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Volunteer Activities Overseas
By: Interviews by Jeff Booth (justin) 2012.04.01



Working with a variety of organizations in 7 countries, BaseCamp offers tailored volunteer training and mutually benefiting placements. Volunteers work in schools, social and healthcare programs, building projects, as well as conservation work with wildlife. Travel with a purpose. See website.


Interviews by Jeff Booth

There are as many different volunteer experiences as there are places to go. Different jobs, locations and cultures all affect what the volunteer gains, and gives during their program. Another important factor in volunteering is your length of stay. We decided to interview three recent volunteers to get the straight story about their time volunteering, so that you can decide for yourself if it's for you.

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John Patten graduated from San Diego State University a few years ago with a degree in nutrition and spent three years with the Peace Corps ( in Africa. After college and the Americorps program, Glenn Fee headed to Asia for five months with Youth International (

Lisa Setiadi Ginsburg volunteered often during her time at University of Southern California, which inspired her to spend two weeks working for Volunteers for Peace ( in Bangladesh.

SWT: What did you do as a volunteer, and where?
JP: I was a child survival officer in Malawi, in central Africa. I worked at a village hospital at a very remote site. I was on Likoma Island way out on Lake Malawi, about 65 km off the mainland. It's actually right off the coast of Mozambique. I took a steam ship to get there and worked at a mission hospital.
GF: I volunteered with Youth international, and worked in Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, Thailand, and spent the bulk of the time in India and Nepal. We rotated through different volunteer activities in each area.
LG: I went to Bangladesh with Volunteers for Peace. We met in Dhaka, and then took an eight hour bus ride to the village of Dinajpur. VFP worked side by side with another local agency in Dinajpur. We set up their annual cataract eye camp, with free cataract surgery for the local elderly or anyone that needed an eye checked. We helped set up the school, cleaned it out, and turned the classroom into the surgery room. It was called the "operation theater." The first two days were dedicated to the eye surgery, and the rest of the week to the eye camp. On the last day of the clinic we helped removing the bandages and each of the patients were given prescription glasses. Everyone got the same glasses, though. The other part of the program was the installation of toilets. We traveled to different villages by bicycle or motorcycle, and just dug holes to put in latrines and cement rings.

SWT: How is volunteering different from traveling or working abroad?
JP: I guess I could say what the Peace Corps experience is. The volunteers with PC are there for a long time, so we get an insider's look at the village. We become part of the village and the villagers there look out for us. We have experiences that most other travelers don't have access to. There are a lot of people, especially from Europe, who come out for three-week holidays, that get to see a lot and have really interesting experiences, but may just go from backpacker camp to camp and never really get a chance to experience the people. And even if they do go off the beaten path, I had access to things other people wouldn't see. We were doing a health-related program and took boats out to a remote fishing village. That kind of stuff is what travelers don't get to, it's not in the Lonely Planet. Because we speak the language and we're part of the village, we can be included in ceremonies, witness their dances or other cultural things. Even if you're working in a paid position, especially if you have a good job overseas, often times you're in the capitol city with a nice four bedroom home, with servants and vehicles and drivers. You don't have the same access to a village lifestyle as a PCV.
GF: If you're interested in eventually working abroad, volunteering gives you a taste of different things, which is important. Also, I think it's a fundamental belief of mine that you need to serve others and there is not enough of that. The difference between volunteering and traveling is that you do get to learn a lot more about the people and culture. You are certainly an outsider but you're not looked at necessarily as a complete outsider. You're someone engaged with them, not just passing through. When you travel you tend to put yourself in a bubble, reading the guidebook and going where they say to. Whereas if you're volunteering in Mother Theresa's clinics in Calcutta, as we did, you actually learn and sit and talk with the people. They are not the business leaders of the community, no one is trying to sell you anything. You learn a lot more that way.
LG: I had to acknowledge that it was going to be kind of hard. Traveling before, I stayed in hostels that weren't so bad because things were pretty clean. While volunteering there were times I had to clean toilets. At times I was saying, "What am I doing here? I'd rather be doing something else." I had to acknowledge that living conditions can be pretty different sometimes. The bed was a piece of wood and I don't think there was even a mattress. We didn't have the flexibility of traveling. When you are traveling alone or with someone else you can do whatever you want; when you're tired, you rest. But this is work. We got up early and we worked, but it was fun.

SWT: What were your images or expectations of volunteering before you left, and how have your perceptions changed?
JP: I was trying to go in with the least amount of expectations. You're always wondering what it's going to be like, you try to visualize it, but you know in the back of your head that there's no way you can know until you actually live it. I tried to just be open to the experience and just let it happen. In the United States, the only images of Africa we see are the civil wars, or the proud noble romantic Africa, when in reality Africa is 48 countries, and within each country there might be several hundred languages and ethnic groups. We've all seen enough movies of the African bush, and we have these visions of the villagers and animals and all that, but the first thing that struck me was the clothing. Everyone wore western-style clothing... it wasn't the image of traditional tribal Africans.
GF: My expectations were fulfilled. There is so much more we can do in our own country and I think that serving in another country really helped me realize that. I hadn't traveled in a developing country before I traveled with Youth International, so it really opened my eyes, for one, to see how fortunate we are. We are incredibly fortunate, and I didn't necessarily have that feeling before I left. I had the feeling that yeah, I'm going to go see these other countries and do some work. Now, I realize how lucky we are and how we should spread some of that.
LG: I think it satisfied my expectations. When I was a little girl I thought I was going to be a doctor, so that's why I chose the health position in the volunteer program. Other programs do research, have architectural digs, but I wanted to work alongside health providers and doctors, and that's what I did.

SWT: Most volunteer programs have participant fees, though not the Peace Corps. How did you feel about having to pay so that you could work for free?
JP: Peace Corps does pay all of the expenses, travel to and from the region, living allowance, and a readjustment allowance when you get back. That makes it very attractive to people because you need to get your own survival needs met. There are not so many jobs right out of college that you can save $6000 after two years, and you get that when you return after the Peace Corps.
GF: I really didn't have a problem about paying. Mainly because the price was so much less than any other program I looked into. Even if I did go volunteer on my own, I would have to pay to get there, for where I'm staying and eating. I wasn't really paying a whole lot more with the program. One nice thing about the program was that there were scholarships offered to people who don't have enough funds. Part of the money we paid for the program went towards materials when we were building schools. In one community we lived in, we made donations for them to get them a new well. I didn't have a problem with money going towards that at all.
LG: I never thought about have to pay, really. This is not like a hobby that I do every week, but I knew there were some costs to what I was going to do. This is something I saved up for because I really wanted to go, I was passionate about it. Though it's expensive traveling to that part of the world, I never thought it was a burden. I just planned ahead and saved.

SWT: What did your organization do for you, and how did they help you?
JP: I suppose there are several things I could talk about in that respect. As far as our working life overseas, I really liked Peace Corps. I felt like I wasn't even working for them, I was working for St. Peter's Mission Hospital. I always felt completely supported by Peace Corps all the way through my service because they were always there when I needed them. However they let me work autonomously and make my own decisions and work as I saw fit at my site.
GF: Youth International is designed to develop the individual which is great. There are two leaders who were there to offer you choices. They essentially set up different sorts of activities ahead of time. In Dharamsala, India where the Tibetan government is in exile, we did a Buddhist retreat and that really helped us learn about the people we'd be helping. Then we had two weeks to choose a different volunteer activity. Without the benefit of the organization, we would wouldn't really be able to research areas to work in. We had options, because of Youth International, on where we could work. I chose to tutor Tibetan monks in English, monks that would be interpreters when they came over to Western countries. A couple of other people worked in schools, teaching environmental education and the importance of conservation to kids. Others worked with orphaned Tibetan children. We were offered choices. It wasn't like "Here is who you are going to work with and here is what you will do." In most cases we had a certain level of autonomy.
LG: VFP helped facilitate everything, especially with the Bangladesh Work Camp Association (BWCA), the local group we assisted in Dinajpur. I just asked questions to VFP representatives and they got the answers from BWCA. Their programs are varied, and I would definitely go with them again.

SWT: There is a lot of debate about the effectiveness of volunteer organizations. Do you think that you made a difference, and in what way?
JP: That's a very complex answer to that question. There are no soundbites to summarize a situation like this. The way we become effective is by gutting it out on the ground. We just have to be persistent and be there day after day, and keep trying over a period of years. Oftentimes a lot of volunteers feel two years is not enough. If we really want to make a difference in communities, we have to be there and know the people over a period of 10 years or more. I do feel that I made a difference on a small scale. I had, maybe, a lot of small successes. But it's not like you go there and you completely turn around your village or country while you're there. Cultures change over 200 years, not over two years while I'm there. What you can hope to do is just be a positive role model, learn from the people, tell them what you know as well, and hope on some small scale that change will be incremental and it will occur slowly over time and I think you can get the satisfaction that you were part of that process.
GF: I thought about that a lot. I think I made just a small difference but I think the main difference is that it helped me become the type of person I am now. Going back to offer an example from Dharamsala again, one of the guys I was tutoring was twenty-four years old. When he was nineteen he was thrown into jail for simply walking around the monastery where in lived in Tibet with a pro democracy sign. He was in jail for five and a half years, beaten, and had this horrible life. After that he started to live in his community again but realized his life was threatened. He left for India. On a pilgrimage, he walked from Southern India to Dharamsala in the north for four months with sixty other Tibetan refugees as a Peace March. That's when I met him. That made me realize that I'm so selfish sometimes. We don't have the CDs we want, or can't go to a music show, or the car we want is too expensive. I mean, come on! Those are so petty. More than anything, the difference was making me into a better person, making me want to encourage others to go over and give of themselves. I think that across the board everyone feels that way that went on the program. It's like the story of the starfish where the little kid throws a starfish from the beach back into the ocean. Someone approaches him saying, "Why are throwing one starfish at a time? There are hundreds on the beach, and you're not making any difference." The kid replies, "For this one, I am." Maybe we made a difference to just one person out of a billion in India, but the main thing is that you are helping to foster the culture of volunteering.
LG: I don't know if I made a difference. I knew before going that in only two weeks, I wouldn't change the world. I know they were very happy knowing that people in the States and around the world were willing to help them. We took the time to do things for them, and that made them glad. On the very last day when they had to leave the hospital and school grounds, some of them cried. We bonded in the short days that we were together.

SWT: What were the worst and best experiences while volunteering?
JP: There was no one worst or one best experience. In the Peace Corps there are extreme highs and lows and it's an experience that will stretch you emotionally beyond what you thought you could do. It will stretch you in all directions, and you'll have more joy than you thought you could experience and deeper lows than you thought you could. As far as the lows go, I think it's a culture's resistance to change. When you know what could work, but the fact that the change is so slow or that people are not motivated to implement any type of change, like some of the technology or things that we know about health. We always work with the local culture and the local people. We don't go in there and tell them what they should be doing. But the fact that so many people are resistant to change or don't believe that things can change does get frustrating. There is a lot of frustration, but it makes you grow as a person. It makes you stronger in the end. One of my best experiences? Mozambique was really close, 5 km by dhow, the traditional sailboat. This two year-old boy had come in with his family and he needed a blood transfusion. There are cultural taboos and various reasons that Malawaians don't donate blood, but I had the same blood type. To make a long story short, I donated a pint of blood to this kid. He got better in a day or two. A week later. I was sitting at my desk in my office and the whole family shows up from Mozambique with a goat and four bundles of firewood. That was extremely touching that they would do something like that.
GF: The worst part of this is that everyone I volunteered with is now a travel junkie. I''ve been in a job for two years now and I'm like, it's time to move on. I also think that's the best part too. It's become instilled in me, travel and volunteering. I know a lot of people from the program who are on the road right now. Also, one of the best things is that we were able to bring a lot back to our own community and say look, you can live selflessly. It really helps me get a grasp on reality. I love seeing people who get worked up over traffic, or that they only get $70,000 a year. Come on! That's the best, getting a grasp of reality and having an appreciation for what we really do have.
LG: The worst part of my program was the waiting. We did a lot of unnecessary waiting because the head of the the program wasn't sure about something or other and hadn't planned ahead. They were a bit unorganized, which could have been improved with better communication between the local agencies and VFP. The best part was bonding with the volunteers, and the agencies did a good job in varying our tasks. We played hard and we worked hard. We visited a lot of homes, families, and schools. We got to know the locals. Every time I think about riding through the rice fields, being invited in for tea, it makes me smile.

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