I have volunteered overseas twice in my life, both times at Wildlife Friends Foundation, Thailand. I believe that volunteering for a worthy cause is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences that a person can partake in. People often ask me what the experience of volunteering overseas is like and if I had to think about it, I’d boil it down to 10 things.
Make no mistake about it, volunteering is hard graft. The physical labour involved is intense. As a previously unfit person, I was thrown in the deep end on my first day. Naturally I’d read the synopsis telling me about the harvests that would take place every other day (which involved cutting down banana trees with a machete and carrying them back to the harvest truck), the wheelbarrows of poo and the constant cutting of fruit but add these activities to scorching heat, the aggravated buzzing of flies and few hours’ sleep and your 6-day week becomes very intense. Part of what makes volunteering rewarding is the fact that it is so physically gruelling. The work that you’re doing, although repetitive and tough at times, is worthwhile. It truly does make a difference.
2. It will open your eyes to the ways of the world
We all have causes that are dear to our hearts and whether you choose to volunteer with elephants in Thailand as I did or build schools in rural Africa, volunteering has a way of opening your eyes in a way that is hard to explain. You begin to understand more about corruption and the impact of money, culture, religion and politics. You meet the local people in an unusual way because you are there to help them and often to work with them.
During my first trip to Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, the centre was overrun with members of the DNP who confiscated many animals from the centre in order to punish the owner, Edwin Wiek, who often spoke out about the corruption of the Thai government and their treatment of wild animals. Up until then I’d thought this little centre was a refuge, a safe-haven for the elephants, sun bears, goats and tiger that roamed there. This experience caused me to re-evaluate my stance. The truth is places like this are forever at the mercy of big, bad forces. This is again why volunteering is so crucial. These places need our support to continue doing the good work that they do.
3. You won’t get on with everyone
Yes, even when your goals and values are fundamentally aligned, you won’t get on with all of your fellow volunteers. Don’t get me wrong, you will make friends for life and the bonds that you do develop will be unique and powerful. The shared experience of being in a new country, being surrounded by lush greenery and magnificent animals and helping a worthy cause is a great meet-cute for a friendship! That said, you won’t get on with everyone and that’s okay.
4. You need to decide whether to commit or quit
This is a good mantra for life, but it floated into my head on the third day of volunteering. I didn’t enjoy my first three days at all. The physical work was too hard, I was on my period and I sort of wanted to sod off and travel. For whatever reason, I didn’t react to this feeling straight away. I didn’t want to give up too soon, and I’m glad I didn’t. Sometimes when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, there’s an adjustment period and it’s perfectly natural to hate what you are doing or to feel anxious and unsure. I often thought, ‘why am I doing this?’
First off, I think it’s alright to quit if that’s what you want to do but it’s important to let yourself acclimatise before exiting the experience. I made the decision to commit and I did not regret it.
5. Your heart may break
The stories of the animals who were living at the centre were excruciatingly sad. They were tales of abuse, neglect, ignorance and mistreatment. All of the animals had various problems such as abscesses, cancer and behavioural problems and all of their problems were caused by humans. What was incredible was that by spending time with these animals, you noticed how forgiving they were and how they could partly be healed by love, kindness and consistency. The vets worked tirelessly to take care of the animals many medical needs and volunteers bonded individually with different birds, horses or bears. It was affirming to see that for every human that damaged a life, there was a human who could help to repair it and return dignity and safety to these beautiful creatures.
6. You may make some life-changing decisions
Volunteering can really make you re-evaluate what you want to do with your life going forward. It may encourage you to travel, get a degree that qualifies you to delve more passionately into the cause, move countries or decide against a certain career altogether! It really does make you think about what’s important to you.
7. You will learn more about yourself
I think us humans tend to see ourselves and define ourselves by what we know we can do, not by our potential. If I’m an office worker, I might think, ‘I’m organised, on time and focused’ but pushing yourself into a whole new realm makes you realise that you can add qualities like ‘brave, devoted and patient’ to your repertoire. The things you learn about yourself are interesting and you learn a whole new skill-set. I’d never used a machete before (and I’ve not used one since), but it was definitely fun!
8. You’ll make memories that you can’t repeat
The first time I saw June the elephant, I felt tingles all over my body. I was so mesmerised to see this beautiful animal up close and personal. Sitting in a tent in the dark watching Louise the vet care for Miao the tiger, I felt an ethereal feeling settle on me. This experience was humbling, even majestic. These memories and experiences cannot be repeated and that’s what makes them special.
9. You’ll get in shape
My first day, unfit, hot and tired, walking up an uphill path, I was red in the face and out of breath. By the end of the month, I could run up the path. My fitness improved dramatically, I was slimmer (probably a bit too slim) and I had much more energy. I’d never been so physically active in my life except as a child running about in the summer holidays.
10. You’ll feel you can do anything
The experience of volunteering was frightening but it made me feel that I can do anything. Okay, not anything, there are still things I’m afraid to do, but it made my world open up in new ways. I suddenly see the world as full of people, places and animals that could use my assistance and that can teach me valuable lessons. The truth is, it’s a symbiotic relationship, volunteers are needed but volunteers also have a need. Maybe it’s about finding some meaning or purpose or being selfless in selfish times or trying to give back something in a world of taking, but you see how enriching and transformative volunteering really is.
You CAN make a difference and yes, they DO need you.
All my love