Volunteering: A Different Kind of Travel Experience
Sometimes it’s not about what the destination can do for you, but what you can do for the destination.
When I signed up to volunteer on a mission trip to go to New Orleans to help rebuild houses still damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the word that did not come to mind was “travel.” In my experience, traveling was synonymous with vacation, not construction work in the Louisiana heat. I was excited, of course, to go somewhere I had never been before and do work that would help people and make a difference. I simply didn’t consider it a travel experience. Yet when I stepped on the bus for the thirty hour bus ride down (leaving from Massachusetts), I began to realize that this trip was going to be more than I had expected.
Mission trips and volunteering, local or abroad, are an entire travel experience in their own. While I was in New Orleans, not only did I get to explore French Quarter, see the levy and the bayous like a tourist, but I got to see a side of New Orleans that a person on vacation would never get to see or experience. I worked in neighborhoods painting and rebuilding, met the people that lived in the houses I was working on, got to hear their stories and learn the history one wouldn’t find in a museum or tourist trap. It was enlightening and enriching in a way it never could have been if I had been there simply to vacation.
Volunteering opens your eyes to any place, whether you have never traveled there or have visited a thousand times. Travel isn’t simply about going to a new place, but seeing a place in a new way. Meeting locals, working on something that would improve their lives and doing good for the community, led me to experience New Orleans in a way I wasn’t expecting. It taught me to engage more, to look beyond the flashy lights and see a place as more than just a vacation spot. No matter where you travel, no matter how exotic a place may seem to you, there are always going to be people who call that place home, for which the weather, the land, the sites and the food are going to be normal.
It can be easy to forget that sometimes, and it can be humbling to remember that what is paradise to one person could be troubled and in need of help to others. Your travel experiences don’t always have to be what a destination can do for you, but what you can do for your destination. Just getting to know some locals, hearing what have to say on their home is an immersion in culture in itself. In my experience, volunteering for a place, whether it’s rebuilding, teaching, assisting medical needs, or just offering someone a hand of friendship, will leave you feeling connected to a place in a deep way.
That being said, if you’re in need of a vacation, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist once in a while. See the sites, eat the food, chill by the pool and take the tours! Everyone needs a holiday sometimes. There are so many different ways to travel and experience places. Going on a trip to volunteer does cost money- but so does all traveling. It’s about how you want to spend your money, where you want to go or who you think may need you. That, and there’s fundraising!
Also, volunteering is fun! I went with a whole team of people when I went to New Orleans. I made new friendships and learned what it meant to work on a team and face challenges as well as achieve success. Volunteering is a social experience. It will inspire thoughtful dialogue different to usual travel conversation, and will leave you with relationships you didn’t arrive with. Experiencing a new place with other people, working to achieve something together, can be one of the best parts of a travel experience.
So how can you get connected to a volunteer program? There are so many out there, it won’t take much digging to find one! But before you go signing up for the first trip you see, ask yourself, “Where do I want to go? Who do I want to help? Where will my skills be most useful?” If the most medical experience you’ve eve had is bandaging a scraped knee, don’t sign up to volunteer with a hospital. Maybe you’re good with children- find a trip that engages with kids. Keep in mind you don’t have to be an expert on what you’re doing; volunteers are volunteers, they’ll teach you what you need to know.
Volunteer trip opportunities are everywhere. Do a little internet research, look through your school’s clubs and organizations, join a mission trip that uses your beliefs. I went to New Orleans with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at my university. It can be nerve-wracking to travel somewhere new, to adjust to the customs and traditions you might be working with, but that comes with all travel. There are so many ways to experience the world, and volunteering is just one more reason to travel, and a great way to experience it. Never be afraid to take a chance, especially if it will do some good.