Deciding to go on a voluntour is a big decision. You’re giving your time—time that may be in short supply if you’ve got a full-time job or a family (or both)—but you know the experience you have will be worth every second you put into it. Unfortunately, for some people, voluntours end up being negative experiences. Often this is because their expectations didn’t match up with the reality of their trip, or because the nature of the work they were asked to do was beyond their physical or emotional abilities. Or sometimes the voluntour organization is just in it for the money (check back for tomorrow’s post on how to evaluate voluntour companies). Making sure you have a positive experience starts with some deep thinking about where you want to be and what you want to do. It also requires you to be realistic about your individual strengths and weaknesses.
Many voluntour experiences require a certain amount of physical strength and fitness. Tour companies will be up-front about what is expected, and it’s up to you to determine whether or not you are up for the challenge. There is no reason to push yourself, just try to be realistic about your abilities. Remember that you will be in a foreign country, with people you don’t know, doing something completely new. Adding physical stress into the mix is setting yourself up for an unpleasant experience. Besides, it’s pretty macho to travel to a foreign country to help people in need. You’ve got nothin’ to prove.
The same goes for emotional stress. For example, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I have both under control with my lifestyle choices, but I know if I’m faced with extreme stress, I am likely to relapse. As much as I want to help very sick children (probably more than any other group of people) I wouldn’t choose to work them because I know it would be an extreme stresser. Treating your own constitution with respect means protecting your health first. It’s like on airplanes when you’re told to put the oxygen mask on your face first, before helping others. You can’t make a positive difference in people’s lives if you’re struggling and unhappy.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re traveling with a voluntour company (and most first-time volunteers do), you’ll be able to find quick informative answers that let you know if you’re in the right program. You may also consider contacting people who have participated in similar voluntours in the past. First-hand accounts of what the location is like and what the work entails will help you create a set of realistic expectations before you get on the plane.
Remember: just because you’re helping people doesn’t mean this is purely a work trip. This is your vacation. There are so many opportunities out there, if you take the time, you’ll find one perfectly suited to your interests and abilities.