The Highs and Lows of International Volunteering
15 December 2011 at 10:21 am
Being an international aid worker is an aspiration for many – there is the exotic location, immersion into a new culture and the good feeling of helping a developing community.
Demand for volunteer places comes from everyone from gap year students straight out of school to the recently retired who want to pass on their skills.
As around one hundred delegates who gathered earlier this month for the Mandala Foundation Volunteers in Aid conference in Melbourne heard, the experience can be life changing.
Prospective volunteers heard real life stories from volunteers recently returned from the field.
Nurse Sophie Wallace, who worked on the Thai-Burma border, said “the hardest choice (about volunteering overseas) was to leave the comfort of my home and my job for a long period of time.”
Communications worker Danyel Walker said getting settled in to the new country was difficult: “I was in Dhaka – the world’s second least liveable city. 160 million people live in a place the size of Victoria. Forty percent live on $1 a day.”
Walker was implementing a PR campaign to help educate local people on water safety, as there is an alarming number of child drowning deaths. She said it took two months to “get used to living in Dhaka.”
For volunteer Luke Purcell, the challenge was settling back into life in an office after volunteering with animals on conservation projects in South Africa.
“I came back to start a graduate program in IT. I put the suit on and after a week I realised it wasn’t for me.”
He returned to Global Vision International, where he volunteered and eventually was offered a full-time job.
Walker agrees that coming back to your home country is hard: “Returning to Australia I got reverse culture shock.”
But each volunteer said the experience was the most rewarding of their life.
Participants at Volunteers in Aid were encouraged to visit the many agency exhibitions at the conference, where they could ask questions ranging from the type of work available and the skill-sets needed, to the amount of money required to live in developing countries.
Amanda Allan, the Executive Director of the Mandala Foundation, advised that the most positive experiences came out of volunteer programs that were well managed. She advised volunteers not to go to an organisation telling them that they’re perfect. “Be open about your limitations so you can be supported. It’s very important you are honest when applying for a volunteer position and that you actively participate in the responsibility of maintaining your wellbeing on assignment.”
Being in an intensive emotional support role on assignment can sometimes be an occupational hazard for volunteers as it may lead to vicarious or secondary stress responses from hearing or identifying with the stories or experiences of others. “Humanitarian volunteers need to be careful as sometimes, we can adopt a response as if it’s happening to us.”
Allan said sometimes the least supported team members in the field can be managers who don’t always have the type of peer support networks that volunteers can access. “Have some empathy and acknowledge time boundaries with managers in the field,” she told conference delegates, “Managers in-country work long hours, have multiple demands on their time and carry a lot of responsibility”.
Allan also said the timing of a volunteer’s return to Australia is important.
“Lots of volunteers aren’t prepared for the Silly Season and the overwhelming affluence that confronts them when they come back at Christmas, for example.”
She also advised, “Don’t try to be too busy when you get back … your mental and physical health may benefit from down time.”
The conference emphasised how important security, health, well-being, psychological, cross-cultural and ethical issues were in the international volunteering sector. It also highlighted the impact that volunteering can have on the course of one’s vocation. According to Kate Minto, Volunteer Program Manager at the Mandala Foundation, “Volunteering can be one of the richest experiences we can undertake, and it can be a catalyst for creating new and unexpected vocational pathways.”
Despite the risks and adventures of volunteering overseas, no-one who spoke at the conference would swap their experience.
Said Danyel Walker, “My volunteering experience was the best thing I have ever done – I see things differently now.”
The Mandala Foundation runs the Volunteers in Aid Conference annually in December – see www.mandalafoundation.org.au for more information.