Follow Your Passion! The warts-and-all guide to volunteering with no experience

We all know that holidays are great! But how often have you enjoyed a holiday only to feel that it has ended before it began? That you didn’t get to know the people or local culture as much as you would have liked? That you want to help people while immersing yourself into their customs, language, food and even how they play?

You may have even considered working overseas, as a TEFL teacher or other paid profession. This is certainly a way to live alongside and build relationships through co-workers and neighbours, though the pressure of relocation, sorting out accommodation, schools if moving with your family, not to mention the pressure of delivering a paid service for a new employer can result in extending the time taken to assimilate into a new culture.

There is a better way.

Volunteering!

If your first thought on reading this is that:

a.) I have never volunteered before

b.) I have no skills that can be used

c.) I don’t even have a degree

d.) I don’t want to volunteer with a large Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)

Don’t worry…read on!

In this article, through my own experiences in Northern Thailand and Leros, I will guide you how to find the volunteer role that most suits you, how to reach out to organisations that interest you, how to prepare for your trip, things to do when you arrive, Expectations vs Reality and knowing when to move on.

Find the Volunteer Role that suits you

This is the first step and is very often the reason that people give up before they’ve started!

Remember what I said earlier about being worried about not having previous experience, having relevant skills, or being degree-qualified?

It is a misconception that in order to volunteer you need any of these things or that you have to work with one of the large NGOs.

In the age of the Internet, you simply need to make a list of causes that are important to you, describe your attributes, include geographical location if you wish, then condense them into keywords or phrases and search using Google, Bing or any of the popular search engines.

Always prefix your search with phrases like ‘volunteer’, ‘aid work’, ‘NGO’, ‘charitable organisation’.

For example, if you are interested in working in animal conservation, are friendly and want to work in East Africa, enter:

Volunteer + animal conservation + friendly + East Africa

Putting this into Google returns many results including the top result, The Mighty Roar, that clearly states:

“You don’t need any qualifications or experience to volunteer, just a bit of hard work and 100% commitment to supporting the cause.”

Great!

Now, research on the organisation! Read through their website, check out and post on any social media pages that they have on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. Ask and read the blogs of returning volunteers for feedback on their experience.

If it touches, moves or inspires you then you know you’ve found the right role for you!

This is how I found the Rejoice Foundation in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

Another route is via recommendation or the ‘friends network’. You may have a friend or a friend-of-a-friend that has done some volunteering that inspired you. If so, ask them for an introduction to the organisation! If a personal introduction is not possible, get the name and contact details of the best person to speak to.

The next thing to do is to…

Contact the Organisation

OK, so you’ve found where you want to volunteer. Now you need to let them know who you are, that you are interested in them and why they should choose you!

If you found the position via the organisation’s website, they may have an application area of the site. For example, The Mighty Roar application process is here.

If there is no specific application area, you should go to the Contact area of the website. There, you will normally find a Message dialogue box which will go directly to the designated contact at the organisation. Otherwise, there will be an email address.

In the case of contacting via a dialogue box or via email make sure that you are friendly but professional, that you refer specifically to the volunteer role that you are interested in, that you show enthusiasm and what you can bring to the role, talk about any relevant experience that you have, list the dates that you are available for the volunteer placement and all your contact details.

If you’ve found more than one organisation that you would like to volunteer with then be sure to contact them too!

Having a choice is a nice problem to have!

Volunteering with small, independent organisations has given me some of the most rewarding experiences of my life – I hope that you find this too!

How To Prepare for Your Trip

So, you’ve chosen who you want to volunteer with and have been accepted. Congratulations, it’s time to get excited!

It’s also time to get organised.

Essential Information

Make sure that you read the detailed information that you will be sent by the organisation. It will usually include:

Confirmation of the nature, location, and duration of your assignment.

What to bring with you: clothes, footwear, sanitary products

Visa requirements.

Cost of living during your assignment Transport details including flights, trains, buses, taxis.

Meet & Greet information: who will meet you and where. Is there a welcome party/induction?

Accommodation info – where you will be staying; who you will be staying with.

Cultural information – this should give you information about the community that you will be living with for the duration of your volunteer placement: customs, dress, laws, societal norms, family structures, faiths, food and a list of do’s and don’ts.

Consular information and Foreign Office travel advisory information for the region that you are travelling to.

Details of any stipends or allowances available.

Information about communication availability (mobile phone network, internet access etc.).

In my case, as we were visiting warm, jungle areas with high rainfall and humidity and mosquitos, I was advised to bring long sleeved shirts, light, waterproof jacket, and sturdy footwear. There was no accommodation available when I visited so I had to arrange an apartment and transport (motorbike) from Chiang Mai to Rejoice HQ which was about 8km away.

Vaccinations

Vaccination info – any jabs you may need before you go – these normally need to be completed 4-6 weeks before you travel.

For the rural areas of Northern Thailand, the following inoculations are recommended:

Tetanus and Diphtheria; Hepatitis A & B; Typhoid; TB; Japanese Encephalitis; Meningococcal Meningitis; Measles, Mumps and Rubella Rabies.

I was already inoculated against some of these, but I had to have 4 injections for those that I wasn’t.

If not all of the above information is provided, ASK! It is always best to be prepared and feel as comfortable as possible before you begin your adventure.

Use social media sites to speak to returning volunteers.

If you are still excited about the assignment, sign the agreement and go!

Things to Do When You Arrive

If you’re anything like me, you may not have slept very much the night before your flight!

There may be a long journey, including multiple stops and modes of transport to reach your destination. It’s important then, to rest while you can, avoid alcohol, stay hydrated, eat at all mealtimes and stay calm and relaxed.

Remember, the people at the end of your journey are going to be pleased to see you.

You are going to be fulfilling a need they have and they will be as nervous as you that you are welcomed properly and that they help you settle in and meet people!

Smile and Be Yourself!

Nobody is going to expect you to be the life and soul immediately.

Take advice from the other volunteers. Listen (and take notes if you can) at your induction.

Ignore any gossip…you’ll have time enough to make your own mind up about things!

You should be assigned a buddy to help ‘show you the ropes’. They will introduce you to your colleagues. If culturally appropriate, they should also be able to introduce to some of the local people.

If not, ask them for advice about how you should conduct yourself, cultural do’s and don’ts.

If you get offered a chance to explore and meet people, accept it at the earliest possible opportunity. This will help to remove any fear that you may have…any opportunity to experience your new environment should be grabbed immediately and with both hands!

When I arrived at Rejoice, I was introduced to every member of staff who was on duty, as well as many of the patients. It began nervously but two hours later I already felt like one of the team!

I was immediately offered the chance to go out on the daily community visits with the medical team to villages on the Thai / Myanmar border the following day.

When you go to your accommodation, why not try to personalise your sleeping area with photos, books and things that give you comfort.

Expectations vs Reality

So, you’re REALLY here!

If you’re anything like me, you will have built a picture in your mind about what your first volunteer experience is going to be like. You may have seen yourself as a Superhero/Mother Teresa/Diane Fossey type of person, swooping in and solving all the ills of the world.

You realise pretty quickly that it’s just not like that!

Like most things in life, you need to be a team player. You do this by following instructions and process, if needed. You will have shitty days. You may even not like all your fellow volunteers.

On some days, you may not like some of the locals, customs or people that you are helping. The food. Your accommodation.

What you are doing may be upsetting sometimes. There may be life and death situations that you are involved in.

This is normal! This is part of being human!

It’s OK to be pissed off!

It’s okay to be pissed off sometimes, even in voluntary work. Some would say ESPECIALLY in voluntary work!

As I mentioned above, I went out with the Rejoice medical team, to villages and small communities that were being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. It was humbling, upsetting and very, very real.

On my first day. I spent the whole day like a dynamo…playing football with kids, pulling silly faces and laughing with the adults. Rushing to give out anti-fungal medication, vitamins, and creams. My mania was drawing puzzled looks from everybody.

I was trying WAAAY too hard! By the end of the day, I dissolved into tears from all the pent-up energy that had been stored up during the day.

No one spoke any English except one of the Thai doctors. On the way back to HQ, when we’d stopped for something to eat, he said to me

“Are you ok? A few people were asking me if you were alright as you seemed stressed”…

The people I was thinking that I was helping were asking if I was ok!!!???

That’s when I got it…calm down!

You are absolutely no good to anybody if you are burnt out or stressed!

So, pace yourself. If you need some time out or an early night, ask for it and do it.

If you are struggling, speak up! There will be someone there who has been through the same as you.

You are NOT a Superhero!!

Mental Health support is important in high-stress situations. Larger NGOs will often have a support worker available. Smaller organisations may not have this in place so it is important to talk to your peers and stay in communication with your nearest and dearest.

If you remove expectations that you have put on yourself to be a superhero, learn your role calmly, for instance by getting to know your colleagues and the locals therefore starting to feel like you are at home there, well that is when the magic happens!

That is when your life can transform and you genuinely do great things without realising it.

There is no better feeling than integrating with a new community, forging strong relationships bound by a common experience, trying new foods, laughing and partying in an environment that you would not have imagined until then.

Knowing When To Move On

This is a very important but difficult subject to discuss…when is it time to leave your assignment?

You may have agreed to a set timeframe, for example a 6-month voluntary contract. Or you may have extended the assignment.

Or you may be so caught up in what you are doing that you feel guilty about leaving.

You must trust your intuition with this. For example, if you feel burnt out, find yourself needing more mental health care, are drinking more alcohol, feeling bad-tempered or developing obsessive behaviour, it is probably time to take some extended time out or leave the assignment.

It doesn’t matter how long you have been there…you must listen to your inner voice.

Van in demand: Man breaks

In 2015, I drove a van of humanitarian aid to the Greek island of Leros. It was at the height of the mass exodus of people from Syria and Iraq, travelling across the sea from Turkey into Europe.

A long-wheel-base van was quickly in demand on a tiny island like Leros, and I quickly found myself working with UNHCR, MSF and a number of smaller organisations, as well as liaison with the local police and Greek Coastguard.

Working 20 hours a day for 19 days straight, organising the distribution of non-food aid, taking people to the hospital, liaising between all the groups, helping in as many ways as I could…but it burned me out.

I got a chest infection, put my back out and had to take time off for a week.

Hitting a Wall

Then I hit a wall.

When I returned, I worked a little smarter (took shifts with the van), but after eight more weeks, because of the deal that the EU had struck with Turkey, there were fewer people arriving. I was running out of money, I had begun to get very short-tempered and obsessed by detail and systems. I was snapping at people, was drinking one too many beers in the evenings and my energy levels were low.

My gut told me it was time to go. It was the right thing to do.

I felt guilty but after talking to my friends and fellow volunteers I realised that there was no shame in knowing when to call it a day.

What Happened Next?

I flew to the German town of Hamm, near Dortmund, to spend a few days with a Syrian family that I had become close to. Then I flew to Thailand ‘to decompress’, as I put it at the time.

I have a very close friend who teaches at a prestigious international school in Bangkok and he arranged for me to come and give a presentation to students from all over the world. This helped me to process the preceding three months.

To conclude, I hope this has given you some pointers of how to prepare as well as some first-hand insight into volunteering. I strongly believe that everyone should experience this at some point in their lives – that it enriches the human experience and you will make friends for life!

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