More and more, young travellers feel the need and responsibility to contribute towards the betterment of the communities they encounter during their travels. This is made possible by various programs that are run to recruit occasional volunteers, that often are short in time and high in costs. Because of this, “voluntourism” has had a negative connotation amongst those who practice it, as it is seen as a scheme and a way of attempting irresponsible and unsustainable change.
What we are forgetting, however, is that this assumption stems from ambiguous definitions of what volunteering actually means, and in assuming that in order to make an impact, we need to dedicate a fixed amount of time, we end up believing that a short-term contribution must be conditional.
But it is not. Everywhere we go, whether or not we are considered ‘tourists’, we can help and we can play a significant part in making someone’s day a bit better, through an act of charity, a conversation, and the smallest things we do for each other every day.
Let’s explore some valid reasons why we should avoid tripping over ambivalent connotations, and why we all should, ultimately, give voluntourism a chance!
You Get To Help, Really Help
If you are waiting for someone to hand you a job description and a guideline to make you believe you are helping, then you should reconsider your contributions.
The most challenging aspect of choosing to volunteer while you travel is having to find the project yourself. As opposed to signing up for a customized opportunity, you will find yourself having to invest in understanding the local reality, meeting the important people and proving yourself to them. This is intimidating at first, and you will doubt the impact of your contribution, but the biggest lesson you will derive from voluntourism is that small actions make big changes. It’s not really about staying with a particular community for 3 months if you can spend 2 weeks and identify the most important need, which you can address by capitalizing on your skills.
Then, you will notice that everything you thought about helping others changes. You will realize that helping someone is not about time invested, but the effect of the direct actions you decide to take.
You Learn To Connect
In order to make a difference in someone’s life, you need to begin with understanding. As a voluntourist, you are approaching everyone with the intention of making a contribution. This means you will learn to open yourself up to questions and sometimes uncomfortable situations when you confront certain realities you wouldn’t expect. There won’t always be enough time for you to sit down and try to channel everything you just saw, so you will have to absorb information at a quicker pace, and learn to disseminate what is really important in the time available.
Most of all, you will learn to filter out unnecessary conversations and listen to people’s stories more attentively, to get to the point and understand, without hesitation, where they are from and what they face daily.
You slowly become conscious of your previous subconscious actions and conversations. You start to value small talk or brief interactions with strangers, because you learn that familiarity is a matter of will.
You Start to Grow
The initial challenges, the culture shock, and the lack of direction quickly begin to fade as you dive into the action. Understanding that you are in charge of not only your experience as a volunteer, but also of the experience of the community where you are working, is an incredible distillation of humility and responsibility. Humility because in order to respond to the needs of the people you are working with, you need to listen and rid yourself of any preconceptions about who they are and how they live. Responsibility because you must decide the extent to which you will be able to contribute, and you must be accountable for your own actions. So, at the end of the day, you motivate yourself every single day.
You Take a Step Back
Though you become highly self-motivated, and determined to deliver on your own promises, you also reach a moment in the experience where you need to take a break and reflect. Taking time and expending effort to help someone in need is no easy task. It demands courage, and it requires us to go beyond our comfort zone. It’s a daily challenge, and we must face up to overcoming it as we grow, so it’s okay when you feel a little overwhelmed by the dimension of what you got yourself into – because it is a big thing. When you take time to reflect, you realize the impact of the action you are taking, and the real importance of the issue you are addressing. More, you also reach the bittersweet epiphany that though you are helping, here and now, you will not be there tomorrow.
So what happens once you leave? Does everything fall apart? Will your contribution be forgotten? Will the impact remain?
You Create Change
And this is the real answer to the insecurities we face when we realize the depth of our commitments.How can we continue what we started, without fear that it will all fall apart once we move on to the next destination? Well, we learn that change is constant. It does not come from one-stop actions, but from continuous and responsible efforts towards relevant issues. So, in order to avoid the fear of not knowing whether your contribution has really changed anything, you simply never stop contributing. You come back home, you travel again, and your journeys turn into opportunities to do more. Every moment, you realize that you can help. You meet people on the street, and you help them. You recognize a problem in your surroundings, and you take action without waiting for anyone to guide you. You become autonomous, and able to act without fear or hesitation.
So if you’re still wondering whether you should give voluntourism a try, you just read through these five reasons to do it! The most important thing to remember is that we don’t need to go elsewhere to learn all these lessons. Everything begins with the understanding that we can all take action and make a change, without placing a limit on time and space.