In August of 2008, Shana Greene, the director of Village Volunteers, connected me to someone who was thinking of volunteering. He asked me some questions and this was my response, copied and pasted from the email with some bits only deleted for brevity.
Around May 2007, I ended up with an unexpected [two-week] break in my work schedule in June. I told a friend I wanted to go overseas somewhere, anywhere, and she randomly suggested Africa. I thought, 'why not?' So I Googled "volunteer Africa" and came up with a ton of organizations. I had no idea what I was doing, but knew I didn't want a program with band-aid solutions that 'white people' came up with. I also avoided the websites that seemed to focus too much on marketing and promotions, because that's inevitably where peoples' donations were going, instead of the villagers. On a gut feeling, I applied to Village Volunteers and it has changed my life.
It was absolutely crazy because I had given myself only two weeks from the day my application was accepted to the day my flight left for Kenya. During those two weeks, I was on the phone with Shana every day, who stepped me through EVERYTHING clearly, thoroughly, and most importantly, sincerely. That confirmed right away I chose a good program. The fear of contracting some disease or any other travel fears never had a chance to sink in, so I can't give you any insights as to how someone new should prepare mentally for Africa. On the other hand, now that I've already gone twice and am planning a third trip in October, I can tell you with absolute certainty there's nothing to be afraid of if you are prepared.
Both my trips to Kenya have been flawless, with people constantly taking care of me, offering me more chai than I can handle and ensuring I've got plenty of clean water, food, etc. My last trip was for 3 weeks from June 19 to July 10, and I was the first Village Volunteer Shana had allowed back into Kenya after the post-election violence earlier this year. Shana took extra steps to ensure I was escorted every step of the way, and the villagers themselves were ecstatic that a mzungu (i.e., "white person" or "foreigner" in Swahili) has returned.
I didn't plan much on how I was actually going to HELP when I got to Kenya prior to my 2007 visit; I was too busy packing and getting my arms pricked with vaccinations. I view my first trip as an eye-opener, desensitizer, and brainstormer. This year, I went with clear culture-sensitive goals and knowledge as to how my specific skills could benefit the people. As a speech-language pathologist, I decided to focus on language and literacy development for school-age children while screening children with disabilities.
When I returned to the states last year, I decided to go to Seattle for my next job assignment (I do short-term contract work around the US) so that I can meet Shana and volunteer directly with her. So for over a month, I actually sat in her office and saw how she does things primarily by herself (!!!) maybe 80 hours a week (!!!). I'm fiercely loyal now to Shana because I've worked side-by-side with her and know that she sends donations directly to the villages, and then I've been to the villages and seen that money go where it's intended and I'm the lucky one to witness the sheer joy they exude. I find it hard to trust other organizations that charge unreasonable amounts for volunteer fees, or -- and I hate these the most -- the volunteer programs that address the symptoms by sending in their own idea of solutions. Village Volunteers supports programs that the villagers themselves have created and have already proven to work and intend to be self-sustaining, and sends volunteers to help them. This I consider to be VV's primary strength, that the villagers are enabled to do what they feel is necessary in their own country, their own way that has proven successful.