My one-year volunteer commitment: January 2010-January 2011
**Note: For a quick summary of this review, scroll down to the ** at the end.
My volunteer job was to be the full-time Communications Officer. I worked in the onsite office from 7:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday - Friday. I created content for and managed our website, so a typical day involved writing stories, conducting interviews, taking photos, answering emails, writing newsletter content, updating the website, promoting content via social media, and more. For someone who is interested in journalism or communications as a career, it's difficult to find volunteer abroad opportunities so closely related to your interests, so this was a perfect fit for me! In addition to really enjoying my job, I also felt like I had an important impact on the organization. My articles and photos were used to fundraise throughout our international offices. On one occasion, a story I wrote about an older child inspired a donor to pay for this child's entire university fees. In another example, a story I wrote caused a child to go from zero sponsors to five in just a few short months. Bottom line: I definitely felt like I was making a tangible difference.
Friends of the Orphans has excellent support for its U.S. volunteers. Before you leave, they walk you through all the necessary paperwork steps. You receive handbooks on what to expect, as well as lots of online resources/current volunteer blogs to browse. Each leaving volunteer participates in a phone conference with a volunteer coordinator and former volunteers -- where all questions and concerns can be answered. Additionally, if you live in a city where Friends of the Orphans has an office, the office staff is another great resource. During your volunteer year, the U.S.-based Friends of the Orphans staff checks in on volunteers and makes themselves available for any needs. (In-country there will be a separate support system, headed by another volunteer coordinator.) Returning home, Friends of the Orphans also does follow-up emails and phone calls and assists each volunteer with their transition home. Bottom line: I felt supported and encouraged every step of the way!
Onsite fun = in Guatemala, you'll be living with 20+ other volunteers and 300+ kids. From holidays to festivals to sports to downtime spent goofing off, there is never a shortage of fun. Offsite fun = the Casa San Andres home in Guatemala is conveniently located about 20 minutes from Antigua, Guatemala. The backpacking capital of Guatemala (and possibly of Central America), Antigua is THE place for food, bars, dancing, meeting tons of travelers, visiting gorgeous colonial ruins, shopping, etc. It's also the jumping off point to travel anywhere else in the country/region. Bottom line: you're expected to work harder than you ever have in this volunteer program, but there can be just as much fun if you want it!
There is NO COST to volunteer with this program. On top of that, you receive free housing, 3 free meals a day, free access to an on-site clinic, and a monthly stipend. My stipend in Guatemala (January 2010 - January 2011) was $50 US per month. That doesn't sound like much, but when my housing and food is already taken care of, $50 US gets you pretty far in cheap Guatemala. You won't save up money by the end of your volunteer year, but you can definitely break even. If you plan on spending lots of money on travel/vacation, a couple thousand bucks saved up will be MORE than enough to last your year. Bottom line: This is the most economical year-long volunteer program out there. I challenge you to find a similar program with no fee to participate.
Onsite, conditions are very safe. The entire campus was enclosed by a fence at the far edges, and there was a 24-hour guard on duty. On onsite clinic was open 24 hours a day. I always felt extremely safe on the property. Offsite, you obviously need to use common sense when traveling alone, at night, on unknown streets. But in general, the small town near Casa San Andres was very safe and very friendly. People knew us and were always quick to help. Guatemala is quickly becoming a tourist-friendly place with better infrastructure, so it's easy and safe to get around. I personally never had any problems with safety during my year.
Great professional experience. Low cost. New language learned. Tons of new friends. A new "family" in Guatemala (300+ people big). Amazing travels. Great support. Good balance of hard work and free time. I LOVED my experience volunteering with this organization, and I would highly recommend it.
**I just committed to 2 more years with this organization. I leave later this month. If that doesn't tell you how I felt about my volunteer experience, then I'm not sure what could. :)