Last summer I wrote these tips/reminders for people interested in volunteering abroad, but the majority of them could be useful to volunteers everywhere.
CHOOSE YOUR ROLE. Look at all possible projects and ask yourself two questions: What would I really want to do and what kind of skills do I have? You could bring increased value by helping using your skill set, however you can always try something new if you feel strongly about a particular project. There are many projects and we are sure there will be at least one that speaks to your heart.
SET REALISTIC GOALS by not trying to change the world overnight or help everyone! It is hard for one person to save everyone, sorry, but you are not a superhero. Instead, begin with one person, one animal, or one group that you can help. Then make one achievable goal and work toward it. Always remember, there are a lot of us and our collective volunteer power is strong. All of your efforts are multiplied by the efforts of others.
HAVE REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS about your living conditions and how easy daily tasks should be. Remember, you are not going on vacation: you are doing a project! There will be resistance and obstacles. Sure, you will meet new people and have fun, but it will require hard work in new conditions. Sometimes you will have to share a dorm room with other volunteers; you may encounter cockroaches; have a language barrier or learn that your instructions are not followed etc… It is not the end of the world. You will be there with people who have the same values. Later in life, perhaps, you’ll remember this time as the best experience, when you were both driven and audacious.
SWITCH OR NOT TO SWITCH, that’s the question when you start to waiver on your project. Do not be hasty. If you do not like your first project, and you feel less skilled think of it as a learning experience. If you feel overwhelmed or have a fear of failing, why not overcome it? Prove to yourself that you are more than what you thought you were capable of and keep at it. If you still do not like it or do not feel confident, then switch projects. Maybe you will be exceptionally good at something else.
LEARN. Even if you are an expert, there is always a lesson to be learned. Life is a two-way street: we teach and we learn. You will need to know how to get the assignment done; especially in a new country, things may be very different. This could require learning new skills or using different materials. If you need more training to get ready, ask for the manuals, a demonstration and/or assistance. If you know what to do and how to do it well, it will be easier to help others.
MAKE AN EFFORT! Showing up to do your project is only the first step. It is important to take your volunteer work seriously. You are providing help to people and places that are in real need. Your value to the project is parallel to the effort you put in. Sometimes, it is hard to give 100% to your project, but please try. Specifically, always come on time to your project and be appropriately dressed no matter how much partying occurred the night before or what the thermometer reads that morning. Constantly remind yourself why you signed up to volunteer.
If you push yourself, you will find your own limits, talents, and skills you never knew about. Often people realize their potential is more than what they ever estimated. As you extend yourself, the project will succeed because you gave it 100%. You will amaze yourself and those around you.
POSITIVE ATTITUDE is imperative. Think about those around you who are in need or in trouble. You are there to help them, not bring negative energy. Please, stay upbeat, think of any difficulties as a learning experience, and try to resolve them diplomatically. Always have a positive attitude and demonstrate to others that you are there volunteering by choice.
BE RESPECTFUL Always remember to demonstrate respect for other people and other cultures, no matter how much culture shock you are going through. Keep in mind that your way of thinking or living is not the only one or even the right one. What is normal to you may not be normal to others. If you seriously disagree about something, speak to a project leader first. He or she will consult with you, explain the differences and suggest ways of how to behave in the future. Consider yourself and your actions as an ambassador of your own culture. You want to present yourself well and be respected by others, and this is not achievable if you act snobby or superior. Going to another country means following their rules, as you are a guest, and they are the hosts.
BE FLEXIBLE AND OPEN-MINDED as there maybe a shift in your schedule or a change in your role or responsibilities. It is life. Nothing is permanent in life except for change.
DO NOT GIVE UP! You will all have moments, when you doubt your decision to volunteer. You will have a serious urge to stop and go back to your normal life and to your familiar routine. Sometimes you will feel bored, sometimes exhausted, and sometimes mad at the people you work with who are not cooperating. You may even feel angry with Cheb for getting you involved in being a volunteer. Talk to others and share your problems because you are not alone. Everyone is going through the same phases, but remember this stage is temporary, and it will pass. Always look forward and remember again why you chose to be there. When you finish the project, you will look back and see the progress and be amazed with the results.
BE KIND to others. This could mean your peer volunteers, the project manager, or a local person. You never know what other people are going through as they may be very vulnerable, sad, or dealing with difficult issues. We all need support. If you see someone going through a hard time, try to make him or her smile, offer help or just share your experience. Sometimes all we need are kind words, and also remember people’s privacy. If they do not want to share, please do not force the conversation. If they do engage you, do your best to understand what other people are going through, even if it’s something you’ve never dealt with yourself. You will get so much credit for being kind to someone. Treat others as you would want to be treated, and you will begin to make friends on this adventure as well.
BE SAFE. If you break your leg or get robbed, it will not make your experience efficient or enjoyable. Be prepared in advance and read about cultural norms and safety rules in the area of your project beforehand. Being prepared also means taking the necessary precautions: getting appropriate insurance policies and all needed immunizations, backing up your computer files, pictures, etc. Do not take unnecessary risks. We want you to be safe, so that you can come back and tell about your experiences to others who want to go and continue what you started.
MEASURING YOUR PROGRESS. Many of you will be looking to measure success of your project participation. Did you really make a difference? The answer is yes. Whether you built a house for someone, created a fund-raising campaign, or made a child smile, you did it – you made a change, you made someone happier and improved the world. Additionally, in the process of volunteering, we are sure you improved yourself by simply making an effort to be a better human.