When I was in my 20’s and on the verge of college graduation, I began my search for my first “real job”. I wanted to see the world, but my only international travel at that point involved a few vacations to Mexico’s beaches and border towns. I was interested in the Peace Corps because I had a strong desire to help people and communities in need around the world. However, when I was offered a salaried job with a company car, my Peace Corps dreams were put on hold.
My passion for international travel never waned though, and over the next 25 years I took every opportunity to travel the world. While most of my trips were the typical tourist experiences, there were two notable exceptions – a month-long stay with a family in Costa Rica while I attended a Spanish language program and a trip to Belize with a dentist who runs a clinic in Belize City.
When my job was eliminated in 2013, I decided to take advantage of the time off and volunteer overseas. It was the closest I could come to joining the Peace Corps.
The Road Less Traveled
I found a number of organizations with a wide range in cost (primarily a result of the quality of accommodations). Since the purpose of my trip was altruistic, I was not concerned with amenities, only with safety and clean facilities. Although most programs offered special volunteer housing, I was looking for programs that offered a home-stay or local alternative.
It was also important that I work with an organization whose mission included giving back to the community in which it worked. As I narrowed my search, I finally decided upon New Zealand-based International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). What impressed me about IVHQ was that they did on-site screening of local organizations, evaluated volunteer working conditions and housing, and most importantly, ensured that the work their volunteers would do would make a valuable contribution to the community.
A Life-Changing Year
I will admit to being a bit nervous as I set out for two weeks in Guatemala. The trip had come together so quickly I wasn’t sure I had done enough research and preparation. But, when I arrived and saw the sign with my name on it I was immediately reassured.
We lived like locals and took the “chicken bus” up to Casa Aleyua orphanage every day. Our mornings were spent playing and reading with the youngest children there (up to age of 3), and then I went on to take Spanish language lessons every afternoon – a bonus to my experience.
Even before my Guatemala experience was over, I knew I wanted to join another program. Something about Nepal sounded appealing, so I signed up and began preparing for my trip to the other side of the world.
It’s fair to say that my experience in Nepal was life-changing! I was in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world where poverty is evidenced everywhere, but I was surrounded by the happiest people I had ever seen!
During this trip, I worked in a children’s care home in Pokhara. Unlike an orphanage, these 54 resident children had parents, but lived there because their parents could not afford to send them to school. They were charming, motivated to learn, and all were working hard for a better life. During the 2 weeks we were there, we spent most of our days with the children and grew very attached to them. It was a hard place to leave, and I can’t wait to go back!
The final trip of my life-altering year was with Volunteer Connection Ecuador in Quito. In Ecuador, although education is mandatory and free, many children do not go because they need to work in the markets to help support their families. My volunteer group would go into these markets to recruit these children to join us for some play time and learning. Our primary goal was simply to give these kids a few hours to be kids!
A New Perspective
As I look back on these programs, I appreciate the perspective they have given me. The children I met and played with have so little but are so grateful for everything they have. It was a continuous reminder how fortunate I am.
International volunteering is not for everyone. The housing is probably not like home – shared bedrooms, shared bathrooms, scheduled meal times – and all the amenities may not be readily available. But it is a great way to get immersed in another culture and realize that we truly are part of a global community.
Although I’m back to work now, I continue to feel the tug of children around the world, and will be embarking on my next adventure to Sri Lanka in a few weeks. I look forward to seeing their smiling faces and sharing their joy in experiencing life’s simplest pleasures.
Here’s to another great adventure!