Yes, I admit. If you offer me an opportunity to serve some underprivileged children at home or spend a week or two with some orphans in rural China, there’s hardly any chance I’d take up the former. In fact, I’d go as far as to say my volunteering radar has been tuned to accept signals only for foreign assignments.
Lest you judge me (you must already have!), my first line of self-defence is that I started out my volunteering journey in our tiny island of Singapore. Yes, there are needs here to fulfil but hey, how can we compare a developed nation with the developing world? Looking at it from another point of view, there is very little room for volunteers to develop or go on a journey of self-discovery — and volunteering was never intended to be a one-way exercise. The truth is, like travelling out of one’s backyard, you will realise how little you know and how humbled you can feel when you are in a foreign land and supposedly the bearer of good tidings.
I’ve had the pleasure of serving in several overseas stints in a ‘helping’ capacity. All of them were at places where I’ve never travelled to before, so each time there was an air of mystery and a sense of excitement for not only what was about to unfold but also what we could understand about the area.
The first project took me to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where I was part of a group of twenty-somethings bound for a high school. Prior to the trip, we rounded up old Apple Macintosh machines, brushed up on design software programmes and planned a simple curriculum to teach Khmer teenagers who could not speak or write English. During the two weeks we were there, we taught the students how to use the computers and the software loaded on them, and engaged them outside the classroom by eating with them in the student canteen and through basketball and frisbee sessions. Despite the difference in languages, we got along pretty well. We went out with a bunch of students to the nearby market and I even got the chance to pilot a student’s motorbike, never mind that it ended with a fall!
In Northern Thailand’s Khon Kaen over a year later, a group of us connected with a non-profit organisation helping street kids and orphans. The staff were looking for help to construct a separate building for the children to work and play and we considered ourselves able-bodied enough to assist. They did not mind that most of us were inexperienced or unequipped as labourers. In fact, the expression of gratitude was profuse and the hospitality was incredible, so much so that we felt bad.They only wanted to give us the best, especially where food was concerned — every meal was a banquet — and that totally foiled our diet plans.
Perhaps the most memorable — and longest — experience I’d had was the summer I spent helping to care for adults with special needs in New York State. Strictly, it was not a volunteering initiative — we were paid a daily allowance under this cultural immersion programme — but it was pittance for work of a demanding nature. Young adults from the United States and all over the world from Australia to Africa to South America were there as facilitators to summer camp participants, with disabilities ranging from mild to severe and multiple; we not only had to help them enjoy activities such as craftwork, boating on a lake and themed parties, but also feed, diaper-change and bathe them, take turns to perform overnight duties and be a friend/hugger. In short, we were a round-the-clock nanny there solely to help make the most of an annual much-anticipated ritual.
In retrospect, one of the pull factors for choosing this particular camp was the chance to go to the Big Apple — New York City was just two hours’ southeast of the campsite by car — and the opportunity to travel to neighbouring cities on the East Coast. Every long break we had, which translates to at least two nights, my bunk mates and I would hop off for a short getaway. By the end of the summer, we also chalked up enough savings to bus up north to see the Niagara Falls and step foot in Canada — another first, of course. As for the other two trips, I had the opportunity to head to Siem Reap and Laos, respectively.
This way of caring across the miles may appear superficial to some, but for others like myself, it is a meaningful way to travel and a chance to see a place from a unique perspective. With a punishing work and home schedule, I hardly have time for myself, let alone put in volunteering hours in Singapore. But I can definitely plan a trip that revolves around making an impact — no matter how small — in the lives of other people. So long as the motivation to travel does not end up as the only driving force in making such a trip, there is a case for voluntravelism.
Quotient is keen to organise a humanitarian trip in 2013. If you or your company/organisation is keen to be involved, please email to firstname.lastname@example.org