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Are overseas volunteer trips worth it? Add to ...


I really want to go on a volunteer mission trip overseas this summer. My parents don’t see the point of paying thousands of dollars for trip expenses when the money could be donated directly to the charity. How do I help show them what a great opportunity this could be?

The answer

We’ve given a lot of thought to this question. A monetary donation has a more direct impact the moment it’s given – but an overseas service experience, if done well, can kick-start a lifetime of contributing to change.

We admit our bias. Each of our life paths was changed by our overseas experiences – Marc’s university gap year volunteering at an AIDS hospice in Thailand, and Craig’s first trip as a middle-school student to investigate child labour in South Asia. Neither of us can imagine our lives today without the fundamental shift in perspective that came with the issues we’ve encountered and people we’ve met while travelling abroad.

Your parents are correct; these trips can be expensive. The costs vary, mostly based on the destination. With determination, some costs can be covered through bursaries, scholarships or fundraising.

The “voluntourism” industry is growing rapidly, and as with any trip, you want to maximize your positive impact and minimize the negative. Even the best of intentions can be misguided, and the “work” can range from bottle-feeding baby elephants by day and partying by night, to back-breaking labour and living in intensive home-stays exactly as the locals live. We’ve seen the extremes, and learned a few lessons.

The projects you work on should be driven by the community’s needs and led by community members, not built around the volunteer experience. You should be adding needed extra hands to an existing project, such as raising a wall for a school or caring for children who would otherwise not receive much attention, rather than partaking in a make-work project or taking the place of paid local workers. If it’s done well, your trip’s project could actually create local jobs – from cooks and tour guides, to drivers and security guards.

Make sure your trip leaders’ philosophy is solidarity, not charity. They should encourage participants to work alongside the community members as their peers, and not to bring handouts or gifts except when co-ordinated by the group.

Ideally your trip includes programming to explore the deeper social, economic and environmental issues at play, and facilitate follow-up action. Workshops and discussions with host community members on culture, trade, aid and development promote a deeper, more genuine understanding of your experience.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of domestic options for voluntourism. WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a great way to get your hands dirty while learning about organic growing and meeting new people. Katimavik, another organization, sends groups of 17- to 21-year-olds on nine-month volunteer adventures in communities across Canada. The Land Conservancy in B.C. offers conservation holidays in wilderness and heritage sites across the province, and the Frontiers Foundation’s Operation Beaver places education and housing construction volunteers in Northern communities.

If done well, the effects of a volunteer trip can be remarkable. From developing an appreciation of other cultures and an increased awareness of a country’s policies, to changing career paths and launching other successful non-profit organizations, overseas experiences have shaped a whole generation of active global citizens.

In short, consider your intentions and goals before planning a volunteering trip. If you can stay 100 per cent committed to a better world while at home, then continue to be socially conscious and send a cheque. But if you’re debating between a beach vacation or something more authentic in the community, and you want to gain a unique perspective through hands-on work, then consider an international service trip.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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Follow on Twitter: @craigkielburger

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