The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
- St. Augustine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

10 Reasons Why Volunteering is Better than Traveling - discussion

Here's a link to a provocative article on Matador.

My take on it: I agree that volunteering is better than traveling, for the most part. Volunteering is such a personal, spiritual, and culturally immersing activity that I will never regret the time that I spent rooted to one spot and grounded in a community, rather than traveling to as many places in as short a time as possible.

Yet I don't think that people should necessarily feel bad about their voyages (OK - most people don't. I refer to those who might feel bad about their travels after reading this article and this blog post). I think that people should instead examine their motives for traveling deeply, and ask themselves what they are after. Healing, inspiration, love, status, world domination, or just a break in the everyday routine - ask questions that only yourself can answer. I feel that interacting on a daily basis with members from a different community and attempting to understand their lives and problems deeply, aided by the passage of time, can not only fulfill many of those desires (save world domination and status but let's assume that these are goals that you good readers of this blog are not after) but in addition might truly help another person. At the very least, somebody will remember the time that you have gifted them, the curiosity and respect that you have shown for the world.

Let's not forget that the volunteering is tied to travel but traveling does not always involve volunteering. For example, whether I am in central Quito, South Los Angeles or the HousingWorks (an American nonprofit that fights for those who are homeless and who have AIDS) Bookstore Cafe in NYC, volunteering shows me and involves me in a different world. Poverty is a different culture and all that one knew for sure slowly crumbles away.

Of course, I will now throw you all a twist after having mostly espoused volunteering over traveling - I am considering a multi-country trip in 2011. Not once in my life have I done the multi-country trip; I've always stayed in the same country for a month or longer. Yet I feel that now is the time, while I am young, when I have taken a long break from school, to see as much of the world as I can. I'm doing it on my own terms, and with my own principles. My goal is still cultural immersion. My interest is still social justice. I see myself as a kind of cultural journalist - I have a gift for integrating myself into the heart of a different culture, and then being able to translate that experience in my writing. So whether I journey through South America or Asia, whether I volunteer the entire time or not, I know what I am after. I hold myself accountable to my goals. I'm not doing this to inspire envy amongst my friends or to check off countries on a list. I just hope that I will be able to learn more about the world in this relatively free time that I have, and in that way learn more about myself - it may not come now or in the near future, but I often wonder... what is my true métier? How will I engage in the world in the future and attempt to solve social problems? This is my goal not only when I volunteer, but also when I travel.

Comments, questions, feedback, criticism - all welcome below!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Colibrí Video Interviews and Updates

Quoi de neuf, indie volunteers? I have so much to write about!

Firstly, I've been on hiatus since I got back to NYC from Paris: working full-time and trying to figure out my immediate and future life plan will drive thoughts of updating a blog clear away. I can't not write about Paris though: living there for three months was an experience that changed my life. I am now hoping to go to a French university very soon, or at the very least study abroad in Paris. I fell in love with one of the most beautiful commonplace civilizations in the world - where discussion and eating is an art, where family and friends are valued more than work or money, where traveling is expected, and the list goes on. Remember that if you wish to visit Paris and you can't afford to pay for a place to stay, you can live as a writer-in-residence, or tumbleweed, in the Anglophone bookstore Shakespeare & Co.! Highly recommended, but make sure you're not looking to practice French, cause they're mostly English speaking Brits there ;)

While I enjoyed my time in Paris, I had written to you all about how anxious I was to get back to New York and work so that I could volunteer again. I was a bit restless with my life in Paris - mostly walking, eating, reading, and dancing (terrible, yes, I know) - but, my, how I had forgotten - you can volunteer anywhere! Paris is one of the richest cities in the world with a very high standard of living, but that does not mean that there are not people in need there. On my very last night, on the way to dinner with a friend in the ritzy 7ème arrondissement, I passed by a plain, small parc that held what seemed to be a celebration. A trailer was there, pulling out tables, lights were strung around it all, and lots of people were milling around. It wasn't a fancy party though, upon a second glance, and I saw that the trailer said "Les Restos du Coeur"  - restaurants of the heart. I stopped dead in my tracks and hit myself on the forehead. How amazing of an experience would it have been to get involved in something like that! I could have learned so much from the down-and-out-of-luck, just plain old working hard, or volunteering Parisians and enjoyed countless discussions. I did some research afterwards and have added some links for you all in the sidebar - so that the next time you're in Paris for an extended period of time, you will know about what you can do in your time there that will help somebody and also be an invaluable learning experience. Plus, I'm sure that the food they serve is WAY better than the food I've served in NY or Boston - it's Paris, after all ;) Il faut manger bien pour vivre bien! 

I'm back in New York now, and have been for nearly three months. Since I've been working full-time and switching my life plans almost everyday, I'm nowhere near close to finishing the video, but I've accomplished something in the meantime - a transcript of the Colibrí promotional video. For those of you who are new to this blog, I volunteered at a center for working and economically disadvantaged children in Cuzco, Peru from May to June of this year. My plan to volunteer at a community house in the more rural Chincha had fallen through, so I came to Cuzco without a plan and started asking around for meaningful and free places to volunteer. Another long-term traveller fluent in Spanish recommended Colibrí to me, and I knew from the moment I walked into the center that it was very much needed. The atmosphere was so warm and the faces there so happy - Colibrí is much more than a place for these kids to receive tutoring, to play fútbol, eat some food and get medical care. It's a second home for them, a place of safety and full of people who care for them. No matter how much people say that centers like these are a drop of water in the ocean of need out there, they are necessary because this is the most help that these children are getting right now.

I was especially impressed by the policemen who had started and continue to run the whole operation. They keep the center going with a small allowance from the Policia Nacional de Perú and donations from locals and foreigners. The promo video will be mostly interviews with them and montages of the daily scene at Colibrí.

Interview with Alcides, Director of Colibrí [translated from Spanish] 

Me: What is Colibri?
A: Colibrí is a program that works with children, specifically children who work on the streets here in the city of Cuzco, Peru.

Me: When and how did it begin?
A: Colibrí began in September 23, 1997 to aid the adolescents whom I saw working in the streets. I saw that they were in great need, working in the streets without protection and constantly in danger of being arrested or taken advantage of. Colibrí would bring some security to them.

Me: What do the children do here?
A: They come here to work on their school assignments,  or make some art and learn some English. They also come for the volunteers who always visit them.

Me: How do volunteers help?
A: Volunteers help them directly by teaching them things in their homework, and sharing with the children some of their own culture.

Me: Why is volunteering free at Colibrí?
A: Volunteering here should be free because we are not an organization that recruits volunteers and collects fees from them - we just hope that volunteers would help us with some things, and be of a useful presence to the kids here.

Me: What would you like to have at Cilobrí?
A: Oh, there is so much. We need more computer resources, chairs, hygienic services, a bathroom, running water.... Ultimately we need things that will be of use for the children.

Me: What do you ultimately hope for the children who come to Colibrí?
A: I hope that they will be changed, that they will be useful to society. We want improvement for them, a better life. I hope that they will be in a good place in the future, that they will be good people, that tomorrow they will be better off, and not participate in activities in the streets anymore. I want all of these kids to be good citizens.*

For the rest of the interviews with the policemen and volunteers, stay tuned for the Colibrí video! I'm working my darnedest, what with three college applications and all :)

My exciting update is that I am going to Cartagena, Colombia for a month in January! I have always wanted to go to Colombia, since I have met so many friendly Colombians around the world who are proud of their country and eager to have me visit. I chose the ciudad Cartagena de Indias because I have long read about this city in the fiction of Gabriel García Marquez and because it is reputedly a beautiful, romantic, and vibrant Carribbean city. Nonetheless - I do not take vacations - I go on cultural expeditions! We all know that volunteering can be an invaluable window into another culture and different daily life, so my search for a free and meaningful volunteer opportunity in or around Cartagena thus begins. I will be looking for something in the realm of education or healthcare, preferably the latter.

Finally - though this has nothing to do with volunteering abroad - I took notice of former Washington DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee's new campaign/nonprofit organization, Students First. Michelle Rhee is a leader in the education reform community, and has been celebrated as well as criticized for her rapid yet effective approach to changing the education system in Washington D.C. She resigned as Chancellor after her boss, incumbent DC mayor Adrian Fenty lost the mid-term 2010 election to the Republican candidate. Since then, she has launched her website, a Students First Facebook page and a Twitter. I have heard about Rhee's work and philosophy before, but after finding out about her nonprofit, I did some more research on her and am duly impressed. Michelle Rhee is indignant about the education most children in the United States receive and rightly so. If you are a child without money, you are a child without options, because the zoning and lottery system the US education system employs only has a few good public schools to dole out. Videos | Before I tested into the Bronx High School of Science, I was zoned for Van Buren High School in Jamaica. I don't have any illusions about the education I would have received there, nor more importantly any about the academic atmosphere in which I would have been immersed. Rhee is an advocate for the kids without options, and demands better policies and better teachers stat. I'm with her. So please, check out her nonprofit, sign the pledge, make a donation if you can and join a local discussion group. What we're all doing here is taking baby steps that may pass by unnoticed and can be very frustrating at first, but I have no doubt that we're going to change things.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Involvement, and why I write this blog at all

I was reminded of the purpose of this blog when I read this quote from Confucius, "Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand." These words are really applicable to everything in life. Love, education, literature, film, all the ways that humans try to communicate with each other. For me, I immediately thought of my efforts through maintaining and writing this blog. It is my sincerest desire that I will involve readers in my personal journey. I don't just want to tell stories through words and show experiences through photos. I want to involve all my readers through the common thread that I believe connects us all - humanity and a desire to lessen the sufferings of others. I want my readers to imagine themselves in other people's lives, to ask themselves difficult questions, to take the risk of traveling somewhere they have never known and to want to help people that they have never met.

That is really my motivation behind the promotional video that I am working on for Colobri. Progress is achingly slow, especially because I do not have the right software and am currently agonizing over financing for my gap year, but I hope that the finished film will involve viewers through its narrative portrayal of policemen and volunteers from all over the world. These strangers come together to support children for no other fact than that they are children, they are disadvantaged, and they, like everybody else in the world, deserve opportunities and love.

Alas, it is not yet finished. I hope that I can finish it once I am back in New York and definitely before the New Year. Thus, I must leave you all with photos of my time in Colobri and hope that that will still involve you all :) As they say in France, a bientot!

Family portrait
Maté y queque
Estaba leyendo el texto mientras ella lo copía
Vamos a la parque! 
Mi ultimo dia... vean uds la locura? 

I love them. I left a piece of my heart in Colobri.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Longing to volunteer

I arrived to Paris a week ago. It is my first time visiting this city, and I must admit that it is truly beautiful and the quality of life here is high. I also am thrilled to practice my French; its my favorite language to speak!

At the same time, I am impatient to make enough money so that I can travel and volunteer again, especially since I am now interested in the healthcare industry and I have approximately 9 months to decide whether I will apply to Mount Sinai's Medical Humanities. I read a book about the founder of Partners in Health, a healthcare nonprofit based in Boston and serving the poor in countries such as Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and Russia, and I am interested in volunteering in Chiapas, Mexico for a bit. I have already received two opportunities to volunteer as a teacher in Ecuador and Kenya, but now that I am interested in global public health, I feel that this time is crucial to test out the waters in that field. I already know that I enjoy working in education and community development, but I am really excited about healthcare. Healthcare is a basic need and an universal right; it comes before education.

Anyway, I can't write a post without thinking about my readers. For cash strapped, intellectually curious, vagabond travelers such as myself looking for a place to stay in Paris for free, I recommend going to Shakespeare & Co., an old bookstore that has housed famous penniless authors and travelers for half a century. I will live amongst the bookshelves, work two hours a day at the shop, and read a book a day for a month.

Also, for those interested in volunteering in Thailand, I found a remarkable database for not only free opportunities, but opportunities that offer accommodation and food besides! Gotta love the Thai people. Here it is - so get out and go volunteer, people!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Financing madness

I unfortunately left Peru and am back home in New York. It's great to be home but man, there is nowhere like New York that smacks you on the head and tells you to make some damn money. As soon as I got home, I realized how much money my gap year of traveling and volunteering would probably require, and how little money I make from my current job in retail.

So! Whether I spend a few months or an entire year working, I am going to pursue my dream of volunteering around the world. Here are some financing options that I am currently brainstorming:

1. Travelocity's Change Ambassadors Travel Grant ($5000 towards one volunteer vacation)
2. Letter campaign to my city councilors, statesmen, business owners (my friend who I went with to Ecuador wrote letters to travel to the Galapagos - and that was only for vacation!)
3. Modeling (hey, it pays)
4. Tutoring (I just sent off an application to Kaplan, and to be honest, I quite enjoyed studying for and tutoring the SAT)

In other news, I am just beginning to edit the videos that I took for Colobri. I want to create a high quality product for them, so I predict that this video will take me at least three months considering all the other projects I am currently involved in (such as trying to figure out my life).

In the end, I am trying to pursue my dream and I think that it will all be worth it. That's what we all have to remember.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Woohoo, I got the long term volunteer stint in the San Cristobal Islands of the Galapagos! I think I will commit to three months. I am really excited to live in a rural community and teach English, especially since I just returned from a rural town outside of Cusco called Pisac and wished that I could have stayed longer. I have never lived in a small village before, so I want to challenge myself and also help people who do not have all the opportunities that cities can offer.

The organization in the San Cristobal Islands is called New Era Galapagos Foundation and it is very simple to apply to be a volunteer. It is free to volunteer with them, and they can arrange host families to live with or you can live with other volunteers for free. At least intermediate ability in Spanish is required, and a long term commitment is preferred. In just two days, the volunteer coordinator responded to me by email and asked me when I would arrive, how long would I volunteer for, and attached a welcome letter to volunteers.

I am not sure yet of my dates - since I haven't bought plane tickets and I would really like to find a good deal - but I think that I would like to volunteer during their summer, from January to March. Time to put Quito and Guayaquil on my FareCompare ticker!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I rather felt like crying today at Colobri. I have been volunteering in the US for two years since my experience in Ecuador, and I had forgotten how difficult donations and government support can be to procure. A fraternity fundraiser easily raises thousands of dollars for the Red Cross. Celebrities in LA publicize 826LA. Trader Joes and the Food Bank of Boston donate too much food for all of the homeless and disadvantaged at the First Church of Cambridge to even consume in one sitting; Thursday nights in Cambridge are basically free trips to a supermarket in addition to hot three-course meals.

I found out that one of the volunteers had been buying bread for lunch/dinner for these kids the past few days. I had just assumed that a bakery donated old bread or that the center used some of their funds to buy bread, but in actuality, this volunteer spent 8 soles everyday to buy bread for 30 or so kids. 8 soles is about $2.50. The center does not have a spare 8 soles every day to buy bread to accompany the maté the kids receive on a daily basis.

Colobri has bigger issues than daily bread. The director has been going to meetings with the local authorities, and they are trying to find a new location for Colobri - perhaps one that is larger and with more facilities, such as bathrooms, but perhaps also one that is in a worse location (Colobri is very close to the heart of Cusco and a restaurant or hostal would likely be more profitable for the city as a whole). The director is trying to make a case for the center and only half-joked about us storming the city government and staging a protest. Apparently, the director had actually gathered up a bunch of police and volunteers (Colobri was started by local policemen in Cusco) and held a protest a couple of years back.

I am so awed by the director´s and other policemens´ efforts. Colobri is more than an educational development center for working kids. It is also a second home for some of them. Children who cannot otherwise shower, eat a proper lunch, or receive basic medical treatment come to Colobri and the director and volunteers try to take care of them. The director told us that he goes around Cusco door to door asking for money or whatever people can donate so that the center can provide for children besides a 3.30 to 7.00 basis. Essentially, this man works two jobs:  policeman by day and volunteer director at Colobri in the afternoon and night.

I talked with one volunteer from Germany after we left the center for a long time. Both of us actually wanted different opportunities; I was looking forward to volunteering in a town still suffering from the 2007 earthquake, and he wanted a long term stint with a German NGO. In comparison, Colobri is rather soft and flexible volunteering, requiring only 3 or 4 hours a day. Both of us are just trying to keep the kids focused on homework and educational activities, since we know that this is their way out. We talked about our efforts, if we were making a difference, and the incredible lifelong dedication of some people like the director of Colobri. Both of us wish we could help more, but know that emptying our coffers is not necessarily the answer. I think that if we could somehow utilize our particular talents to publicize this project, that would be more effective and benefit the center for a longer time. He is thinking about re-vamping the website, which looks very 90s, and I really want to make a video for Colobri. I rather enjoy making short videos now, even though they are incredibly time intensive.

He had been at Colobri for about two weeks now, and told me how surreal it all felt. How can we explain that the price of one beer can buy bread for these kids for two days or so? How can we explain that being born in one country instead of another either opens doors or shuts them? I told him that yes, state societies feature extreme inequality, but that people all over the world care for one another, whether it be family or strangers. I have met very poor Peruvians here who volunteer without second doubts. It may not seem common, but it is not the exception to care for strangers, even if one does not have the means or luxury to do so. There are many ways to volunteer, and not everybody does it publicly or keeps a blog about it. I still firmly believe in the human capacity to care for those seemingly completely different.

The director told us, you just have to keep going. Keep working and keep fighting. Advanza.

Like my role model Angelina Jolie says (you must admit, she is smart, strong, beautiful and dedicated), you can cry at first. But if you want to do anything positive, you have to get indignant, angry, and start pushing for what should and must happen. The director is a wonderfully sweet middle aged man, but I could read the indignance all over his face and the hint of anger in his voice. Obviously he is sad about the troubles Colobri has in obtaining school materials, food and more, but you can see that he believes that these kids have rights, and that they deserve more care and opportunities in life.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Since Mayten never responded to my email, and it was not necessarily a good idea to just show up in Chincha without a cell phone or a contact, I ended up in Cusco, Peru and found an amazing organization that I can freely volunteer for my second day! It wasnt all luck though; I had been talking to tons of people ever since I arrived to try to find the most worthwhile, free volunteer opportunities.

Colobri (which means hummingbird in Spanish) is a center for working kids, and everyday from 4.30 to 7.00 pm, volunteers help kids with their homework, or engage them in learning activities if they dont go to school, and then help administrate the snack-dinner. I found the work enormously gratifying, since I was helping kids to read and write. I also re-discovered my drawing ability! Finally, there was a sizable number of kids, around 30 or so, so the center truly does need volunteers and I felt very useful as a Spanish speaking volunteer (some speak little, which is alright as well).

I cant decide what is better - the kids, the directors, or the other volunteers. I truly enjoyed my first day at Colobri and I cant wait to volunteer there for about 2 and a half more weeks! If you are coming to Cusco to go to Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, I would highly recommend adding some volunteer work to your vacation. It is free to volunteer at Colobri, and I can promise that the work is worthwhile.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Getting over it may be the best thing that's ever happened to me

So, I didn't get in. And since Barnard is the only school I want to go to, I'm going to take a year off school to travel and volunteer, and then re-apply. It might be a long shot because they told me straight up that their endowment was affected by the financial crisis, but I cant help but want to hold out for my dream school. I also finally have an opportunity to take a gap year again.

I'm mentally and physically ready for this trip. I think I'm experiencing academic burn-out, and I really want to work on a long-term project, perhaps even several of them. I have all these hopes and dreams for my future, which might include the Peace Corps, so this is going to be the test year - let's see if I actually, truly am committed to this travel/service/exchange lifestye.

I'll update with more specific ideas and possibilities soon.

I am looking at two opportunities at the moment.
I sorely miss Ecuador and regret that I could not go to the Galapagos when I was in the country, so I found this organization called New Era Galapagos Foundation. Their mission is as follows: NEGF was also founded with the commitment to a more inclusive and therefore effective conservation that provides the necessary skills, knowledge, and awareness to the least well-known, but undoubtedly most important species in the Galapagos, humans. The New Era Galapagos Foundation operates year-round, and includes three trimesters (April-June, July-September, October-December) and a summer camp (February-March), offering programs that focus on issues of tourism and conservation within the community of San Cristobal and the Galapagos Islands. NEGF’s programs aim to raise public awareness of the value of biodiversity, get local people, primarily youth, involved in protecting their natural resources, and endow local residents with the skills and awareness for non-resource extractive employment in industries such as ecotourism, science, and conservation.

Looks good right?
The other thing that I am applying for is a volunteer grant. Travelocity has a grant called the Change Ambassador Grant, which is $5000 towards an international volunteer program. This grant would erase the expenses that I would occur even while independently volunteering, such as airfare, lodging and food. Finally, I must admit that volunteer programs are at least more convenient even if they are pretty commercial these days. I poked around Travelocity´s partners, and Cross-Cultural Solutions interests me the most. I am currently deciding between Morocco, Ghana and Thailand.

The last thing that I am considering is an internship with Blue Kitabu. Blue Kitabu is an educational NGO building and operating schools in Kenya and Ghana. My political science professor´s student started the NGO, so I have a good connection.

I´ll let you all know which ones I get accepted into and what I decide!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The only constant in life...

 It's finals here at USC, and I'm waiting to hear back from Barnard College. I've wanted to attend this school since high school, and I've changed so much since the first time I applied so I hope that the third time's the charm! Academic. Stress.

Also, my plans in Peru have changed. I had really invested in La Casa de Mayten - I sent Mayten two super enthusiastic emails with lots of information about myself - but I never heard a response from her, so I assume that I cannot volunteer in Chincha after all. The project sounds amazing, but alas, such is life. I did, however get accepted to be a Karikuy volunteer researcher for the Perupedia. However, I realized that my heart is not really into this project. I had a similar stint last summer where I researched and wrote for a guide to New York City called Inside New York. This summer, I want to truly challenge myself and give all my possible skills to people that need them a bit more. So, I turned to my beloved and trusty Couchsurfing website and contacted Juan in Cusco, Peru. Juan runs Peru 109, a volunteer organization based in multiple cities throughout Peru, featuring multiple projects. I would likely help out in the women's shelter or teach English, plus Juan would put me up for free since that's the whole nature of Couchsurfing. The most hilarious thing about this whole change of events is that Peru 109 is actually one of those organizations that I am set against; it creates volunteer opportunities, plus adds touristic side trips, for foreigners for a relatively high amount that I can't afford. However, I don't need to pay the fee because I approached Juan from Couchsurfing. This entire thing is leaving me shaking my head a little bit, but hey, I understand that people have to make a living and the most important thing for me is to be able to contribute to a meaningful project in Peru without paying a fee. Anyway, Juan is currently organizing details for me, but I am well aware that things may change once I actually arrive.

As for Paris, I have yet to find a family, but that is because I have only really just started trying. FUSAC is frustratingly only displaying ads from families who either want school-year au pairs, or part-time au pairs. I have therefore enlisted the help of my friend in Paris; Jason will put up ads for me and also screen ads at the American Church of Paris, which is the hub for anglophone au-pair opportunities.I also just have to trust that if I don't find work before I arrive, then I will find work once I'm there.

All in all, I am incredibly optimistic about this summer, but I am trying hard not to have any expectations. The only thing that I know is that..... things will change.

I'll leave you all with this wonderful book. I just purchased  The Underground Guide to International Volunteering from Nerdy Nomad (a brave and inspiring independent volunteer!) and I must say that my travel/volunteer philosophy is exactly the same. Her book is well written, clear, and insightful. I actually am now inspired to write and publish my own book about my experiences - obviously in the future, after lots of more experiences around the world. Anyway, Nerdy Nomad is donating half of the book's price to a disaster relief charity, so buy away! Read and get hungry to be an indievolunteer!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I am now a blogger

I admit, I avoided blogs just because of the stigma of being a {blogger} but I´m doing this because I´m excited to share my experiences as an independent volunteer!

I volunteer mostly here in the States, with great organizations such as 826, as well as in university programs, but I love volunteering abroad even more. The cultural immersion aspect is immensely appealing to the anthropologist inside me. More important, however, is that I am learning about and actively addressing social problems in a parallel reality. Volunteering and traveling were meant to go together, for me at least, but there are problems in combining the two. 

The problem 
"Voluntourism" has become a major market. The incredibly rapid and comprehensive commercialization of volunteer opportunities in developing countries has placed a high price tag on volunteering. It is difficult to wade through all the bureaucracy and fees today when searching for ways to give back to a different community. Of course, these programs make volunteering relatively easy for those who can afford them, since they take care of most details and even provide touristic side trips. Yet, I believe that catering to the expectations and desires of the tourists takes something away from the volunteering. In real life, volunteering for a couple of months in another country is not going to change a whole lot. Even the Peace Corps will tell ya not to get your hopes up. That's why I am very discerning about the organizations I want to give my time to. I want to make sure that they really do need volunteers, that I am performing some important service to the community, and that the whole exchange is less about me and my money, but about the community and their voice. If I'm not going to change a lot, at least I want to be a part of some very necessary change. Some organizations that do this necessarily require volunteers to pay some fees. I believe that that money is well spent, but alas, I am in no position to be paying even relatively small fees to volunteer in other countries. It's quite a problem, since I do want to help. 

How I did it 
My experiences independently volunteering aren't picture perfect, even in comparison to voluntourism. To begin with, it's a struggle for me to even travel. I'm the only child of a single mom, and I've held a job for as long as I can remember, even babysitting others about a year younger than myself at the time. Yet I went to Ecuador for six weeks after highschool, with volunteering firmly on my agenda. I was able to do so because I had applied for a scholarship from Youth for Understanding, an international exchange organization. I was to live with a host family in Quito, Ecuador for 6 weeks. I had been traveling on scholarship since middle school, but I was finally at an age, 17, where I felt that I should do something more during my travels. While YFU did not provide any volunteer opportunities, I was determined to find my own once there. 

Of course, my lower-middle class host family had understandably little experience or knowledge of volunteering - the rich white tourists volunteered, not the struggling Ecuadoreans. Everywhere I called or Googled, it looked the same: $300 application fee here, $500 donation there, and I was getting frustrated. Finally, I had the bright, or perhaps lucky, idea of searching ONLY for volunteer opportunities for Ecuadoreans. My Spanish was good enough that I fooled the person on the phone who answered for Quito Joven Voluntario, and the next thing that I knew, I was looking at a bemused Program Assistant and taking a group interview with six other Ecuadorean youths. The program didn't require a cent since most Ecuadoreans wouldn't want to or be able to pay to volunteer either. I was ultimately accepted and allowed to work at a daycare center and meal kitchen near Plaza Francisco and Calle Ocho de Mayo in the heart of historic downtown. It was a wonderful experience, but independent volunteer fatigue set in. It was incredibly lonely, since I lived an hour and a half away from the site, and none of the other exchange students volunteered. I had to bid adieu to the other volunteers every day after work so that I could take the bus and return to my host family. I also felt unsafe after about two days, and I discovered that the area which I had chosen was considered the most dangerous of all the neighborhoods in Quito only after my camera had impressively vanished. In the future, I will definitely ask about every single neighborhood which I will travel to. Finally, the only organized aspect of the entire program was that the kids seemed to get fed every day. Other than that, the volunteers never felt more useful than moving and talking mannequins. The center seemed to use all of its government funds into decorating the place, but the volunteers and myself never taught the kids anything useful. In fact, one day I was coerced into giving the girls a 'modeling' class, seemingly to pass the time and to enforce gender stereotyped aspirations.

Still, I have hope
Nevertheless, the experience taught me a great deal, out of which this site was partially born. Volunteering in Ecuador has shown me how difficult the search for independent volunteer can be, and the need for such resources and personal evaluation. As a solo-travelling female livin' on the cheap, I want worthwhile and safe volunteer work. I will therefore provide as many independent volunteer resources as I can, and describe the process of procuring an opportunity as well as my experiences abroad so that you all can get a better idea of the best organizations out there to give your precious time. 

Upcoming projects 
This summer, I will volunteer in Peru for 3 weeks. I am in the process of securing a free volunteer opportunity, so I will update you guys on that. I am looking at teaching English at La Casa de Mayten, which is a grassroots effort to address the residual and long-standing damage from the 2007 earthquake, or researching for the Perupedia, a developing social and cultural Peruvian directory, as a Karikuy volunteer. Both opportunities are completely free and provide accomodations. I am looking at a couple of others, as well, all found on the links on this blog to the right. Then, to feed my starving bank account, I will work as an au pair in ParisAu pairing is a wonderful opportunity for living abroad and immersing oneself in another culture while making enough money to get by and perhaps even save up. Perhaps I will also get to volunteer in Paris or some other part of France or Europe, so I will update you guys on that as well.

It is liberating and inspiring to know that it is possible to travel the world, learn about important social issues and try to address them, with very little money but a lot of discernment, passion and fortitude. I want to tell everybody that it is possible, people are doing it, and it is worth it. Well, until next time!