The benefits and challenges of volunteering abroad

Last week, our own Celeste Hamilton Dennis was interviewed for a feature on GO! Overseas, “a community driven website of like minded people who are all passionate about teaching, studying and volunteering abroad.” Here’s the interview, cross-posted as it appeared there.

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From Flickr user Ho John Lee

GO!: Let’s start with a brief introduction. Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing?

Celeste: I’m a Community Outreach Coordinator for Idealist.org, a nonprofit that in its most simplest definition, helps people help. I work on building a global network of idealists, spreading good ideas and storytelling projects involving blogging and podcasting. After living in Argentina for 2 ½ years, I just recently moved to Portland, OR.

GO!: How did you get involved in the volunteer industry?

Celeste: I went to Boston College, where international service is huge. If you didn’t volunteer abroad somewhere, you were kind of considered a weirdo. A lot of people from BC went on to do the Peace Corps, and from hearing their stories, I knew it was something I wanted to do. So from 2003-2005 I served in Guyana as a reading teacher and HIV/AIDS educator. After living in an impoverished community and seeing its effects firsthand, it was hard to ignore suffering both back home and in other places around the world.

I’ve volunteered at numerous organizations since the Peace Corps, from the Youth Pride Center in Chicago where I worked as an Anti-Violence advocate for minority gay youth, to being a Band Manager at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for girls in Portland this summer. I’ve found most, if not all, of my opportunities through this wonderful website called Idealist.org.

GO!: Tell us about La Vida Idealist and your role within the organization.

Celeste: I’m the editor of La Vida Idealist, a community powered blog written by idealistic expats and travelers in Latin America. The overall goal of the blog is to share stories and resources about volunteering, nonprofits, and innovative ideas in the region. Specifically, we’re trying to fill in the gap of information for free opportunities, as much of the volunteering landscape in Latin America is dominated by the voluntourism industry. Some people just can’t afford to pay, or won’t pay out of of principle. And what’s unfortunate is that there are a lot of people living down there who have free time on their hands and want to get involved. By including varied voices and perspectives from bloggers who are on the ground, engaging with their adopted communities, we hope to make access to non-fee volunteering easier.

GO!: What attracts volunteers to Latin America?

Celeste: Latin America is in an interesting period of history. For the first time, nearly all its leaders have traded dictatorships for democracy, and they look like the people they govern. It’s a fertile breeding ground for change right now.

But while that may be fascinating for a nonprofit nerd such as myself, I think the real attraction of Latin America is the diversity of culture. The food, music, history, language, humor, and more across the region is just so rich, so interesting. Within Argentina, for example, there is so much to explore. Fast-paced, tango-infused Buenos Aires is worlds apart from its neighbor up north, Jujuy, where folk dancing and gauchos abound. And beyond Argentina, there’s Bolivia, where indigenous culture permeates every aspect of society. And so on, and so on. From the Panama Canal to the Amazon to Machu Picchu and everything in-between, Latin America is alluring for all these reasons and more.

And on a practical level, one dollar or euro can go a long way. Travelers and expats can then live reasonably, off very little, and immerse themselves in these amazing cultures with the added benefit of learning Spanish. Spanish is such an asset in the world we live in right now – especially in the U.S., where almost half the population is now Hispanic – and allows you to make much more deeper and meaningful connections with the people around you. I love that I can now walk into a bodega in NYC, for example, and converse with the guy behind the counter in his native tongue.

GO!: How can volunteers stay centered with realistic goals?

Celeste: Ask yourself from the outset: What does “doing good” even mean to me? To the community I’m a part of? Think about what you want to accomplish during your time there. Assess your needs, and those of your community, and be realistic with your expectations. Change is slow; you’re not going cause radical shifts in infrastructure in a short amount of time.

Working together with your host community is also crucial. Outline mutual goals. Make sure to have continual, open dialogue to see if you’re accomplishing them together. If you’re not, don’t be shy to admit mistakes or failures. Being realistic includes the ability to reassess what you’re doing and change direction, or move on if it’s not working out.

Idealist has a great International Volunteerism Resource Center that can help you address this question and more.

GO!: What is the continuing benefit of volunteering abroad after a volunteer returns home?

Celeste: I find that once people experience service in another country, their sense of the interconnectedness of the world around them is heightened, and the rush they feel from opening their mind to different ways of being fades but never really goes away. They’re always looking to recreate it.

But perhaps the most valuable thing about continuing to volunteer abroad is this idea that because you’re (hopefully) going into the experience with your eyes, ears and heart open, you notice more. You see needs, and you see solutions. I’m fascinated by this idea that there is an abundance of local solutions to local problems – like the traveling donkey library in Ethiopia that’s boosting literacy rates, for example – that could work in other similar contexts. But the mechanisms for spreading this information to where it’s needed are limited. Volunteers can play a pivotal role in helping to push and pull these solutions around the world.

GO!: How do you respond to criticism that volunteering abroad does more harm than good?

Celeste: Sometimes the criticisms are founded. Volunteers go into the experience for purely selfish reasons, or the infrastructure for sustainability is flawed, or organizations are only in it for the money and don’t actually need volunteers. There are actually a lot of ways volunteering abroad can go wrong.

Short-term volunteering usually has a greater impact on the individual rather than the community – unless there is a coordinated system in place where the next volunteer coming in can pick up where the other one left off. Or volunteers complete tasks that are small and concrete, or bring needed supplies.

I’m much more inclined toward longer term volunteering whenever possible. The longer you’re in a place, the more you get to know the community and its needs. And the more you can navigate cultural differences, the more likely you are to impact somebody’s life, no matter how small that may be.

GO!: What does the future hold for you?

Celeste: My immediate future consists of my honeymoon in India, where I hope to become an extra in a Bollywood video. My dreams for the longer-term future include living in Africa for a few years, getting a collection of my short stories published, and really helping to poise Idealist as a central place for pushing and pulling sustainable, effective solutions around the world.

GO!: Famous last words?

Celeste: Salami.

Thanks!

You can read Celeste’s blog posts here. Thanks again to the folks at GO! Overseas for letting us cross-post this piece!

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Comments (5)


  1. Gordon writes:
    December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am

    Would like to help out in Portland were my son lives.


  2. Julia Smith writes:
    December 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Gordon, you can search Idealist for volunteer opportunities in Portland, and then sign up for saved searches and/or Email Alerts to help you find the perfect one for you. Learn how here: http://www.idealist.org/blog/en/have-you-tried-our-daily-email-alerts-to-aid-your-job-search/


  3. Garga Foundation writes:
    December 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Dear Madam,

    Happy Christmas and New Year 2011

    I am impressed by the efforts of Idealist.org in connecting organizations with volunteers.

    How can we get good volunteers to support our organization http://www.gargafoundation.org. In 2011 we are interested in creating income generation activities to lessen the burden of rural women in seeking for health, caring for their families especially children, provision of water and sanitation services to sub-urban areas and promoting support for girl child education


  4. Celeste Hamilton Dennis writes:
    December 30, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Sounds like a great project! Have you tried posting using our new system yet? Because of the enhanced posting features, prospective volunteers can more easily search for opportunities that are aligned with both their needs and the organization’s.

    Also, on the new profiles, people who “Connect” with an org will able to see in their feed when an org posts a volunteer opportunity. These two features combined should help you recruit some great volunteers who probably would love to help.

    I would encourage you to try the new system, and let us know what you think. Thanks for writing, and best in 2011!


  5. Andrew from W Y writes:
    May 19, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    What a great read, and by the sounds of things it sounds like a great project.

    We are currently seeking good volunteers to support our programs, if you are interested please take a look at http://www.worldyouth.org.au/Volunteer-abroad We are interested in finding volunteers who want to work alongside local communities in making a “hands on” contribution to poverty reduction through specific development projects suggested by the community.

    Thanks


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