The simple answer – Yes! See how you can make your vacation a blessing to others, as well as yourself . . .
I’m often asked “can I volunteer while traveling?” and I’m always overwhelmed with sincere joy when I am. Why? Because in the Western world we have a very bad habit: we consider vacations “me” time first and foremost. Time to relax, recharge and spend some money and time on ourselves. And that’s ok, for the most part. But if you approach traveling in such a linear way, you could be missing out on one of the most inspring and rewarding aspects of “wanderlust”.
Traveling is the perfect time to volunteer. I’ve done so several times myself. And I plan on doing it even more in the future. “Why should I spend my vacation helping others?” Simple, by helping others your also help yourself – and your health! And the Mayo Clinic agrees.
Why helping others, helps you
Volunteering to serve others instantly breathes life into a key part of our humanity – our spirit. That’s why it should be considered a spiritual gift. I also refer to it as bearing a servant’s heart and it can quickly overtake your heart and psyche. It is also sacrificial. And having a sacrifical heart with the true intent of helping others is a cornerstone of a rewarding life.
For people of faith, volunteering while on vacation strengthens and renews the spirit in ways nothing else can. It provides a great sense of belonging to the greater community, especially if doing so outside your native country. In that instance, it can even provide a behind the scenes look at the local culture, attitudes, and traditions you could never gain any other way. And it can bind you tightly to a group of people by letting you experience the world from their perspective. It can even result in lifetime friendships.
A servant’s heart results in a rewarding life. It is an approach to life that can rekindle a positive attitude towards work after burning out 40+ hours the past six months, bring new life to old friendships, and even add a sparkle or two to marriage.
How do I volunteer while on vacation?
Volunteering can take many forms. It can be a simple thing you do on your own or it can be part of an organized group or event. I’ve found both approaches equally rewarding. It’s really about what your skillset, destination, schedule, and personal situation guide you towards. I’ve found the following process to be helpful when searching for volunteer opportunities on vacation.
- First, determine your skills and talents that can help others. They can be:
- Intellectual – like accounting, graphic design, or engineering. These are usually professional skills and highly valued in the volunteer world. Especially outside the United States.
- Physical – a strong back, walking endurance, or ability to use specialized equipment (such as for construction).
- Interpersonal – the ability to provide sound counsel and support is a rare skill in this world. But even a welcoming smile and willingness to listen to other’s problems can be a well used in the volunteer world.
- Second, confirm your destination and begin a search of local volunteer opportunities that accept single or multiple day volunteers. The internet, local churches and charities, even your friends can provide leads. Make their network your network. They’ll be eager to do so. I avoid online “volunteer around the world” type organizations. They often charge fees or have extensive paperworking that isn’t necessary. Plus, they may not really align to your personal beliefs. Some are even funded or supported by governments with less than stellar human rights records and may not be above board. Thailand is a great destination for wanderers to volunteer. I’ve been truly blessed helping the homeless in downtown Bangkok and provided me with memories that will last my entire lifetime.
- Third, reach out to 2-3 of the volunteer opportunities. Give them a call or send an email. Get a feel for the spirit – this is critical. You’ll be able to tell if their genuinely in it to serve others by how they respond. If you have any doubts, keep looking. But if one clicks, push ahead and see if your schedule meshes with their needs. If so, expect to provide some basic information to them. And if volunteering outside the nation you live in, contact your embassy in the volunteer nation and to let them know you’ll be going into a volunteer situation. Provide them your contact information and that of the charity. Also include the dates of service, the service you’ll be providing.
- Fourth and lastly, bring a friend. Partners, children, and friends can also learn the value of a servant’s heart by joining you. Plus, depending on where your volunteering (such as inner-city or high crime areas) it’s wise to never go alone, in case of an accident or cultural misunderstanding. But you’ll be happy to hear that many volunteer opportunities, including those I’ve done in Thailand, are very suitable for youth. Just use common sense, which brings us to the last thing you should know about volunteering on vacation. . .
Things to be aware of when volunteering
However, as a wise wanderer who has been around the world several times (literally) and seen a thing or two (firsthand), I must provide some cautions:
- Value your time – I suggest your first time volunteering while traveling be a short event. 4-5 hours is more than enough to gain an understanding of and comfort level. On the next trip, try a full work day. And if that feels comfortable, perhaps multiple days in the future. Remember, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. If your heart aligns with the service, then you can accomplish more in 8 hours than you could in several days elsewhere.
- Security first – I could just say “stay safe” but there is more to it than that. Being secure in a new environment takes intent.
- Play offense, not defense. Do this by constantly being aware of the sights and sounds around you.
- No tunnel vision. Look everywhere and make eye contact with everyone. Just be sure to smile. Also be respectful. The quickest way to become a target is to act superior or to appear to be laughing at someone or someting (such as a poster of a monarch or political leader).
- Go to your volunteer site well prepared. Water, smartphone, a small first-aid kit that can fit in your pocket are basic. Emergency phone numbers of the local embassy, your hotel, and the charity itself. Also, let your hotel, hosts, and embassy know of your schedule and whereabouts.
- Snap a few photos as your journey to and arrive to your destination. Post them in real-time on your social media. Basically, leave breadcrumbs just in case you have an accident, though it is extremely unlikely anyone will have to follow them. Think of it as insurance. I’ve travelled extensively and even in an apparently remote area have found cell-service. Hard to believe, but true in our connected world.
- Create your own “no-go zones”. Wherever you volunteer, I suggest setting your own personal no-go zones. These are areas that may have high crime, are unlit and unsavory, lack proper public safety agencies, or just have a bad reputation. You’re not being judgemental. You’re just being safe and protecting yourself and those you’re with. It is unlikely a volunteer opportunity will be located within a no-go zone but if it is, gracefully bow out and seek another opportunity. However, your journey to the volunteer site may take you through such an area. If so, make arrangements to travel around the area. Under no circumstances should you enter a no-go zone, even one of your own designation. Doing so could be dangerous.
Wanderlust = servant’s heart
As wanderers, we must actively seek ways to serve others during our travels. The world calls it karma, but the truth is it is much deeper than that. It is a spiritual gift, one that honors the Creator. Bearing a servant’s heart during your journies is a very loving way to let Him know that you understand the mercy He has shown you. And, to extend that same compassion to others.
BTW, I encourage you to read my blog on Cisco.com about my experience volunteering with homeless in Bangkok, Thailand. Just ignore the tech talk 🙂
2 responses to “Can I volunteer while traveling?”
[…] year Cisco gifts each employee with Time2Give (40 hours) to help others. This evening, a portion of my gift will be spent giving hope to this community. As we arrive, we’re awash with the smiles of the homeless and greeted by Jean […]
This is such a wonderful idea! Thank you!!!!