We are a self-selected group here in Summit County: we love the outdoors and available recreational opportunities, we’re interested in hospitality and we enjoy life in a caring, close-knit community. Our appreciation for outdoor adventures often leads to exotic travel while our love of community fuels our interest in helping those who need it through volunteer activities.
Though it’s not for everyone, I’ve learned that anywhere one can travel, one can help. I’ve been fortunate enough to offer assistance to those less fortunate, applying both my medical skills and regular old elbow grease in Vanuatu, Honduras, Nepal and the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, among other locations.
The Rise of ‘Voluntourism’
There is growing interest in “voluntourism,” vacations which mix human service initiatives with cultural appreciation, adventure and relaxation. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists participated in projects in 2008, according to a British survey of 300 travel organizations.
Many elements contribute to a successful voluntourism experience with research about the specific location, any sponsoring organization and your own personal motivations being among the most important. Ironically, what can help an underserved community can also sometimes hurt it in ways we might not consider ranging from effects on local employment to emotional attachments we develop and must often conclude upon departure. Answering a few key questions might guide your travel decision:
• Is the project sustainable and does it address the core challenges of the community?
• Is the sponsoring organization a true partner with the community?
• Does the project promote cross-cultural understanding?
• While there is proven, valuable research that helping others improves one’s own sense of well-being, will your effort do more than this?
• Does the program have an established track record of effective assistance?
Personal Health Implications
Looking after your own good health during this type of trip is also critical. A sponsoring organization can help but there are risks to consider along with a lot of advance preparation:
• Emotionally, try to get an understanding of the extreme poverty and unfortunate circumstances you might experience. This might include suspending judgment about cultural practices that are unfamiliar to you.
• Understand that there may be a lack of quick emergency response and poor trauma care.
• Make an appointment with a doctor, ideally 6 months, but at least four to six weeks before the trip, to get any recommended vaccinations and medical advice including anything specific to your own health status.
• In transit, be sure to carry on (and not check) your prescriptions. Verify that it’s legal to bring your specific prescriptions into your destination country. In Zambia, for example, U.S. citizens have been jailed for possession of diphenhydramine (Benadryl), an allergy medication many of us take daily.
• Train properly. Providing foreign aid can be physically demanding.
• Learn more about food and water safety abroad.
• Prepare a First Aid kit. Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and other resources can be found online.
• Check what’s covered under your own health insurance company and that of any sponsoring organization. Be sure to review options for the most costly of all special circumstances: physical evacuation.
Help Close to Home
If you’re unable or uninterested in travel abroad there are numerous domestic opportunities to help. These can be just as fulfilling with less expense, risk or need for special preparation.
Time to Relax
When the service segment of the trip has concluded, give yourself some time to rest and process your experience. The transition into “normal life” back home can be difficult. Friends and family may not be able to relate to the experience you’ve just had and are excited to talk about.
If you’re concerned you may have brought home more than exotic memories (i.e. exotic diseases) visit your health provider as soon as possible. Meanwhile, healthy travel!
There is growing interest in “voluntourism,” vacations which mix human service initiatives with cultural appreciation, adventure and relaxation. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists participated in projects in 2008.