11 August 2010

one of these volunteers is not like the others

I’m quickly learning that volunteers tend to fall into four main catgeories: the missionary worker, the retiree voluntourist, long-term Peace Corps and NGO workers, and 20-something shoestring budget backpackers. And then there’s late 30-something me.

As a travel writer, I’ve been on my fair share of press trips* and have learned how to get along with (or at least, bite my lip and tolerate) people from all walks of life. I figured volunteering abroad with any well-intentioned person maybe not exactly in my demographic had to be easier than traveling anywhere with a high maintenance travel writer with 101 demands. Surprise, surprise; both scenarios present their own complications and require sacrifices, compromise and some extra effort.

In the volunteer world as I know it, finding short-term, non-faith based volunteer work that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg has been a real challenge. Different people are steered down the path of volunteering for different reasons, and I don’t believe that one path is more righteous than another when good deeds are being done. I also don’t believe it should be prohibitively expensive to volunteer, but that is a discussion best saved until after I’ve experienced a few more opportunities in a wider range of budgets.

I’m living a pretty rough and tumble lifestyle this year and things like outbreaks of Dengue Fever and Bubonic Plague (project #1 and #2 realities, respectively) are beyond my control. I do, however, have a say when it comes to the cleanliness of accommodations, volunteer work expectations or having running water, and will always require reasonable safety, respect and some privacy on occasion. I’ve dropped the “gourmet” from my usual global gourmet existence (also my Twitter handle) and have been living on simple volunteer meals, street food and the occasional cerveza. Accomodations have ranged from a comfortable private room in a home stay to a roach infested basilica to a shared dorm-style room without heat in the dead of winter and a twin bed in a barrio where gun shots lulled me to sleep at night. There’s nothing glamorous about what I'm doing this year, but The Global Citizen Project is not all about me; it’s about giving back. But, there’s a small part of me that wishes I could do just that with a (preferably) female peer coming from a similar place, instead of feeling like the odd woman out.

Whether you volunteer or not, I think we all feel and need a lot of the same things, and hope for a world without so much hardship. At least my ever optimistic self would like to think so. I just wish there were more accessible and appropriate opportunities for women like me, who aren’t afraid to live a scaled back existence, but would appreciate working with people with similar life experience. There are 10 projects to go, so there’s still hope for me to find the perfect fit volunteer project. Fingers crossed.

One objective of The Global Citizen Project is to participate in a variety of volunteer opportunities and report back with honest, firsthand feedback. That is why my project involves me in 12 different areas and styles of service. Although I’m only in the throes of Project #2, there are already many comparisons to be made between my experiences in Peru and Honduras. I’m sure when all 12 projects are said and done, the big picture perspective will be very insightful (and hopefully, helpful) for other service-minded folks, especially 30-something women like myself.

If you’re a 30-something gal who has had a fantastic volunteer experience, I’d love to hear from you. Nancy Drew here is on the detail to see if such scenarios exist. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away at my save the world efforts with an open mind, my bottles of bug spray and SPF and a smile.

* For those not in the know, a press trip, also known as a FAM – Familiarization Trip, is basically an all expenses paid travel tour de force sponsored by hotels and tourism boards who woo and pamper travel writers, vying for a few inches of ink (or 12 point type, in these print media world gone to hell days) in one of our published musings.


Connie said...

I think what you're doing is an amazing thing and I find your project absolutely riveting! I'm currently traveling in Asia this year with the same intent, but just a little less stringent. It is difficult to give up some of the luxuries we've afforded ourselves in the name of a greater cause (I know because I currently find myself living in an old unused gym that's been converted to an "apartment" in southern Thailand, sleeping on gym mats!), but come on. You have to admit, it is so worth it! I'm turning 30 in November this year so if you're heading out to Asia, please let me know! Perhaps we can get involved in a volunteer program together!

Oh, and how are you going about searching for your volunteer projects? I've been having a bit of trouble finding good, reputable organizations (as evidenced by the Nepal volunteer scam I fell victim to a few months back) to get involved with out here.

Thanks and keep up the GREAT work! You are admired and inspiring!

Charyn Pfeuffer said...


Thanks for your comment and kudos to you for your volunteer work (and nice to meet you on Twitter, too!).

I agree with you 100% - all of the compromises are well worth the experiences of volunteering. Plus, it makes me extra appreciate all of the little things I tend to take for granted - like a 90 second shower - with or without warm/hot water.

I'm still hashing out some of my Spring 2011 projects and I'd love to make it to Asia. I'll keep you posted.

As for finding projects - it's been a lot of word-of-mouth referrals and phone calls. I did get burned by an organization in Ecuador that suddenly shut down with no reason - after I booked a non-refundable plane ticket, but managed to find an even better opportunity. A lot of orgs have slick websites and once you get them on the phone and start asking questions, aren't all they are cracked up to be. If I hear of any decent Asia opportunites, I'll send 'em your way. Would love to cross paths with you!

High fives right back at you - it's always inspiring to meet other inspired women!

chelsea said...

Is there room on any of your projects for companions? What if you posed that to your group of friends? I bet you'd get some takers (I'd def be interested!)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the honest accounts from the road. I identify with your challenges, I am a late 20 something female who is non-religious and would love to see more opportunities to do good for all manner of volunteers.

Hopefully we can meet up on your last trip!

Jamie said...

I agree with Chelsea. I would be interested. It is hard to find volunteer projects that don't cost an arm and a leg. I wouldn't feel comfortable paying hundreds of dollars to an organization to give my time and vounteering. It always seems like a rip off when i do research. I wish you were going to be in South East Asia!

Good luck! Your awesome

Charyn Pfeuffer said...

Chelsea - Absolutely! There are opportunities for October (Ecuador), January (Haiti) and possible some of the TBD spring projects. I would love some travel company.

Sharon - You are so welcome! Looking forward to hopefully meeting you in 2011! In the meantime, keeping my eyes peeled for quality volunteer projects (and promise to post about them).

Jamie - I agree with you 100%. I have a hard time justifying paying lots of money to give my time. If I were taking volunteer vacations, that would be one thing, but this project is service centric and I'm not in it for the amenities, etc. I still have to hash out two of the spring projects, so SE Asia is a possibility. Never been and would love to go - and seems like LOTS of volunteer opportunities!