I’m not sure if I have mentioned this before. But I have been working with international youth volunteers for a decade now. After years of volunteering, living, studying, and working overseas myself (okay 6 years of that- I don’t want to age myself too much), I decided to study to become a teacher- I wanted a skill set.
Anyway, after my education program I ended up working for a lovely little project at my university where we helped children around the world develop their own community action projects. But we struggled to get by. We applied for grants that didn’t quite fit what we did. My boss pulled her hair out (thankfully she has a lot of it) trying to think of ways to keep us afloat. Meanwhile the project took on a life of its own and kids from every corner of the world sent in the stories of what they were doing in their own communities (from Taiwan to Malawi).
But we were so tired of applying for grants, so when an opportunity came to partner with the oldest gap year organization in the UK (at that time 37 years old), we took it. We thought it would be a great source of funding and a great way to get local students involved in international community development. And we thought after 37 years they would have figured out how to do it well. Right?
The volunteers worked primarily in education and care (not just cute baby orphan care, but with people of all ages who needed support because of mental or physical infirmity). We sent our first group off to different corners of the world. But it was hard for the Canadians. They were not used to the idea of a gap year. And they really struggled with culture shock. But they stuck with it and we decided to supplement the program with predeparture training in culture shock, intercultural communication, safety, and problem solving.
When they came home they started to go through reverse culture shock. And many questioned what they were doing and what they had experienced. They really struggled with the volunteer jobs they had. For example, they had to teach children and didn’t know how to teach. They had to work with people with physical and mental disabilities and had no training in therapy. They fell in love with the orphans and then had to walk away from them. And they were totally disheartened to find out that a big chunk of the the money they spent on the program went to pay for managers from the UK to fly in and visit them, and stay at the nicest hotels. (There were other challenges and if you are curious you can read about them here.)
So we added teacher training and worked to move the management from the UK to Canada. But the problem was we were trying to fix an existing system… that had existed for 37 years and still didn’t work. Eventually that organization decided they didn’t want to work with us any more- maybe because we drove them crazy with our suggestions… they weren’t terribly interested in changing. It was a mutual decision… we desperately wanted them to change.
I know, here was my chance to walk away from it all. But silly, stubborn me. I was still quite sure there was value in this experience for the communities and for the participants. So I resurfaced with Stratosphere. We focus more on long term relationships, sustainable resource development, educational workshops, and experiential learning. Yes, we do have volunteering and internship opportunities. But it is a controlled experience that fits with the skill set of the participant and that is sensitive to the needs of the communities and organizations we work with.
Okay, so for those of you that are still with me. What are some key things to do if you are interested in an overseas volunteer experience?
1) Find out where your money is going.
There are many organizations out there that simply charge you $3000 to organize a placement and maybe check in on you once when you are there. Make sure you know where your money is going. And if it is a government funded program, then ask them the same question because the government is allocating tax payers’ money to this experience.
2) Think about what skills you are bringing to this experience and what you are being asked to do.
There is nothing more disappointing than arriving overseas to a job you are incapable of doing. I am not saying you won’t learn something new. But you need to start somewhere. So what are the skill sets you already have? What have you been trained in? If you have never taught back home, you are not going to miraculously develop teaching skills on arrival overseas. And no, sorry, the school won’t just be grateful to have you regardless of your ability. So find out first what is expected of you and make sure you are not being placed in a position that you can’t handle.
3) Think about the impact while you are there.
There are some great organizations that have incorporated volunteers and interns into their structure. These organizations have a special program for unpaid support. This means the volunteers or interns are needed and operate separate from the existing paid staff members. You should be supplementing the existing structure, not disrupting it. A bad example would be to take a volunteer teaching job and find out you have displaced a local teacher. A good example would be an internship where you work side by side with the regular staff and learn from them.
4) Think about what will happen after you leave.
Don’t get so caught up in the moment that you forget to think about what will happen down the road. I have two examples for this. First, we love to build new things -new schools, new medical clinics or a new orphanage. Maybe they are needed (that is a whole other blog post). But! You need to ask what is going to happen after you leave. Who will run the school? Who will pay the teachers? Who are the teachers? Who will maintain the school? Have you created a dependency on an outside source? Second, It may seem like a lovely experience to help out at an orphanage. But the children that live there need consistency in their lives. Can you imagine having a new caregiver every 3 months, every 2 weeks? They need adults they can rely on, routine, and security. Not someone to tickle and play with them.
Okay, enough for now. But… really, truly, it is time for change. Enough with old systems that don’t work.