Helping others is important, but the biggest impact volunteers experience is in themselves.
For as long as I can remember, I have been travelling, living in other countries and adapting to different cultures. This started as a young child, when I moved to Burundi with my family. Living in Africa was a world away from my birth country of Germany! Since then I have lived and worked all over the world. My early upbringing instilled an important feeling and lifelong lesson in me.
Participating in different cultures and meeting people with all kinds of life experiences is always positive. Whenever I live in a new country for a while and immerse myself with the people there, I always leave with new insights and ways of seeing the world. Not only that, travel inspires me. It’s given me ideas, clarity on how I’d like to live my life and perspective on what I want to achieve.
Immersion through volunteering abroad
I wanted to give other people the chance to feel those feelings, which is why I set up an ethical volunteer travel company, Travel to Grow.
Volunteering while travelling is a way to enable people to become immersed in a new place. You see more than you would as a tourist and it involves adapting to something new in every area of your life. This includes gaining insights into a country through specific projects abroad and interacting with new people on a daily basis. Even living in a new ‘home from home’ for a while and enjoying different mealtime rituals awakens something in you.
I’ve seen so many of our Travel to Grow volunteers experience the invigorating feelings familiar to me since childhood. We have young people travelling and living away from home for the first time, to more mature people longing to be completely immersed in something that takes them away from their office job. Not only are they confronting themselves in the context of new cultures and geographical surroundings, they’re making dozens of friends and learning new skills ‘on the job’.
These skills can be things that define peoples’ careers, such as those who volunteer abroad at a wildlife sanctuary and gain enough experience to help them get into the veterinary field back at home. Some people come away with unexpected new hobbies, such as surfing after they’ve helped at our surfing project for underprivileged children. Others acquire a new vision, helping them set up their own businesses or small ventures. In the least, people come away with a new appreciation for people, cultures and ways of life, which permanently and positively changes the way they view the world.
Ethics of projects abroad
Many people think helping others is the primary reason volunteering abroad exists, so it might seem strange not to have mentioned this until now. Of course, lending a helping hand and giving something back to the country you visit is an important aspect of volunteering at projects abroad. But there are a lot of ethical considerations in relation to this too and as a result, we choose the projects we partner with very carefully.
We only work with projects abroad who don’t rely on volunteers in order to survive. This is because no-one can guarantee a constant supply of volunteers and it wouldn’t be ethical to work with a project that wouldn’t run if volunteers decided not to come. It also ensures that projects are not set up solely because there is a demand for volunteering opportunities within a certain field.
Therefore, we only work with established projects abroad who I have spent time with personally. This ensures the projects are ethically run and their survival is not dependant on travel trends. For this reason, we don’t send volunteers to orphanages because this is proven to be highly disruptive to children, and we don’t work in big cat projects that run breeding programmes.
Working in this way means volunteers make a difference where it counts. All our projects get an extra pair of hands when volunteers come along. This helps the projects do necessary things they wouldn’t have the time or resources to do otherwise, as well as gain fresh ideas from new people.
Local people organise the logistics of our volunteer travel experiences, volunteers stay in accommodation run by locals and all projects are locally owned and run. As such, taking the opportunity to volunteer abroad supports the local economy and people in more ways than one when they visit.
Inspiration for life
Giving people the opportunity to give something back to the people and places they visit is a core purpose of Travel to Grow. But I think the longer-lasting effect is what our volunteers take back home with them. By understanding more about different people and cultures, people are more tolerant and understanding of the world around them. Through the total immersion of being part of a different culture for a while, volunteers can go back to their lives and make the world and their everyday existence better too.