Volunteer Forever Co-Founder Billy Beltz reflects on the impact of short-term volunteer work after returning from a volunteer project in Trat, Thailand.
It’s no secret: volunteering abroad, sometimes also referred to as ‘voluntourism’, is often disparaged in the media these days. You tell me you want to volunteer overseas and I’ll find you 10 articles written in the last month saying that you’ll do more harm than good.
The concerns around the impact of serving overseas are valid and often grounded in very real examples of projects gone wrong. And the blame is generously spread around to all those involved; from organizations focused more on profit than providing lasting benefits to the host community, to volunteers with no training or knowledge of the local culture hoping to help themselves more than others.
This conversation is usually healthy and important for the future of international service. Prospective volunteers should be encouraged to be critical, to do more research and consider their skills/knowledge and the impact they’ll truly be making on the host community. But as I recently found out, even when you ask all the right questions to choose a placement agency, make sure to align your professional skills with your project, and set realistic expectations, things can still go awry.
So what then? What happens when you’re no longer able to use your professional knowledge and basically become an unskilled foreigner bumbling along and just trying to help out in any small way possible? Do you end up useless to the community and only benefiting your own ego? And if so, should you have ever gone in the first place?
Four weeks ago I hopped on a plane and headed to Trat, Thailand to participate in a volunteer project running a sports camp and teaching physical education to local youth. This work aligned directly with my professional background and I was in a good position to utilize my knowledge and experience. Two weeks was the most time I could contribute, so in order to make a larger impact, I also chose to donate a significant amount of PE equipment to the schools that they could keep and use long after I left. I did research to make sure the organization (uVolunteer) was committed to the host community and the short and long-term outcomes of the project, and I made sure that the equipment I brought was what they really needed. My assignment was to engage students in structured physical activity and teach them new sports that they could use after I left, and I felt I was the man for the job.
After arriving at the school it quickly became apparent that there were going to be some challenges to the original plan. Part of the school was under construction so our only space to play was inside a small gym (the camp was designed for outdoor sports). And it turned out last minute that I was not going to have any translator during camp hours (none of the kids spoke English and the small amount of Thai I learned was useless). And there were other minor obstacles I won’t get into. I’ve volunteered abroad before and know Rule #1 is to be flexible, and of course relative to what can go wrong these weren’t extreme issues. But they were significant enough to derail everything that I was planning to do with them, and make my “expertise” basically useless. Very early on I learned the best I could do was try and keep them engaged and having fun.
So I spent two weeks fumbling my way through simple makeshift activities and trying to keep the kids happy. How much difference did I really make? Sure, I was able to keep a group of kids engaged and active during their summer break, teach them some English and donate PE equipment to local schools. But does that justify the trip? Before I met my volunteer coordinator, Meaw, I would say maybe not. But she convinced me that perhaps most importantly I was able to be just one more person in the students’ lives to share and emphasize the idea of service.
Meaw grew up in Thailand and had, for all intents and purposes, a regular childhood (not that there really is such a thing). Along the way she went to school to learn a bit of English… and in her words, “from there my life was changed forever, from back to front”. The school was taught by volunteers. But it wasn’t the English instruction that changed her life… it was the fact that there were people who would donate their time and effort to help others and do it with such passion. That changed her entire outlook on life and what she wanted out of it. From there she grew up wanting to share that passion and make service a major part of her life. Now she runs all the Thailand projects for uVolunteer and spends her spare time volunteering to teach the locals English. And her hope is to one day open a home serving local underprivileged kids. Her entire life is dedicated to serving… it’s amazing to witness.
And although I can’t claim to be as admirable as Meaw, I have a similar story. I vividly remember the impact that volunteers had on my community and myself after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake near my hometown. Years later, after participating in a volunteer project helping to rebuild a small village in rural Greece, I was convinced I wanted to help others engage in service however possible. That lead me to co-found Volunteer Forever, a platform dedicated to helping individuals overcome information and financial barriers to volunteering abroad.
So what if I helped contribute to raising a future Meaw amongst the group of kids I taught? Of course, it takes a lot more than a goofy looking volunteer there for only two weeks, but what if my service, combined with the work of local volunteers, parents, and the community, helps to convince someone that service is something they want to integrate into the rest of their life?
The world needs more Meaws, that’s for sure. And I think projects like mine, even when the direct impact is somewhat limited, serve to make that possible. So the next time you consider volunteering abroad, yes do your homework and be critical of the organization and the impact you’ll have… but don’t let that stop you from finding the right opportunity and making it happen. The idea of service is contagious, and it’s something worth spreading.