Volun-tourism, Part One

Friday, March 20, 2009

As I mentioned briefly in this post, I'm considering doing some volunteer work while I'm away. I think it would be nice to give a little something back to at least one of the places I visit, and though the idea of leading a life of leisure for a whole year is undeniably appealing, I can't help but think that there will come a time when I'll feel like pitching in and getting my hands dirty with something. To that end, I've started to poke around to see what options are available. Over the next little while, I'll write some posts about a few of the volunteering options I'm considering.

It turns out there there are, simultaneously, lots and not very many. There seem to be hundreds of organizations that solicit volunteers for all kinds of things - teaching English, construction, assisting in scientific research, wildfire conservation, working with children - the list seems endless. However, when you factor in my own restrictions, the options narrow quickly. Here are my criteria:

  1. I want a program that fits into my itinerary - occurring in or near a country I'm already planning to visit, around the time I'm planning to be there. The places I'd be most interested in volunteering would be in Africa or Asia.
  2. I would like a program that lasts 1-2 weeks, 3 at the most.
  3. I'd prefer something that involves construction, scientific work, or working with wildlife, as opposed to working with children, or teaching.
  4. I might chuck all of these rules if I got really excited about something.
The thing that really surprised me as I started researching this is the high cost of volunteering; I guess it may have been naive of me, but I really didn't expect that. I assumed I'd have to pay my own way to and from whatever project I chose, and I figured I'd need to allow for some food and other living costs. What I didn't expect was that I'd have to pay large fees on top of those expenses in order to participate. My research shows that most of these kind of experiences cost at least $1,000/week. It seems a bit ironic to me that I could probably exist quite luxuriously in many southeast Asian countries for $20-40/day, lounging on a beach and drinking from a coconut, but if I want to go help build a school, it'll cost me $150/day, and I'll be living in a communal tent. I'm still not really used to this idea.

However, after checking out a lot of the links provided at the Verge website, looking into many of the organizations listed in their 2009 Go Abroad Directory, and doing some casual Googling, I've come up with a few possibilities. Today, let's look at one of them:

Habitat for Humanity:

Habitat for Humanity Canada is a national, non-profit, faith-based organization working for a world where everyone has a safe and decent place to live. The mission of the organization is to mobilize volunteers and community partners in building affordable housing and promoting home ownership as a means to breaking the cycle of poverty.
I like the sentiment behind Habitat for Humanity - I've really enjoyed owning my house, so I can get behind the idea of helping other people do the same. I also like working with my hands, so this kind of volunteering would be familiar and fulfilling. Habitat has projects all over the world, though they only list them 4-6 months in advance, so I can't research specific projects right now.
The advantage of H4H is that their trips are a good length, and they have projects in a lot of interesting places - Botswana, Jordan, Zambia, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Romania. The costs seem to start at around $1500 for about 10 days in Jordan, up to about $2,000 for 2 weeks in Botswana, or $2,200 for 13 days in Romania. "The cost includes lodging, food, ground transportation, traveler's medical insurance, orientation materials and a donation to (the) Habitat ... Global Village program."

Those fees doesn't include optional recreational activities organized on days off, and those charges vary wildly. I suppose they depend on how many things there are to do, and how cool they are. In Romania, there's only $146 worth of R&R, in Jordan, there's $975. One plus to all these fees is that the entire cost of the trip (not including recreational activities) is tax deductible in Canada.

The other thing to consider it that Habitat for Humanity is, unabashedly, a "faith-based" organization. I'm not sure what this means in day-to-day life on a project, but if it's more than a quick "God-bless-this-porridge" in the morning and a "Please-God-don't-let-anyone-drop-a-cinder-block-on-their-toes-today" invocation at the job site, then I'd start to get uncomfortable. I'm not a religious person at all, and my tolerance for proselytizing is almost zero. I've got an inquiry in to H4H to as about how their "faith-based-ness" is implemented on the ground, but I'm not expecting a reply any time soon. Here's what there auto-response to my email said:
"Thank you for your interest in the Global Village program. We appreciate your email. Due to the high volume of inquiries we will respond to your email within 2 weeks."
I suppose it's good that they're busy, but seriously? 2 weeks? That doesn't bode well for future communications about more important things like actually booking a trip.

I'd really like to hear from anyone who's worked on a Habitat for Humanity project. And stay tuned for future posts about other volunteer programs I'm considering, including dolphins, novice monks, and organic farming! (Not all in one place... although an organic dolphin farm run by young Buddhists would definitely be worth a look.)


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