Volunteering Abroad: A Life Changing Experience
The first time I volunteered locally here in Las Vegas, it was at The Shade Tree during their back to school event in 2018. I donated supplies and put together a writing and crafts workshop with the kids and we had a wonderful time. Using my skills to donate my time and bond with them was one of the most rewarding things I had ever done.
While volunteering locally was great, I wanted something more. I wanted to expand myself and help people in new ways. As a kid I remember having future plans of joining the Peace Corp when I grew up. But unfortunately, life happens and a long term commitment of being away from home for 2 years wasn’t realistic for me. That’s when I researched short term volunteer opportunities that would allow me the flexibility to do what I love. That’s when I came across International Volunteer HQ, A volunteer travel company with a range of projects from over 50 destinations across the world. IVHQ started in 2007, with a goal of making volunteering abroad more accessible through providing affordable and responsible volunteer programs.
At first this all sounded too good to be true, but after spending weeks doing my own research and taking some negative reviews and opinions with a grain of salt, I made the decision to join and see for myself. Now unlike the Peace Corp, there are costs associated with volunteer abroad programs like IVHQ, (who have the most affordable rates when compared to other companies.) But considering the flexibility, and everything else that goes into these programs, (such as housing, food, 24/7 support from local coordinators) it’s understandable that things would not be free. As I stated earlier, IVHQ is a travel company that sets you up with local organizations with projects ranging from teaching, childcare, special needs care, environmental and medical work. So I picked my destination, paid my fees and prepared for my first trip outside of the United States!
I originally choose the two week health program in Bali, Indonesia with Green Lion. But due to circumstances that I won’t take up time explaining, I cancelled and switched to another program. Teaching English in Cartagena, Colombia with Emerging Voices. Communicating via email with IVHQ was pretty easy, and the application process was simple as well.
This city was everything I had imagined and more. It’s beautiful architecture, rich history and breathtaking art scene was like nothing I had ever seen in the states. Not to mention the wonderful presence of Afro-Colombians and being able to learn and experience Black culture in a new place.
I spent two weeks staying in a nice little house in the Barrio Crespo neighborhood with 12 other volunteers from all over. I felt safe and welcomed by the coordinators who did a great job at making us feel at home. While the accommodations are not what you would expect at a 5-star resort (and I wasn’t expecting it to be) I remained open-minded and adjusted accordingly. It took a day or so to get used to the culture and customs of South American living. Such as not having hot water, central AC and throwing my tissues in the garbage bin instead of flushing them down the toilet. I also struggled with the language barrier, relying on my little knowledge of the Spanish language to communicate with locals. But everyone I came across was kind and willing to help as much as they could. Besides the first day of culture shock, I never felt out of place or like I wasn’t welcomed.
Now I know you’re probably wondering. “How are you able to teach English when you don’t speak Spanish?” I’ll be honest, that was a concern of mine prior to joining IVHQ. But I’ve learned that teaching a foreign language isn’t just about learning how to speak it. But learning how to use and comprehend it. I was placed in an advanced English class where the students had a basic understanding of how to speak English but needed to expand their vocabulary and work on how to use functional language and understand the various ways of how the English language is used. For example, after a few lessons they understood past and present tense, but didn’t understand how to actually use it when having a conversation. Writing and repeating a sentence on paper and actually comprehending how to use it in real life are two completely different things. I also had the help of local coordinators who were teaching at basic level, so in a few classes during my first week, I was assisting and not actually teaching by myself. These students were so enthusiastic and willing to learn, I admired their determination and it broke my heart knowing that I couldn't stay longer than a few weeks. But we did the best we could, and I tried my best to leave a lasting impression and provide them with information that will stick with them in the long term. They were thankful and enjoyed having us around. My heart was so full, and I'm so glad that I could bond with these people and assist with their journey on improving their lives with a new language.
It’s also important to mention that with any kind of volunteering, things don’t always go as planned and sometimes you go where you are needed and placed on projects based on what’s available. I was doing two projects a day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon). These other projects included gardening, helping out at a home for senior citizens with dementia and doing crafts with children who have cancer. I enjoyed doing it all and I truly felt like my time was well spent. On the weekends I strolled Old City, relaxed at the beach and enjoyed a fun night out with my housemates.
I loved this experience so much and will cherish it forever. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and did something that I never thought I would ever do. I met new people, learned new things and came back to the states with even more empathy and appreciation for other cultures than I had before. This was only the first of many trips to South and Central America that I plan to take as I complete my TEFL certification to teach English and improve my Spanish speaking skills. This trip changed my life, I feel like I found my second true calling and cannot wait to do it all again.
As far as recommending IVHQ, my answer is yes. But every location and local organization is different, and my experience may not be the same as yours. Please do your research and make ethical decisions using your best judgement. While I know what works for me, everything isn’t for everyone, and volunteering abroad may not be for you.
If you have any questions about my experience in Colombia, with IVHQ, Emerging Voices or volunteering abroad in general, feel free to contact me via email or message me (@chanelhardypub_) on social media. Also check out all my cool photos from my trip on Instagram!
I encourage you to support the children at Funvivir and donate through Emerging Voices Colombia.