volunteer Network.

Lindsay Denny

Having studied abroad in Florence in college, Lindsay caught the travel bug. During a year off, she volunteered at in a hospital in Ghana and traveled to Argentina. She also spent 6 months studying and interning in the Philippines in grad school. She now lives in Cambodia, running an NGO and exploring Southeast Asia.