International volunteering has been an important and satisfying part of my life since 1991. Serving first as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, to date I have had the privilege to serve on 23 international missions in 12 countries. All of this began after I turned 50. It changed my life.
How to Begin
A good place to start when you are thinking about international volunteering is with an examination of your skills and interests. Which of your skills most interest you? What work have you have enjoyed doing? Former volunteers say that their most successful missions have been those on which they have been able to combine their skills and passions.
A way to test your skills is to volunteer in your local community. Try different organizations. Get a feel for the type of work in which you feel you can make the greatest contribution.
When you have an idea of what type of volunteer work you would like to do it is time to think about time commitment. Volunteer assignments can run from one-week to two-years or more. If this is your first international volunteer trip a short-term program can be a good introduction. A one or two week program gives you a chance to see if international volunteering is for you. If it works, you can start thinking about longer term assignments.
Contacting International Volunteer Placement Organizations
After deciding on what type of work will interest you and how long you will devote to your first international volunteer mission you can start investigating volunteer placement organizations.
First search the organization that have programs that match your interests. Also see if their programs are in countries or areas where you would like to volunteer. When you have narrowed your organization list down it is time to start contacting them.
Carefully examine the history of the organization. It is important to work with a placement agency that has a positive track record. They should be working closely with an in-country, community oriented non-governmental organization (NGO). Their programs must be providing a needed -and wanted - service to the communities and individuals with whom they work. There are stories of well-intentioned volunteers building schools in areas that had no teachers or constructing medical facilities where there were no doctors and nurses.
To find out if the organization is effective talk to former over 50 volunteers. Ask organizations for the contact details of former volunteers in your age range. Reach out to the former volunteers and ask them about their experiences. Did the program meet their expectations? Did they believe their work made a positive and needed contribution to the community? What were the accommodations like? Did the organization provide good security? Was there access to medical care? Did the organization provide insurance? Were the staff helpful and knowledgeable? Was the ability to communicate home satisfactory? Was the food okay? Were sanitation facilities adequate? Were the physical requirements within their comfort zones? Was the age mix of fellow volunteers comfortable? Ask if they have contact information for other volunteers whom you can contact?
Short-Term Volunteering - one week to six months
Most short-term volunteering organizations require that the volunteer pay for transportation and costs associated with the volunteer assignment. The exceptions are organizations that have particular professional needs.
Prospective volunteers often ask why they have to pay to volunteer. There are many good reasons. Well run volunteer placement organizations do a lot of advance work to assure the volunteer has a meaningful experience. They cooperate with in-country host organizations to develop programs that fulfill the needs of the community served and contribute to their overall welfare. They travel to program sites to set-up accommodations, food, medical care, security and transportation for the volunteers. They may include insurance. Providing these services requires time and finances. When contacting organizations ask them what they do with the funds that they receive from volunteers.
Long-Term Volunteering - six months or more
A long-term volunteer has additional considerations.Thought needs to be given to how to arrange one's financial and investment obligations at home.
Do you lease or rent out your house? If so, who will manage it? What will be the term of the lease or rental agreement? What if you return early? Do you have alternate lodging arrangements in mind? In my case I have had either family, a neighbor or a friend take care of my mail, residence and cars. I have found online banking very handy for taking care of financial obligations. I travel so much I can't consider having pets but for those of you who do arrangements must be made.
Volunteers of all ages have to pay attention to health needs. Visit your physician. Get a checkup and evaluation. Discuss your volunteer assignment, travel plans and destination. Take into consideration your health needs and the quality of the health care at your program site when you choose your organization. Ask the volunteer placement organization about any known health risks at the site and take precautionary measures. If insurance is not provided check your personal insurance and see if it covers international volunteer assignments. Most don't. Having insurance is an imperative. I have both purchased private insurance and worked with organizations that have provided it. Some volunteers purchase emergency evacuation insurance that covers initial treatment at the site and air transportation to the volunteer's home for further medical treatment.
It is important to talk with your family about your volunteering plans. Tell them how you researched the assignment. Explain to them the security and health precautions that you made personally. Describe those provided by the organization with which you will serve. Discuss communications arrangements at the assignment site. This type of information will put you family member's minds at ease.
When I joined the Peace Corps I worried about what my adult children would think about my heading off to another country to volunteer. My worries were for naught. My son and daughter fully supported me and were as excited as I. Now my grandchildren are nearing adulthood and sharing in the excitement. One of my granddaughters just returned from a tour of China with her school choir and is planning her international future.
I hear every week from global friends I have made on my volunteer trips. They are like family. We have shared our lives and cultures in the past and continue to do so. I still communicate with a friend I met while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala 24 years ago. On a return trip to my Peace Corps site in 2014, I stayed with her and her family. I met her husband and son and we had a delightful time together. I just heard from a friend I met while managing camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan in 2002. The friend, still in Afghanistan, described the tensions and fear associated with living in a war ravaged country. These kinds of exchanges and friendships bring mutual understanding that would not be a part of my life had I not volunteered and worked internationally.
If you have an interest in international volunteering I encourage you to pursue it. It can positively change your life and the lives of those to whom you reach out.
For a list of international volunteer opportunities visit: Over50andOverseas