Imagine the feeling you'd get when seeing a child’s grin spread across their face as you teach them the word “pizza” for the first time; their bubbling laughter when you explain what it is and how you eat it.
This sort of feeling leaves a lasting impression that will stay with you the rest of your trip, and will make you realize just how important it is to volunteer abroad and help others.
My experience volunteering in Amatitan, Nicaragua is an experience I will forever carry with me. I befriended a child and spent countless afternoons reading her books in English. I watched her smile as she pronounced new words she had never heard before. I helped build a house for a family, and collected and delivered educational supplies to a school in need.
If you’re considering a service learning trip abroad during high school, I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s an incredible way to impact someone else’s life, experience another culture, and see more of the world with your own eyes.
Photo credit: Possible Health.
What is service learning?
Whether it’s helping a family or school in need, volunteering at a local hospital, or responding to a recent natural disaster, service learning programs help participants develop and learn valuable skills through volunteership. Essentially, you will learn valuable skills by volunteering, rather than coming in as a skilled volunteer to simply help. There is more of an educational focus in this type of volunteering program, but it connects real life experience with information learned in school. Some projects you may do include:
Helping a community in need is an incredibly rewarding experience. This may include building houses or schools, collecting supplies to build buildings, or volunteering at local shops to help stimulate the economy. You’ll be able to work with an entire community working together to help improve every day life; you’ll become a part of that community.
Volunteering at Schools
When you volunteer at a school, you might want to collect supplies like pencils, notebooks, and crayons beforehand to bring them to schools in need. You may teach a class or simply entertain the children. This is a very rewarding path because you will be able to see the result of your hard work.
You may volunteer in a country that struggles to maintain their land. This can include planting gardens, working on parks, or measuring the growth of a plot of land to gauge its development.
Working with Animals
If you’re an animal lover, then consider volunteering abroad at wildlife sanctuaries. It is an ideal way to help animals in need. These animals could be sick, rescue animals, or may be animals that need aid and training before getting released back into the wild. It's likely that you’ll be working very closely with the animals and will be able to observe and study their behavior.
Medicine & Healthcare
Shadowing doctors abroad is another popular type of service learning project -- especially since medical volunteer trips require highly skilled professionals, it's unlikely that you'll be able to assist with medical needs abroad as a high schooler unless you sign up for a service learning trip.
Planning Your Trip
Volunteering abroad in high school takes a lot of planning, but it does not need to be stressful. Start researching volunteer trips abroad a year or so before you plan to go. Some volunteer programs require early applications, so make sure you know about any important deadlines.
Many volunteer trips can range from one week to several months. Picking a volunteer program with dates that correspond with your availability is also a critical step when planning your trip.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions either. Obtaining the contact information of the head of the program is always a good idea, and asking questions will show how interested you are.
When Should You Go?
Although volunteer trips happen year round, the most ideal time for high school students might be during the summertime or during a longer break, such as winter or spring break. Find a program that aligns with either summer vacation or one of your longer breaks, to ensure that you can dedicate your time and not miss any school.
Who Should You Go With?
- Groups: Groups are a phenomenal way to meet like-minded travelers who have the same interests and desires as you. If a group leader is involved, you may not have to worry about planning flights, housing, or transportation. This way, you can focus on other aspects of the trip, like fundraising and making sure you’re fully prepared.
- Individual: Though it may be a bit more difficult to go alone, it is still rewarding none-the-less. You can go at your own pace, travel wherever you’d like and for however long you want to. You will have greater responsibility traveling alone, but you will learn a lot about yourself and will have the ability to be flexible and create your own schedule.
It’s always a good idea to know at least a few basic phrases in the local language so you’re able to communicate. Depending on which program you choose, you may need to already have a basic or intermediate skill level of the country’s language. Others will, however, incorporate language classes to help you learn the language while you're there. When you find a program, make sure you fulfill all of the requirements necessary to ensure you’re fully prepared for your trip.
Knowing the language will help you understand their culture on a greater level. It’s also beneficial to know a few phrases in case you’re ever in a situation where no one speaks your native language.
Make sure you are up to date on all the necessary vaccines before you leave for your trip. Furthermore, if you’re going somewhere with a malaria risk, it might be a good idea to take malaria pills. Although you might experience negative side effects, they may help protect from the full symptoms of malaria.
Consider consulting a medical professional that specializes in travel vaccines and medicine before you leave.
The housing situation when you’re abroad can range anywhere from hotels to tents. Regardless of where you’re staying, be prepared to live as the locals do, especially if you’re in a third world country. This may include huts, tents, or a big common room on cots.
Find out if the location you’re staying in has running water. If they don’t, be prepared to take bucket showers and drink only bottled water.
Research if the water is drinkable in your area. If it isn’t, it may be a good idea to invest in iodine tablets or a filtration system to ensure that you have drinkable water wherever you go. Boiling water is also a great way to kill any bacteria that may be in the water.
You may also want to bring Vitamin C and hand sanitizer to help prevent illness. Again, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a check up before you go.
Costs & Funding
The program you choose may require participation in fundraising events in order to raise money to donate or buy supplies. Otherwise, fundraising (or picking up a part time job) is a good way to raise money to help fund your travels.
There are a ton of different ways to raise money for a trip, and can be a lot of fun, especially if your friends are involved. Talk to your high school advisers to see if you can host a fundraising event after school.
Here are a few ideas for fundraising:
- Sell car stickers: For a few dollars, you can sell car stickers with the name of the country you’re volunteering in. For example, someone sold stickers that said NICA on it before my trip to Nicaragua. I loved the idea so much, that I bought them for my whole family!
- Ask family members: Ask your family members for money for your birthday or the holidays that you can use towards your trip.
- Host a car wash: During the warm months, this can be a fun and easy way to raise money.
- Make T-shirts: Imagine seeing your peers wearing a T-shirt that you created! Making these T-shirts can also be a good way to bond with your volunteer mates.
- Host events: If your friends are in a band, host a concert and sell tickets to their performance. This is an exciting way to bring everyone together for a good cause. You can also host an after-school bake sale.