Here’s the truth- if you’re a black traveler, you are rare. You probably have a passion for seeing new places, meeting new people and learning new things. That passion probably connects you to social networks filled with people who also share your wanderlust. Your experiences are probably awe-inspiring and many times, your non-traveling friends wonder how you do what you do, and how (or if) they can do it too. Eyes are constantly on you and people watch you in admiration trying to understand how you move about the world.
So, I have a question for you- while they’re watching you, why not use your travels for good?
Here’s what I mean:
I’ve spent the past two summers volunteering abroad. In 2012, I volunteered in Cabarete, Dominican Republic for a children’s education organization called The DREAM Project. In 2013, I volunteered in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala for a local organization that served children and families in a remote town located about 40 minutes outside of the city. Being a teacher allows me to spend weeks in the summertime volunteering abroad. Believe it or not, I know that those few weeks left an impact on the communities that I served – even if it just simply offered a new perspective on the perception of a Black traveler.
5 Reasons Why You Should Volunteer Abroad
1. Make real connections
Relationships rule the world, and meeting new people is one of the biggest perks of traveling abroad. Whether you’re traveling solo, with your boo or in a group, volunteering abroad can lead to genuine connections with local residents as well as other travelers. The simple act of spending time with people while giving back usually always fosters new relationships. Not only will you make friends with other volunteers, donating some of your time abroad can help you expand your professional network. My time volunteering in the Dominican Republic helped me create both professional and philanthropic relationships with organizations that I continue to work with and support today.
2. Go green
Who wouldn’t want to help the environment while seeing the world? Eco-friendly travel is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry. Defined as a responsible travel that conserves the environment, volunteering in eco-tourism has created a buzz among travelers across the globe. Travel companies like Hands Up Holidays are now beginning to emerge, offering luxury vacation packages that promise to enrich your travel experience while you help the environment during tours of exotic places like Ecuador, Bali and Malawi. Who knows what new skills you’ll learn when you go green abroad.
3. Unexpected experiences
I’m going to tell you a real-life love story: When I volunteered in the Dominican Republic I met a young woman named Sara. She was an English teacher from Colorado who, like me, had the summer off and decided to spend it volunteering in Cabarete. Sara had signed up as an art teacher at one of the program sites that the organization ran. When we met, Sara and I hit it off immediately and became instant friends. Over the weeks, we had a lot of fun working with our Haitian and Dominican students, drinking Presidente’s on the beach, dancing bachata in the nightclubs and spending time with our new friends. One day, Sara met Rafael, the brother of one of the local volunteers and a semi-professional soccer player. The two started dating and Sara decided to extend her trip a few extra weeks longer in order to spend more time with Rafael. A year and a half later, I found out that Sara and Rafael had gotten married and started their lives together in Colorado.
Now picture yourself. Just imagine the unexpected experiences that may be in store for you when you decide to volunteer on your next trip abroad.
4. Learn something new
In general, we always learn something new when we travel. Whether we are honing our language skills, driving on the opposite side of the road or simply navigating a new city- traveling always allows us to gain new knowledge. Volunteering abroad also gives you an opportunity to acquire new skills. You can easily find your inner artist by helping to paint commissioned street art, or you can learn how to talk like a local by acquiring the colloquial language. You can even bring home some DIY skills by helping to fix homes that may have been affected by a recent natural disaster. In short, volunteering abroad doesn’t just help the community that you’re helping in, it also helps you by adding to your toolbox of skills that you will be able to use wherever your journeys take you.
5. Give back and keep on giving
When you travel abroad, you become a citizen of the world; when you volunteer abroad, you join the movement to build a better world. Years from now, that modest home that you helped build during your trip to the Philippines may be one family’s reliable shelter during a typhoon. Maybe you will form your own organization to support local soccer leagues in the favela where you volunteered on your trip to Brazil. You can use social media to promote your experiences and perhaps this in turn, motivate someone else to volunteer abroad. Volunteering is the real gift that keeps on giving. By combining it with a passion to travel, it’s not just a gift to give yourself but also a gift to give the world.
No time to spend volunteering? You can still give back…
You may be wondering how you can travel for good if you only have a few days to spend on a trip. The fact is, every traveler can travel for good by offering just a few hours of their time or seeking out opportunities to give back to the communities that their traveling to.
5 Ways you can give back abroad
Books, clothes, school supplies, toys- give whatever you can! Before your trip, find an organization that is supporting a local community and ask what their needs are. Leave a little extra space in your luggage for your donations when you’re packing and after you give the items away, you’ll have room to pack your souvenirs. It’s a win-win!
2. Support a free trade program
Free trade programs help local artists sell their products to global markets. If you are traveling to a developing region, many times you can find a free trade program that sells traditional handmade items. Donate a few dollars and ask the artists to teach you how to make your own or painting, jewelry, textiles or baskets. One of the best experiences of my life was learning traditional Mayan backstitch weaving and making my own textile at a free trade organization in Guatemala.
3. Find the Red Cross
Often times, rebuilding efforts take longer to complete in developing areas of the world. The Red Cross works to provide humanitarian support in many countries after natural disasters. When I visited Sri Lanka in 2012, I attended a traditional dance performance that was given by the local Red Cross to help raise money for the reconstruction efforts from the 2004 tsunami. The performance drew tourists who gave donations and bought local jewelry and clothing from local vendors.
4. Paint a mural, plant a tree
Even if you’re not an artist, you can help paint a mural. Public art spaces not only beautify our world, they also tend to bring awareness or represent a cultural message about something that is important to the community they’re in. Local schools are often good places to paint murals. Gardens and green spaces are also popping up in communities all over the world. Tree planting, while dirty work, is one of the best ways to give back to a community while leaving your ecological footprint. There’s nothing like saying, “I was here” by planting a tree to prove it.
5. Go local
Shop local, stay local, eat local, spend local, hire local – just go local! Support the local economy by patronizing locally owned tour companies, drivers, restaurants and businesses. There’s no better way to learn about the city you’re in than talking a local resident who knows the in’s-and-out’s of their own community. While it may feel safer to hire guides from international tour companies, stay in an international hotel chain or eat at Mickey D’s, you often for-go the chance to experience the real buzz of the city.
This story was curated by Erin Hayes