Written by Jenny McWhirter on 20 / 11 / 2013
Gap Year Advice
Gratifying, humbling, insightful, life-changing... these are all words Leapers have used to describe the act of volunteering. But they’re all just abstract words, meaningless jumbles of letters. Until you experience them for yourself. And how do you do that? Through taking action!
Being 18-24 and leaving full-time education is a daunting time for sure, but it’s also a stage of your life full of opportunity and possibility. It’s a perfect time to travel and volunteer on projects that make a difference to the lives of others. Free from the adult responsibilities of mortgages and debts (and hopefully without kids dandling round your neck), now’s the time to take a leap off the couch and out of your comfort zone. Turn the words above into reality!
In case you need any more convincing, here are eight more reasons to volunteer now...
‘A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for’ – John A. Shedd
The experiences you will share and the time spent in relative isolation with other volunteers will bring you close in a truly unique way. Whilst volunteering in Africa, I befriended people with so many different stories and backgrounds, and definitely met people I’d never get the chance to hang out with back home in my comfy bubble!
The sense of having shared something truly unique and helping one another through will lead to making mates for lifetime.
Wherever you choose to volunteer in the world, the local people you live and work alongside will enrich your travel experience in ways you never imagined possible.
Honestly, the conversations in broken English and innocent misunderstandings will give you and them some of the loudest laughs, like the African children who pointed at the moles on my white skin and said ‘there’s an African inside trying to get out’, or the friend volunteering in China who was asked by a teacher in a remote hill school ‘when a black man and white lady make baby, does it look like Panda?’.
A few years ago, a Leaper staying with a family in rural Costa Rica misunderstood their invitation in Spanish to wash her hands before dinner and instead attempted to climb in the sink, thinking they were encouraging her to take a bath!
Both you and they will get an insight into an entirely new culture and way of seeing the world. Which may change everyone’s outlook forever. Just make sure you don't make any of these linguistic gaffes...
Your reasons for volunteering don’t have to be purely altruistic. It’s OK to consider how your gap year and summer experiences at this age will reflect on you in future when you come to apply for that dream job.
It’s a cut throat world out there and competition for top jobs is tough; you need to start thinking now about how you are going to stand out. Being a volunteer now will equip you with a range of skills and experiences that will impress future employers.
What's more, it gives you an exciting experience to talk about at interview. You can gain an insight into the realities of the working world through internships overseas and will reap the benefits in later life.
You can gain all manner of transferable skills from volunteering now. Your self confidence will snowball from planning and carrying out lessons, communicating ideas with kids who may not speak English as a first language. You’ll boost your teamwork skills and your ability to organise effectively will be tested through running sports activities such as football sessions after school.
Looking back on my time volunteering in Africa, it put me on the path to growing into my own person. I learnt to think on my feet when presented with the task of teaching a science to 9 year olds with only a few minutes to prepare because their teacher was sick.
Confidence, like growing a good beard, takes time. For me volunteering was the catalyst!
When volunteering, it’s often the case that you reverse that famous wartime saying: ‘ask not what you can do for your country, but what that country can do for you’. Whist you may be motivated by the desire to help others, volunteering is not a one-way street. You'll learn just as much from being immersed in another culture as others will learn from you.
For me, adapting to an African schedule and concepts of time (very much unscheduled most of the time!) left me frustrated and cursing most at the start of my volunteering stint. But I developed a level of patience and appreciation of the here and now which life in the fast-paced, 24/7 Western world had all but squashed out of me.
People’s generosity and willingness to help me – a stranger – even when they had very little to give was humbling, and has made me rethink how I treat foreigners at home. It’s a great learning experience to see that there are other ways of living and approaching challenges. Because you don't have to be as unaccommodating as the following clip, do you (even if it is quite amusing in this instance)?
‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ – Marcel Proust
‘Voluntourism’ is a term with a bit of a shaky rep after the famous (admittedly hilarious) ‘gap yah’ youtube videos. Suggesting that gap year volunteers are border-line alcoholics with nothing more than self-gratification in mind. Don’t believe the hype - this is a stereotypical misconception, and far from the truth about most young people that choose to volunteer.
Organised in the right way, by a reputable and experienced company like The Leap, which carries out research and well-led projects, volunteers can make a difference - even in a short period. Volunteering is an opportunity to explore your destination in greater depth, and enjoy both sides of the being abroad story – the fun and the hard work!
Yeah it sounds simple, but it’s true that the act of volunteering leaves you feeling better – about yourself and the world we live in. The act of making a positive impact, even in a small way, to someone else’s day is a great thing and will stay with you long after your volunteer project has ended.
Some of the people you meet along the way whilst volunteering will have stories and experiences that may sadden or shock you, but their happiness and the joy you may be able to inspire in them is very powerful! For me, seeing how many underprivileged children in Africa found beauty and entertainment in simple things was the most inspirational. Their excitement surrounding a school sports day I had planned, for example.
Feeling that I was a valued member of a team, making a difference to people’s lives, did wonders for my self-esteem. You will only thrive in a situation if your heart is really in it and you are feeling good about it. Volunteer now and you will get that by the bucketload.
Exactly what it says on the tin. You could use your volunteer experience to develop your existing linguistic skills or take up a completely new language. It’s a great way to expand your skills and it will enrich your experience as a volunteer no end.
Even though I probably didn’t make much sense to the local people in my area of Africa, I found speaking in the regional dialect made me feel more accepted by my hosts and it meant a lot to them that I was having a go. Everyone loves a foreigner giving their ways of life and communication a go. They are proud of their culture and if you show a genuine interest then they will be proud of you too!
Volunteering is flexible and full of variety. There are projects of all lengths available to fit many different interests and skill... even if you have never experienced volunteering before. The Leap offers volunteering in rural splendour (i.e. back of beyond!) or on the doorstep of vibrant urban tourist hotspots.
So whether you’re a lover of the outdoors or a city slicker at heart, your ideal volunteer experience is out there.
It could be a medical placement or one raising HIV awareness, coaching sports to some of the most naturally talented but unaware individuals, or helping build a much-needed toilet block. There are ways to leave your mark on a place. Projects focusing on environmental conservation are fast becoming the way to do this. The impact will be as big or as small as you yourself make it. No qualifications or previous experiences are needed for projects.
If you want to focus on one specific type of project, go for an internship. Or for more variety and a mix of working with both people and the environment or wildlife try a Leap team program. You wont look back!
Most independent backpackers barely scratch the surface of the country or culture they are visiting, merely passing through with a day or two in each place. Their memories may be fun, but it’s very different to the authentic interaction with locals, understanding of a place and lasting impression that volunteering leaves.
Remember: the more you put in, the more you will get out. As much of a cliché as it is, variety is the spice of life. For me, volunteering has always helped you reassess your limited take on the world and your priorities in life.
A true challenge will give you much more of a significant outcome than a passive bystander. Be active in your future, volunteer now. If you think it’s for you, what are you waiting for?
on 20 / 11 / 2013