5 easy steps to volunteering abroad

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Kate and Tom with the boys of Les Enfants de Dieu

This summer I had the exceptionally good fortune to travel to the tiny African country of Rwanda with my 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. It was my first trip to the developing world. Accompanying a friend who was born there and “tagging along” when she visited her family gave me the courage to go. Volunteering with a community-based organization while we were there made the trip absolutely magical.

The details of volunteering abroad—or the thousands of dollars per person often charged to participate in a structured volunteer program—seem daunting. I’ll share our secrets in five easy steps that any family can take, anywhere in the world, at no additional cost.

1. Ask locals for recommendations on area nonprofits.

The emails sent back and forth to arrange travel logistics brought me in touch with many wonderful people who live and work in the city we were visiting (Kigali, Rwanda). Our friend introduced us to two organizations, and through my work (and LinkedIn network) I connected with a third. But these local groups were also known to the manager of our hotel, who could just as easily have made an introduction. Websites, email and WhatsApp (which is commonly used for texting, especially in the developing world) make it easy to introduce yourself to program managers who might like to have extra hands. By contacting the organization directly, you allow them to think about your availability and their needs, and create an experience that is meaningful to all.

2. Be flexible about how volunteering fits in your schedule.

We came with a genuine desire to help and to contribute in some way. What we didn’t anticipate was how volunteering would give us a deeper understanding of the socio-economic and political issues in the country we were visiting. At Les Enfants de Dieu, we’d loosely confirm the time for “tomorrow” morning or afternoon, based on the children’s school schedules and staff availability. We wanted to be there for a few hours nearly every day. I coordinated with another organization in advance and we set up a one-day project before we left the U.S.

This gave us plenty of time to do other activities and visit tourist destinations, but also gave us purpose and meaning for our international experience. While we hadn’t intended to go on a “voluntourism” vacation, our time as volunteers—reading, playing sports and doing puzzles and board games with children—was the absolute highlight of our trip.

3. Consider any kind of volunteer assignment.

My kids and I helped out in the library and playground at Les Enfants, an extraordinary, Kigali-based secular nonprofit that helps street youth transition back to their families through their residential center for 100 formerly homeless boys. Because of my work in fundraising, I offered to help them with marketing language, proposals and budgets—something that was so easy for me and so useful to them. Back at home, I’d met donors and staff of two U.S.-based nonprofits that also work in Rwanda: Resonate Workshops and Akilah Institute. I met with both, did a fundraising training for Resonate, and have continued to help with some introductions since we returned home.

4. Volunteering abroad is for all family members, not just kids.

Each day, I accompanied my kids to Les Enfants. Sometimes we volunteered together with the boys; sometimes I worked with the program staff and they played games with the boys. We were never far from one another and were able to share each other’s experiences. I saw other families that dropped off kids to help, but then the adults went off to activities elsewhere and the kids seemed less engaged in the experience. We also became acutely aware of the overpowering appeal of electronics—the boys loved taking photos or playing music with our phones, but our time with them was so much more interactive (and enjoyable) when we simply put the phones away and were participants, not spectators. Occasionally we would be invited to join the staff or children for lunch, and that was an experience filled with unusual food, language and camaraderie that would not have been open to us as tourists.

5. Keep it going when you’re back at home.

My two teens (and I) were forever changed by our experience. We came back with a different perspective of hope, opportunity and friendship. Before we left Kigali, we took the program manager and his fiancée to lunch—to thank him for an extraordinary experience, and to have a specific conversation about what they needed that we could help gather in the U.S. They said how much school supplies and soccer cleats would help the boys. (I’d written a proposal to secure funding to turn their adjacent field into a community “football,” aka soccer, training center; this kind of equipment can be prohibitively expensive.) I thought of how many families in Mill Valley get rid of perfectly good cleats used for one season of recreational soccer simply because they’ve been outgrown. My daughter Kate put together a flyer and went to some local businesses, sports and otherwise, asking if they’d put out a cleat collection box. I’ve continued to write proposals remotely. We remain engaged with Les Enfants now and, I hope, for a very long time into the future.

It was a surprise and delight to see how hands-on, regular interaction with a local nonprofit exponentially increased our joy and learning from the trip. And, since I returned, the universe has introduced me to other opportunities in East Africa: a serendipitous call with the executive director of programs focused on alleviating extreme poverty for Ugandans through the SOUL Foundation, which happens to offer its own volunteer program.

Hard to believe that, a year ago, I felt completely overwhelmed by the costs and options. I’m happy to share more ideas—just email me. In fact, I’m well on my way to planning another summer family travel and volunteer adventure for next year.

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Melanie Hamburger founded Catalytic Women to create a community of women aligning money and values.