What is the definition of volunteering?
To help build a house for a few months, slaving away, grumbling through the work, but doing it for a good cause? Could it be staying at an orphanage for a while, taking care of kids with no families, and being a friend? Does it mean sacrificing a few of those “must-do” attractions while you travel?
While in Manila, Philippines, I got in touch with a group called Gawad Kalinga through a couchsurfing host and friend. Their aim is to build homes for the poorest of the poor in the Philippines, creating a safe environment and teaching about sustainable lifestyles.
I decided to get involved for a few weeks, not fully knowing what to expect but aiming to learn about the reality of life in Manila and hoping to learn just a bit about Filipino culture. I headed to the Payatas area of Manila and was welcomed into the house of Tita Silver, an owner of a home previously built with the help of Gawad Kalinga. Her family lived in an area that is shunned, frowned upon by people's subconscious reactions.
During the daytime I helped a few Filipino men mix concrete, carry sand, and basically help the carpenter with tasks. In this Payatas area of Manila that is so neglected, people were smiling at me, acknowledging the fact that I was out there with real people, not locked away in a hotel room. I received comments like “I never seen a foreigner here before,” and “Thank you for visiting the Philippines!”
Tita Silver had kids who were overjoyed that I was staying with them and being a guest in their home.
The daughters enjoyed the fact that I was so passionate for all forms of food, gigantically smiling when I expressed my love of their cooking. The sons showed me around, took me to a few nooks and crannies of Manila that I never would have seen if I was by myself (or probably couldn't have gone by myself).
Within a few days of being in Payatas I could walk down the muddy street and people would raise their hand to wave or even say “hello, how are you?”
Did I miss the tourist attractions by enjoying a flavor of the real Filipino culture in Manila? For me, not at all, in fact quite the opposite. A few days helping out with Tita Silver and I had received an experience that would last forever.
Here are just a few ways (among many) volunteering can lead to extraordinary travel experiences:
- First hand experience of the culture of the country
- A chance to observe the real side of the destination
- Discover local traditions and customs
- Sample normal day to day food
- Be able to ask locals questions about their lifestyles
- A chance to help others
- Sometimes an opportunity to live for free
Sure, as travelers we could aim to visit all the touristic sites, pushing our way from place to place with haste. How about the people that live in a country, are they not the foundation behind the attractions?
Volunteering is one of the best ways to experience another country, a way to gain a perspective outside of normal tourist routines.
How Can You Get Started Volunteering?
Do an online search for “volunteering” and you will receive a mixed bag of options, many volunteer placement programs that are priced way above a long term travelers budget. So how can you avoid the high prices of fee-based official volunteer programs? While traveling around the world, there are countless free opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others – without a high fee.
Every time that I have volunteered, I have simply shown up somewhere, asked around for opportunities and gone from there. I have never been part of a fee-based volunteer program.
I have normally either just paid for my personal expenses or have been taken care of altogether by the hospitality of someone like Tita Silver. The results have been a number of unparalleled insights into a culture, lots of interesting and educating conversations, some great local meals, and hopefully a few lasting memories in the lives of others.
When I was in Bali, a friend and I were walking on the side of a road, heading towards a beach when we noticed a sign for an orphanage. With no set plans we entered the gate. The kids were doing chores and when they saw us, their eyes lit up gleefully.
I played football with the boys, watched the girls practice traditional Balinese dance, and went into the kitchen to help with a little bit of food preparation. At night we sang songs, read some stories, and hung out. 11 hours later we left the orphanage, an experience that was a bit more valuable to me than another sunny beach day in Bali.
There's no single way to get started as a volunteer, nor is there a certain contract dictating the amount of time one must volunteer. If you are concerned with the high fee-based volunteer programs, while you travel just keep your eyes peeled for the vast amount of free opportunities out there! There are many, and you don't need to sign up to participate.
If you are interested in more serious information on volunteering and the difference between fee-based and non fee-based volunteer options you might want to check out the Underground Guide to International Volunteering.