Volunteering with a company, going it alone or do I even bother?
I'm currently on my third experience of volunteering abroad in the beautiful town of Fort Kochi, India. As a teacher, I have said to myself that I’d like to spend at least 1 week of my summer each year doing something worthwhile and not just to keep my non-teaching friends off my back about all the time off I have!
Recently I have seen a few things online that have worried me. Posts about companies who hire volunteers to build a school, only to knock it down ready for the next group to rebuild. Or 'gap yah' students volunteering for the wrong reasons, paying thousands to middle men companies to make themselves feel good and to post pictures on social media. Don’t get me wrong, in some cases this is very true and I have seen it first hand when a volunteer arrives and is shocked that their home stay has no hot water or that they will be sharing a room with 4 other people and that maybe they could have found a better way to spend their parents money, but in most cases I have found kind, caring people who want to give up their time to help others and not only have I had great experiences volunteering but I have also made life long, like minded friends.
Going it alone - Cambodia
So assuming you are one of the latter and are volunteering for the right reasons, whatever that means to you. The first question is - should I pay a company to find me a placement?
I’ve done this both ways, I’ve stayed in a hostel and gone out and found my own project and I must admit this is the one where I felt most useful, full classes of children would have had no education that day if I hadn’t been recommended to drop in by a fellow traveller, but this was down to luck and not all projects are as easy to find. (https://cdofamily.com/ - is where i did this project if you are interested.) Luckily as I was backpacking long term, I had time to find somewhere.
This however is not always the case, when it came to my first summer as a teacher I wanted to fit in some volunteering into my month long tour around Central America, I knew if I didn’t set something up in advance I was at risk of wasting time or not finding anywhere at all.
Paying for a placement in Costa Rica -
So I looked into companies who offer to set up placements for you in Costa Rica which is where I found IVHQ/ Maximo Nivel. This was perfect for me as I was travelling alone and so was the ideal opportunity to meet people, practice my Spanish and also use my skills as a teacher to help others. There is of course a risk with this too as you can turn up to these places that are oversubscribed and end up having more teachers than children! Thankfully this was not the case and I really did feel useful at the project I was assigned which involved visiting a large squat in the suburbs of San Jose where multiple families were living. One room was used as a classroom where the children would come each day to learn English (when there were volunteers available). The fees were not actually that much considering food and accommodation is included and a breakdown of exactly where the costs go is provided - most is on the accommodation as well as some going to staff salaries and project donations and development.
Torn between the two in India -
So when it came to my third summer I was torn, having done it both ways and feeling valued and useful at both projects. My travel plans this year would be taking me to India so I knew this is where I would be looking to volunteer. After doing some research I found a few places I could have gone to help out with teaching with no fee, but what really stood out to me was the Women’s Empowerment programme with IVHQ. After my last 2 placements teaching children, I thought this would be a great new challenge for me and an amazing opportunity to help women who were not able to learn English at school. Education is so valued in India but unfortunately not offered to everyone and I could tell the women were very grateful for the lessons. Being a solo female traveller in India I just felt a lot safer having the security of IVHQ behind me should anything go wrong.
So overall my advice would be: whether or not you are paying a fee or not, you are still making a difference, however small. Even if you can only afford to give up a few days a year don’t let anyone make you think what your doing isn’t worthwhile, (unless of course you are just doing it for Instagram) but please just do your research!! There are plenty of companies who are out to take your money, but just as many, if not more who will help you have a valuable, safe and enjoyable experience.
I’ve broken down my pros and cons for both avenues please do email me if you have any questions or if my post has helped you to decide! Travelsbykatie@gmail.com
Pros of paying
Cost for you
Never sure where the money is going
Could be a scam
Pros of going alone
No cost to you, can use the money to donate resources etc.
Usually more worthwhile as there are less volunteers already there
No set start/ finish times - can be more flexible
Find your own accom and placement
Can be unsafe
Less people around to ask questions to/ hang out with when you’re not volunteering.
Link below is for IVHQ who I went to Costa Rica & India with and will probably use again, not an affiliate but a company I trust and would recommend to anyone wanting to volunteer, meet like minded travellers and see some of the destination in their free time.