By Michelle Martin, M.A.
Founder, Karuna International
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a month volunteering in Ghana. I was assigned to work with the Ghanaian government, advising farming groups on their business practices to increase revenue. It was incredibly humbling to meet individual after individual who worked 18-hour days, doing back-breaking manual labor in the fields, all while wearing a smile.
The rice-farmers were primarily older women who earned less than a dollar a day. The women who produced the palm oil did the planting, harvesting, processing and selling of the oil, and ultimately carried barrels filled with the fruits of their labor atop their heads while walking through miles of dust clouds to the market.
Needless to say, the experience completely changed my life. Being in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, and working alongside volunteers from around the world gave me a crash course in the importance of my role in the global community.
According to the United Nations, volunteering makes a significant contribution to a wide range of development activities worldwide. When you volunteer, you do it of your own will, for reasons other than financial gain, to benefit others as well as yourself.
International service programs seek to help communities abroad while enhancing the lives of volunteers by developing habits of civic engagement, fostering leadership skills, increasing international understanding and broadening global perspective.
Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps was created to provide international service and promote a better understanding of Americans among the people whom volunteers serve. While the U.S. government pays for the volunteer’s expenses, placements are typically 27 months and represent an affiliation with American foreign policy.
For individuals seeking to volunteer abroad without political or religious affiliations, there are flexible, short-term, alternative programs offered by independent nonprofit organizations. The lack of political or religious affiliations, however, translates to program fees that average $1,500-$3,000 for a two- or three-week volunteer service experience abroad.
You may be wondering why anyone would pay to spend his or her free time volunteering abroad. Although it may not be the ideal vacation for most people, it is completely worth every penny!
Nonprofit organizations offering volunteer placements collaborate with local host country organizations in creating programs that address local needs for volunteer skill-transfer, capacity building and cross-cultural service objectives.
The structured volunteer program experience allows flexibility in the sense that volunteers can choose in which country they would like to volunteer, how long they would like to volunteer, with what focus they desire to be placed and when they would like to be placed.
Organization staff provides direct assistance with program selection, travel documentation, country and placement orientation, as well as in-country assistance concerning health and safety, program management and basic needs, such as room and board. The financial expense of the assistance and structure offered by the nonprofit organization is covered in the volunteer’s program fee.
Karuna International is a nonprofit organization that was created to educate people as well as alleviate their financial hardship in volunteering abroad. We believe the experience can be so life-changing that we want to perpetuate it for as many people as possible – especially young adults, who are looking for the right experience to define where they see their place in the world.
Even if you only volunteer for two weeks, you are ultimately making a positive difference in people’s lives. The reason volunteer programs work is because of the long-term structure they have in place. You may leave after two weeks, but as soon as you leave, someone else arrives to take your place.
Therefore, a constant volunteer presence is working alongside locals to achieve solutions to development issues. The most important quality in a global volunteer is an open mind.
Remember, you are in another culture, so first you need to understand why the people do things the way they do them. If you go in thinking you already know what the problem is and how to fix it, you’re going to make matters worse. Cross-cultural understanding is the key to long-term partnerships in development.
When you look at development issues this way, it is easier to grasp the idea that you, as one person, can actually effectuate change.
Volunteering abroad will completely change your life and the way you see your role in our global community. You will have the unique opportunity to learn about daily life in another culture, gain a firsthand perspective on the impact of wealthy countries in the world, and put your concern for others into action.
Not only will you learn more about yourself, you will be able to share your skills with others, improve the quality of life for impoverished individuals and be inspired by the efforts of people in developing countries.
Martin is the founder of Karuna International, a local nonprofit organization based in North Park that is dedicated to increasing global awareness among young adults by promoting and supporting international volunteerism and providing scholarships to volunteer abroad. For more information, go to karunaintl.org.