How to Feel At Home and Contribute to Local Communities while Traveling

How to Feel At Home and Contribute to Local Communities while Traveling

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Traveling provides different opportunities for volunteer work depending on the outcome you are seeking. This could be short term while backpacking in a certain area, or long term as a side project while living abroad, or even the sole focus of your adventures. Whether or not to volunteer is definitely a very personal thing. If you do decide to embrace the idea of volunteering, it does have a way of reducing the likelihood of homesickness as it causes you to adapt quickly to your surroundings, introduces you to people of a similar nature and allows you to feel a part of something positive.

Volunteering has become somewhat of a modern day traveling phenomenon. To volunteer can certainly be a practical and rewarding way to feel at home while on the road. There is always an element of concern for the overwhelming fear of being homesick, which one may or may not experience, when leaving a familiar home environment. This can especially be a risk when embarking on your first solo journey. The idea of volunteering while traveling is that it not only provides the individual with a sense of purpose while on the road, but it tends to provide the community organisations the support they really need.

Good volunteering considers both the local culture and the individual volunteer. Opportunities should aim to benefit the wider community, help should be freely given and address environmental, human and social concerns in an ethical way.

The term voluntourism has recently emerged due to the large number of organisations who sadly take advantage of unsuspecting tourists due to the increasing amount of tourists who are placed into short term volunteer projects. Unfortunately, the majority of short term volunteering projects can have a negative outcome for the volunteer, primarily due to the mismanagement of donated funds, the psychological damage that orphanage tourism provides to children and the volunteers, and the lack of preparation for the role that the volunteer is expected to provide. To volunteer requires thorough research, and with the right organization the community will build positive relationships, develop a suitable plan for the required projects and support families to be united and cared for with child safe volunteer practices in place.

What is one example of a poor volunteering opportunity?

One example to consider is the concept of orphanage tourism. This often means short and unplanned day visits to local orphanages where donations are collected and children do not receive a long term benefit. Orphanages should request that photos with children are limited and that individual gifts are not permitted. Orphanages should not have an open door policy or charge visiting fees. Organizations should implement child safe practices and travelers need to inquire into what opportunities the center might have and then consider asking where their funding will be allocated. Children are incredibly vulnerable in situations where tourists frequently come and go so it is important to remember what your intentions are when adding an orphanage visit to your travel plans. Consider purchasing educational or medical supplies as a donation instead of gifting money and aim to work with other volunteers on a project that is sustainable such as building a new roof or supplying the center with clean drinking water. Part of building the relationship with the wider community is asking questions about the organizations current needs so that money is not wasted and resources are not unintentionally given.  

What is one example of a good volunteering opportunity?

One example of good volunteering is also a popular one -- teaching. Teaching English is highly beneficial to the local community. If you are passionate about educating the next generation; teaching is a very rewarding, positive and challenging way to be purposeful on your travels. Consider the places you are looking at volunteering for and ask yourself some of the volunteering principles that are listed below.

These principles are some that can be reflected on during your time on the road and when looking for places to volunteer. A number of travelers that you meet via hostels, airports or even out at a local bar will be volunteering in the local community, so don’t be afraid to raise topics of conversation. Interesting enough, you might be surprised at how few people actually have an understanding of the way the voluntourism concept works.

  1. Engage in work that has a positive outcome for the community
  2. Give your time willingly as volunteering is a choice and should be done with enthusiasm
  3. Volunteers should not present a threat or intimidate local employees
  4. The work should address environmental, human and social factors
  5. The work should be culturally suitable for the location of the community

Volunteering creates a contribution to the community in many ways such as:

  • Relationship building
  • Training, Education and Employment
  • Medical care
  • Raising awareness
  • Expands world view

Before volunteering, consider some of the negatives that might be present such as money (the commercialization/wrong intentions), under trained or ill prepared (teachers not having resources to work with), ready made orphanages created for profit (orphanages that run as a business where children are not orphans), organizations which are not registered or licensed and lastly consider the psychological damage orphanage tourism can have on children (kids in care often have developmental concerns and attachment disorders).

Personally, I found that the best part of living abroad was a combination of paid work and volunteer work. This was when I was working as a Teacher at a registered International School and volunteering during my spare time in some of the most impoverished areas of Southeast Asia. My volunteer work varied from children’s programs in urban slum areas of Thailand to medical outreach trips to delivering donated supplies by truck to rural villages in Cambodia. Primarily, the work was focused on education and raising awareness of health concerns in the region such as hygiene (teaching hand washing and providing soap, dengue fever (delivery of mosquito nets) and the delivery of books and stationery supplies.

There  are a lot of amazing and exciting projects available to travelers including taking care of elephants at a rehabilitation sanctuary or training young chefs at a local cooking school. There are no limits, you may even find that you would like to run your own non-profit organization.

When you decide to volunteer, you may realize that as an individual, you have the power to make a difference, not only on the lives of the people and communities you volunteer to help, but also on your own.


About the author:

Cherie Julie


Volunteering aided Cherie greatly while traveling and has encouraged her to create her blog Travel For Change to inspire fellow travelers to be a responsible tourist. It relieved much of her homesickness by providing herself with a purpose and sparked an interest in many areas of volunteer work.

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