18 Nov HAPPY EXCHANGE: 10 TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME VOLUNTEERING
Over the past few years, a big part of our travels has been volunteering – it gives us the opportunity to learn, to grow, to give back and to take it all in too. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with Indigenous Mayan children in Guatemala, with local, rural children in a village in India and on numerous sustainable farms. Work exchange programs like WorkAway, WWOOF and HelpX, are all incredible opportunities not just to have deeper travel experiences, but especially to have deeper life experiences. We come out of each one with new skills, friends and a sense of pride. Volunteering definitely isn’t as daunting as it might sound – set up a profile online, search through the amazing opportunities out there and when you connect with one, GO FOR IT!
Here are our 10 top tips, to make the first step that little bit easier!
1. Be honest
When you put together your profile, and when you chat to your potential hosts – BE HONEST. Be honest about your experience, your skills and your expectations. They will no doubt prefer someone who has undersold themselves and whips our fantastic surprises than somebody who has exaggerated their technical skills and can’t help at all. When you are clear about who you are, you open a great conversation between you and your hosts – this honesty will get you into the right experiences that you will love rather than dread!
2. Don’t be flaky
Please, just don’t. Only commit to a placement if you are sure that you want to do it, and are able to. If not, don’t confirm. Many hosts rely on volunteers like you to do their harvest, to care for their pets or even teach local kids. Usually there are limited spaces for accommodation, so if a host says yes to you – they’ll have to say no to everyone else. Don’t leave them stuck at the last minute with an empty room and no one to help them out during their busy time! Put yourselves in their shoes and imagine that they will keep their word as to not ruin your travel plans like you should, not to ruin theirs.
3. Dress for the occasion
If you’ve applied to do farm work, you’ll probably need some farm work clothes. Don’t turn up with only your favourite outfits, or beautiful clothes you’ve just bought at a cute Amalfi boutique – they will get muddy, and probably destroyed. Bring a change of work pants, tops, jumpers and (lots of) socks! This way you can get deep into learning without worrying about your clothes getting ruined. Always bring a hat, a rain jacket and good, sturdy boots. If you are lucky, some hosts have leftover old work clothes from other volunteers, but if not – you’ll be prepared to get right into your awesome new experience, from day one!
4. Do the dishes
So, the formula is you do work in exchange for accommodation and food? They list the hours as 9-3 and once you clock off, you clock off? Well… not quite. If you want to be in position where you clock off – best stay at your regular office job. Work exchange is about an exchange and that isn’t just the bare necessities of food and shelter. One of the best parts of a work exchange is being able to become a part of your host family, so just like you would (I hope) at home, with a family dinner offer to help with meal preparations or to do the dishes. It shows that you care, and it means that you’re host has more time to have great conversations with their new family member.
5. Choose something that you LOVE
At the end of the day, work exchange is just that – an exchange. So make sure that you are searching for and applying to experiences which really ring your bell! Whether you love animals or kids or gardening or construction – filter your search accordingly and treat yourself to an experience which is something you’ll remember and appreciate for the rest of your time! Plus, enthusiasm and passion really shows – you can meet the most incredible, like-minded people who will inspire you even more in whatever you pursue!
6. Test the waters
Many hosts prefer to see how things go for the first few days before committing to hosting people for a few months – and it works both ways. You might find somewhere which you would love to spend the next few months or even year, so before completely committing to the long-term, see if your host wants to feel out your dynamics for the first little while and chances are that once you get to know each other and it all feels great – you’ve found yourself a home and experience of a lifetime for the next long while (lucky you)!
7. Be open and flexible
Even if you applied to do something you are already really familiar with, you’ll still experience many news things too. Perhaps it is a new language, culture, habits or tasks, trying something new and probably very different, can be uncomfortable at times. But once you get through the challenging parts you’ll have grown and developed since your first step in your new place. To really soak in all of the new information, you need to be open – expect the unexpected, be flexible – let your perspective be challenged, and be patient – all new things take time! With the right attitude, even the most difficult situations become an opportunity to grow and learn; you’ll be so proud of yourself at the end of it all, trust me!
8. Communication is KEY
If there is something which you don’t like in your tasks, or if things aren’t panning out how you expected them, first ask yourself if you are being fair, give yourself a day to think it over, but if something is still niggling at you – communicate. Be open and let your host know what you are thinking, chances are it could be a miscommunication or an opportunity to make your experience better for you both. If not, and you really need to head off, you’ll be grateful that you were honest and did your best to have integrity, whatever the situation.
9. Leave if you aren’t happy
Really and truly. If you aren’t happy in a placement you are in, have a clear conversation with your host and if it cant be resolved, then give them time to find somebody else and leave when you can. There is no benefit in staying somewhere and only giving a part of your efforts, when you and your host could be in an exchange which is truly shining. There is no shame in letting go of what doesn’t serve you, but make sure you are mature and responsible when doing it. Having said that, if you are in the incredibly rare situation where your host is inappropriate with you or you feel unsafe, make sure you leave when it is best to do so. Work exchange isn’t a locked-in contract, so never feel like you are stuck somewhere that doesn’t feel right for you.
10. Say thank you with a gift
However, if all has gone well, (in 99.99999% of cases it will!) you’ll probably shed a few tears when saying goodbye to your new friends (human and fluffy too). Bringing a small gift with you from beforehand is such a nice, personal touch to express your gratitude for being welcomed into somebody’s home. Extra points if it is something interesting from your home country, from your travels or something you noticed they liked from reading their profile, when you first applied! Remember – don’t be over the top, it is the thought that counts. You’ll be so happy that you can show your gratitude for all of the new skills and experiences, delicious meals, great conversations and fantastic lifetime friends- you never know, you might see them again somewhere else in this big world. That’s the beauty of it all!
Most importantly of all – be grateful! Whatever opportunity you experienced, think about how it has played a small (or huge) role in shaping you and helping the real you blossom from the inside out!
N & G