A lucrative business has sprang up catering for the stream of young volunteers wishing to travel and make their mark in a developing community. Most volunteers that I have spoken to have had an amazing time building houses and schools or staying with local families and helping out at a nearby orphanage. It is hard work but they’ve come away feeling as though they have really accomplished something. Unfortunately there are some stories that illustrate the lack of guidance and some blatant rip offs by some companies. This has made the need to become critical of such organisations. You need to do your homework. Some of the less savoury operations leave our well-intentioned travellers wallowing without direction on arrival or accommodated in inadequate housing. It is great to see volunteers becoming more independent about their input; making their dollar and energy count where it’s needed.
Not only do most volunteers want to make an immediate impact but they would like to see a long lasting effect of their efforts. Volunteers can bring a lot of hope and joy to a community that may be stuck without direction because of the lack of resources or education. A redistribution of the world resources is sorely needed to allow remote people to access some basic human requirements. While travelling through the islands in the South Pacific it is great to see how the aid from China, Japan, Australia or the European Union has supplied solar and generator apparatus for power, dental facilities and other much needed infrastructure. Maintaining this equipment seems to be an issue though and unfortunately these amenities are breaking down without due attention. Cruisers sailing the islands are often rallied to supply tools or to fix a feature that a community relies on. Helping a community maintain such infrastructure is a worthy contribution to make as you’re passing through.
Rather than relying on volunteer organisations, many individuals are looking for solutions to problems they encounter as they travel. This has a big effect at the grass-roots level in a community. More and more we are seeing self-motivated individuals rallying like-minded people via the internet and personal canvassing to promote active changes in remote areas. We would like to help people connect through the Gap Year Portal Facebook group. So if you have any particular aspirations in this area, please share so we can help you connect to others.
Recently, I encountered a few groups of people aiming to improve the access to health care in remote areas of Tonga. Local transport costs can become an inhibiting factor to the people in these communities. A young New Zealand skipper who was cruising in the area, recognised this need and rallied together people with the necessary skills and resources to seek solutions with local authorities. He established the Floating Foundation and is utilising his own funds along with other volunteers to create long-lasting change. I’m hoping they’ll put a link to their blog on the group page soon.
I just met some people on a hike who described a couple from Australia who had brought in medical supplies because they found it was cheaper to personally fly them in rather than send them by freight. What a great way to ensure the resources made it to the right place.
When visiting Iquitos, Peru in 2012, I met Tristan, a warm and generous Frenchman, who had helped set up a floating garden, composting toilets and a local sewing industry. He recognised the environmental problems facing the residents during the inundation of the flooded Amazon that occurs every year for months on end and assisted the residents to find solutions. He helped setting up a sewing industry and assisted with the distribution of the garments made. All of these projects were done in conjunction with the locals so that the effects would be long-lasting and locally sustainable.
One of the most inspiring stories I have encountered of ‘Traveller Recognition of Local Needs’ was about Tara Winkler, a young Australian, who as a teenager organised fund raising and dealt with the bureaucracy to begin her own orphanage in Cambodia. Her story of how she began and why her current focus has moved from orphanages to education can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-17/tara-winkler-shifts-focus-from-cambodian-orphanage-to-education/5326734 . She is concerned about the number of orphanages that are appearing in developing countries and points out that many of the children actually have parents.
Volunteering doesn’t need to be so complicated and organised though. We met a couple cruising in the French islands of Polynesia who would arrive in an area and go and assist local families in whatever way they could. They tidied yards, repaired houses and boats. This gave us a good insight in how we could approach the local people and negotiate how we could assist. Before this, I was only volunteering in schools along the way and thought that any other offer of help might be intrusive but we’re finding that the locals welcome us warmly. As I’m training in teaching English as another language, I am finding a new niche’ where I am able to contribute.
Volunteering can bring hope, joy and education to a remote community. You’re making a difference in the world which is one of our most important purposes here on the earth. So if you’d like to contribute in a less organised manner, perhaps carry a few tools in your backpack – a spanner, a few screwdrivers and a few items used for mending such as glue or duct tape, or even a story book from your home country. This type of interaction is a wonderful cultural exchange and you will leave a beautiful lasting impression.
Please send me the names of reliable organisations that you have personally had experience with so we can share these with the group.