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Making the Most of a Volunteer Vacation

Last year, on a bit of a whim and without much planning, we decided to take a quick volunteer trip to Ireland. We had a good time on the Emerald Isle, no doubt about it. But we also had a lingering sense that, with a little more effort, our trip could have been just that much more rewarding, both for us and the people we encountered. By giving thought to where you’re going, what you’ll be doing, the kinds of interactions you want to have, and what results you want to achieve, your own volunteer vacation can quickly change from a quick trip away to a deeply meaningful experience that you’ll remember for many years.

There are essentially three stages to a volunteer vacation — pre-departure, the vacation itself, and post-vacation — and three sets of people to consider — yourself, the population being served, and the sponsoring organization. Here are some things to consider that will make all of these stages even more positive for all of the people concerned. The most important part of the experience takes place before departure and after you come home, not during the experience itself.

You can set yourself up for positive interactions with the people you’ll be serving by learning what you can about your co-workers and the people and place you’ll be visiting. Read any orientation materials the organization sends you. Study maps to familiarize yourself with the country’s geography. Research the basic country’s history. If the country has a dominant religion different from your own, study it — preferably with someone in your home community who practices that religion. Ask your sponsoring organization for cultural tips. Learn at least a few basic phrases in the host country’s language — you’ll be surprised by how much goodwill this will buy you upon arrival.

But we caution against going too far. Don’t try to become an expert or eliminate all of the surprises. Unless it will be several years before you depart, odds are you will be frustrated. In a worst-case scenario, you might actually set up false expectations that aren’t fulfilled. Second, you will want to savor the surprises that come with discovering the nuances and delights that every country and culture has to offer.

Spend some time in intentional reflection before you go. What do you want to gain from this journey? How do you hope this experience changes you as a person? What are your goals, both personally and as a community servant? What are you most excited or nervous about? Start your journaling several weeks before departure, and be sure to chronicle both what you’re doing to prepare and what you’re feeling as you get ready.

Once you’re off on your volunteer vacation, try to lose yourself in the experience as much as possible. Your time is likely to go quickly, and you’ll be on a plane home before you know it. So embrace that fact rather than fight it. To preserve the experience, we strongly recommend that you keep a record of what happens. Most people do this through journaling, but if that doesn’t appeal to you, you can write regular — even daily — letters to someone at home (and ask them to keep the letters for you), make audiotapes, and take lots of photographs, even of the most mundane tasks. Record keeping in this way serves two purposes: it helps you process and make sense of your experience while it’s happening, and it also preserves your memory for the future. One of our favorite things to do late at night is to pull an old journal off a shelf and see what we were doing on that date on a volunteer vacation many years ago.

For all that we recommend planning and goal-setting before you depart, you should also let serendipity just happen. Some of our greatest delights, fondest memories, and best pictures during volunteer vacations are of moments we couldn’t have dreamt, conversations with remarkable people we happened to meet, and events we were lucky to stumble upon or were invited to.

While you are right to focus many of your energies on making this the best possible experience for yourself, never lose sight of the fact that you are also on your volunteer vacation for altruistic reasons, too. Make sure you’re practicing people-focused, bottom-up, grassroots development work. Your project must be community driven and owned; it must reflect the community’s priorities; and it must be carried out in sustainable and appropriate ways. Remember that the process is at least equal to, if not more important than, the product.

In interacting with the host culture, don’t demand too much. And remember that you are a guest. Don’t just follow the golden rule; follow the cross-culturally updated version: Do unto others as they would have you do.

One of the best ways to make friends in a new place is through children. If there is one constant among cultures that we’ve seen around the world, it is that everyone loves their kids. Be nice to kids. Interact with them. Show them pictures of home. Try to communicate with them. If adults see that they can trust you with their kids and that you are nice to the people they care the most about, they are more likely to treat you well, too.

When you return home, take time to unpack your bags, glance at your overburdened email in-box, take a deep breath, and start figuring out how you’re going to answer one big question: So what? Don’t just think about what you’re going to tell others about what you saw and did; think about what it meant. How did it impact you? Are you a different person now? And how might your life need to change to fit the new you?

One of the best ways to force yourself to answer these questions is to talk with local civic groups, schools, or at your place of worship. This will put a timeline on your processing and will help you to engage these questions in a real and honest way.

Lastly, be sure to think about how you can continue to be of service to your host organization and to the culture or country that hosted you. Perhaps you can serve as a reference for future potential volunteers with this organization, or give them a story or photo to post on their web site. Pay attention to and advocate for your host country when it is in the news, or look for international organizations that work with the people who hosted you.

Anyone can go on a volunteer vacation, and, as we proved in Ireland last year, you can do it with little planning or preparation. But by being thoughtful, taking time to reflect, and letting serendipity take over at times, you can have an even better and more meaningful experience.

More by Doug Cutchins and Anne Geissinger
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