Design Your Life

How to Choose a Volunteer Vacation

By cguthrie

What’s a volunteer vacation?

A volunteer vacation is when you donate your time and money to help out a worthy cause. In exchange for your endowment, you receive the experience of a lifetime: living in a foreign country and helping out those less fortunate than you. I’ve done 4 different volunteer vacations with 2 different organizations. My experiences run the gamut from outstanding to a waste of my time. My major faux pas was a lack of research of the program I was signing up for and their dissemination of funds. Boiling it down to 2 basics, when selecting a program you need to choose: 1. what kind of cause you want to take on and 2. where you’d like to go. The next step, crucial step, that I failed to do is to research where your volunteer money goes, in what conditions and with whom you will be living and the daily routine of the program. You don’t want to be surprised when you show up in the middle of nowhere and find out that you’re sharing a hut with 4 other strangers and have no running water or electricity.

The good times

On the high end of the spectrum were my trips to Thailand to work at an animal rescue center and to Kenya to rehabilitate an elementary school in a slum. The animal rescue was home to over 50 gibbons and monkeys that had been rescued from the tourist trade and a laboratory. There was no bigger pay-off for my hard work of chopping and serving 50 pounds of fruit and shoveling poop each day than when one of the gibbons who, everyday for 6 weeks, threw a tantrum whenever I got near, finally let me scratch her back. Google gibbon call and you’ll understand the raucous noise I had to deal with everyday. It was truly a Jane Goodall moment! And while it took 6 weeks to achieve gratification at the animal rescue center, my time repairing the dilapidated mud walls of a school in Kenya was instantaneously rewarding. One glance at the conditions of the slum that the school was in and you knew that your efforts were serving a greater good in the community. One day, while taking a break from construction, I paused to snack on a banana. When I was finished with the peel, I threw it to a nearby goat assuming that the goat would like my treat. Seemingly out of nowhere, a child bolted towards the peel, snatched it off of the ground and started eating it. Soon others kids gathered to join in on what I hoped wasn’t their first meal of the day. It was an eye opening moment to realize that my trash was this child’s lunch.


The bad times

On the low end of the spectrum were my trips to Thailand to work at an orphanage and to South Africa to work at a day care. In retrospect, maybe I’m just not a kid person! What I would have known, had I done some research before hand, was that each day in Thailand I would be expected to teach an hour long English lesson to the older kids and then run around playing with them for the other 23 hours of the day. I was only marginally prepared for either of those tasks. I did have the foresight to receive my TEFL certificate prior to my trip, but no one informed me that I would need to plan a lesson a day of my choosing. I had to scramble to come up with an hour long lesson plan entertaining enough to hold a 10 year old’s attention. And playing with 50 kids all day long is exhausting. Who knew!?When they weren’t in my class, there was nothing for them to do; they ran amok, dragging me from one corner of the yard to the next. I loved them but I couldn’t take it; I ended my 6 week stay 2 weeks early. I had a much different problem in South Africa. Theirs was a structured daycare with plenty of activities, games and toys to engage the children. However, I failed to investigate where my volunteer money was going. It turned out that the volunteer company spent 75% of my funds on operational costs and the other 25% on my housing. Absolutely no money went to the daycare that I toiled at for 4 weeks. I was infuriated at the program when the owner of the school asked if I could buy some paper for the kid’s art project the next day. I also felt bamboozled by the cause its self. I was volunteering at a daycare, not an orphanage. The difference is major. At a daycare, you’re basically a baby sitter and the biting, bed-wetting, “doesn’t play well with others” children don’t really have to listen to anything you say; they have parents to discipline them. It was like being an au pair, but for free. For me, it was a complete waste of my time and money.

A little research never hurt anybody

With those things in mind, it’s very important to do adequate research before embarking on a volunteer vacation. My cautionary tales aren’t even the worse thing that could happen. Places like Cambodia have been known to use volunteering as a for-profit business. They keep the kids living in squalor for show and then pocket all of the money they receive. So please make sure the project you chose has credible recommendations, pictures and references. Ask questions and don’t be fooled by a glossy brochure at a travel agency.

Travel Noire


Carille is an aspiring photographer, an absentee architect, an impulsive traveler and a good samaritan. When she is not obsessing about rugby or managing life saving logistical needs for work, she is avidly trying to explore the 4 corners of the world. To date, she's been to 39 different countries! You can follow her latest travel faux pas' on Twitter: @carille1, view her attempts at capturing daily life on Instagram: @carille1 or on her website:

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