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Lifestyle & Travel

Volunteering Abroad: What You Need to Know

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Volunteering in another country can be a rich and rewarding way to immerse yourself in a new culture while giving back.

Whether caring for abused elephants in Thailand, coaching kids in soccer in Kenya, teaching English in Tanzania, lending your skills at a medical clinic in Guatemala, or helping impoverished women in Nicaragua or India develop income-generating skills, ways to have a positive impact on the world – while still enjoying a vacation – abound.

“There are opportunities for all interests in all parts of the world, no matter your background or physical mobility,” says Sandra Vandenberg, director of partnerships for Volunteer Forever, an education and fundraising website for travelers interested in volunteering. “For seniors, in particular, there are really amazing opportunities because, with their career and life experience, they can contribute at a much higher level than recent college graduates. For example, in medical programs, retired doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, don’t need the same training as younger people.”

Here’s what seniors interested in volunteering abroad need to know.

Volunteer trips aren’t free.

You’ll be paying for your airfare and fees that will cover housing, food, and program expenses. Like vacations, costs vary widely based on destination and the level of accommodation. “In general,” Vandenberg says, “without airfare, you can expect to spend $500 a week on the budget end to $2000 or more a week on the higher end.”

One way to cover these costs is through a fundraising campaign that asks friends, families and others in your social media network to make donations.

There are volunteer opportunities for people of all physical abilities.

“Some programs are better than others for people with limited physical mobility,” says Vandenberg. “Teaching English or using your business skills to help local entrepreneurs are just a couple of opportunities that might be a good match for people who need the assistance of a walker or a wheelchair. It’s always a good idea to talk directly with the organization about whether they can accommodate any needs you might have.” The nonprofit Mobility International USA has additional tips on international volunteerism for people with disabilities.

Comfort levels vary.

“You don't need to rough it. Some organizations have experience in accommodating older volunteers who might want a higher comfort level than the college-aged backpacker,” Vandenberg says. “They might be able to arrange anything from a private room or a stay in a nearby hotel or eco-lodge. Still,” says Vandenberg, “in some far-flung destinations you might find lodging is a bit more basic than what you’re accustomed to on a vacation. Your room might have a fan instead of air conditioning. The shower might take longer to heat up. In some cases, there might not even be hot water.” Again, you’ll want to reach out to the volunteer organization and be upfront about your needs and expectations.

You can combine volunteering with a more traditional vacation experience.

Want to take cooking classes, Spanish or French-linage lessons, salsa dancing, or do some exploring and sightseeing along with your volunteer activities? Many volunteer organizations can connect you with local tour companies to arrange side trips, excursions, and classes.

Volunteer vacations are great for families, solo travelers, friends, or couples.

“You’re bound to meet new people when you’re volunteering,” says Vandenberg, “and many volunteer programs are set up for people who are traveling on their own. At the same time, families, friends or couples traveling together can split up and take part in different programs depending on their interests.” She points to a couple that traveled together to Costa Rica with a volunteer group. The wife spent her days working with a medical clinic while her husband taught English; at the end of the day, they met up with each other for dinner or a cooking class.

Do your homework to avoid scams.

As volunteer tourism has increased, so, too, have the number of unethical companies that are taking advantage both of volunteers and of local communities. Vandenberg says that scams are especially common around so-called orphanages. “In some cases, these are moneymaking schemes that exploit children,” she says. “The children aren’t, in fact, orphans. They go home to their families at the end of the day, and they’re just being used to dupe well-meaning volunteers.”

This story by the clearinghouse Go Overseas offers guidance on how to vet a volunteer organization. Vandenberg also recommends looking at online reviews, asking the volunteer group if they employ local people and how they insure that volunteer work isn’t displacing local jobs, and speaking directly with fellow travelers who have volunteered with the organization. “Reputable volunteer organizations generally have very active alumni groups,” she says, “and they should be happy to connect you with these champions of their programs.”

Explore!

Check out these roundups of volunteer abroad opportunities for seniors from Volunteer Forever and International Volunteer HQ.

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