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3 things I learned while volunteering abroad

I’ve always had what people call “wanderlust”—an intense desire to see faraway places, experience different cultures and meet new people. The idea of volunteering abroad—traveling to a place I’d never been and helping a local organization in whatever way I could—first occurred to me as a possibility in my early 20s, but so many questions held me back: How will I get the time off work? How could I ever afford it? Who will take care of my cats? Will my family understand my need to travel halfway around the world to do something I could do right here?

Le Anna Grosso hiking the ruins of Ollantaytambo, Peru.

But as my 40th year on this planet drew near, I finally realized the answer to all of these questions: If I want it badly enough, I can make it happen. And so I finally did. I decided to take the leap and travel deeper.

Don’t get me wrong, vacations are great. But I yearned for something other than a week relaxing on the beach with a cocktail and a good book. I’ve spent years working at, volunteering with and on the boards of local nonprofits, and the itch was still there to experience something on a global level. I went on a website called idealist.org and found an NGO in Peru looking for help with marketing and design (skills I have lots of experience with). It was perfect.

I did a ton of research, saved every penny, told all of my clients I would be working remotely for the next 30 days and packed my bags. The entire experience was challenging, frustrating and heartbreaking. Did I cry a lot? Yes. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. It was the best experience I’ve ever had in my life and it has changed my entire world in the best way possible. I also learned a few things along way. Here are three things I learned while volunteering for 30 days at Otra Cosa Network in Huanchaco, Peru.

Local fisherman bring in their daily catch on the arid desert coast of Huanchaco using traditional reed boats called Caballitos de Totora. Photo by Le Anna Grosso

1. Do your research

I can’t emphasize this enough. There are many ways to travel abroad, and most nonprofits and NGOs offer several options, from interning for school credit to volunteering in a variety of fields for an immersion experience. Many organizations charge fees for their programs. The fees may cover housing in a volunteer home or a homestay with a local family and a meal plan. If the cost is lower, you may be responsible for finding your own housing and meals. The fees can be as low as several hundred and as high as several thousand dollars. This is your dream, so find a program that fits your needs and your budget.

A happy local vendor in the Huanchaco market, where locals buy fresh produce and goods. Photo by Le Anna Grosso

2. Expect the unexpected

Immersing yourself in a new culture can be a challenge on many levels. If you volunteer in a place where you don’t speak the language, it can be difficult to communicate with the locals. Or you might be in a community that lacks resources like clean water and the comforts you’re used to at home. I found myself overcoming an arsenal of #firstworldproblems on a daily basis, and it felt like an amazing test of will at times. I have come home more appreciative, tolerant and accepting, which feels incredibly freeing. Get ready to open your mind.

Otra Cosa Network volunteers head into the field to visit an OCN partnership program at a local school. Photo by Le Anna Grosso

3. Document everything

This may seem like a no brainer, but bring a journal, a camera or a sketchpad and document your experience in whichever way speaks to you. Get in touch with your senses and document what you see, feel and learn on your journey to share with others, use as a resource or just for yourself to revisit in the years to come.

ONLINE RESOURCES:

Volunteer Forever
Peer-rated lists of volunteer organizations with categories for interning, teaching and low-cost volunteer programs. volunteerforever.com

Idealist
A website dedicated to nonprofit and NGO organizations worldwide. Volunteer opportunities are searchable by keyword, skill, interest and country. idealist.org

To learn more about Otra Cosa network and what they do, go to otracosa.org

Le Anna Grosso is a freespirited, freelance creative director living in Scarborough. Follow her on Instagram @imafoxontherun.

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