If I said I could put into words how much I learned while volunteering in St Lucia, South Africa, I’d be lying to you. However, after three separate stints volunteering (between 2008 and 2010), I like to think of myself as somewhat of a volunteer abroad guru! I learned not only through giving back and my own personal growth, but also through making mistakes, having regrets and going back to do it all again. Often, I learned things the hard way, but with this list you can take some words from the wise (if being wise means getting it wrong a few times before getting it right), and make the most of your volunteer time, because believe me it goes by in a flash.
Jump in Don’t let yourself be held back! You would rather look back on your volunteering experience and not have to say “what if…?”
Jam pack every minute… …with experiences you’ll never have again. Having that extra pint at the pub is something you can do in Chicago or Manchester. Spending the weekend hiking Ghost Mountain or taking a horse ride in iSimangaliso, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, is not.
Hard work pays off The amount of joy, experience, and life-changing moments that you get out of volunteering are directly proportional to the effort, dedication and hard-work that you put into the projects. You get out what you put in – so go hard while you can!
Face fears Whether it’s sticking your hand in an elephant’s mouth or taking on teaching a younger age group than you would normally feel comfortable with, don’t let something that would hold you back at home stop you from experiencing everything volunteering has to offer.
Listen. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. The project teams have a wealth of knowledge and have been doing this work for several years. Listen to them, learn from them and then use your newfound understanding to go out there and effect positive change. Volunteering can be a rollercoaster of emotions and by taking it all in during your first days you’ll hopefully avoid a sense of helplessness a lot of volunteers feel during their first week.
Learn. Everything you experience is an opportunity to learn. Ask 1,233,245 questions over the course of your volunteer program. The staff team is there to answer your questions - no query is invalid! Take in everything you can about the place you’re in, the culture, language and customs. Then write it all down in that journal of yours so you don’t forget!
Appreciate the small things Running water. Healthcare. Reliable 3G Internet. The list is endless. Don’t spend your time pining for what you have at home (although I know sometimes the Wifi in Africa is so slow you could throw your laptop across the café). Appreciate the smiles, the fun you can have when the electricity goes off, drinks watching a stunning sunset. They’ll be gone before you know it so take time to acknowledge the beauty everywhere!
Recreate yourself The beauty of waltzing into a new volunteer house is that no one knows what you’re like at home. Step out of your comfort zone and work on your personal development by doing things like being vocal about your opinions, offering to do extra work without being asked, and so on.
Know the importance of bonding When you’re volunteering, take time to look around at the people who surround you. It’s likely you will never be together like this again (although sometimes there are reunions in far-away lands!). Take advantage of this – talk through your experiences, fears and reservations about returning home. No one will understand you as much as the person sharing the bunk beside you.
I’m capable of more When one is pushed to the brink of their comfort zone, that step outside is where the magic happens. Personal growth, making a difference in another person’s life, and seeing the world all contribute to a newfound lease on life! Bask in it, enjoy it, and remember how it made you feel when you get home!
Alanna joined us on our Orphan Day Care and Community Support Program and Rural Medical and HIV/AIDs Awareness Program in Zululand, South Africa before becoming a full-time staff member living in South Africa and Zimbabwe!