It’s an addiction that has no cure, gives heartwarming highs and somber lows, and has people going to the ends of the earth to find it: volunteerism.
Thousands of people leave their homes every year to travel to other countries and volunteer where they’re needed most. And while many people return to their normal lives after their trips, others refuse to let the experience end; it seems that once they start volunteering, they just can’t stop.
Anna Evely, a resident of York in the UK, first volunteered with the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) to do environmental conservation work in New Zealand. GVN is an organization that helps connect volunteers with communities in need in 19 countries. Her trip was a one-time thing, and she planned to use her experience to further her knowledge as a lecturer. But when she returned home, she found herself saving up for the next time she could leave. Since working in New Zealand, Anna has also volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand, at an orphanage in Nepal and at primary schools in China.
“Every time you volunteer, you feel like you’ve made an impact,” Anna said. “Instead of using all the paper in the world, you’re planting trees and replacing them. Instead of taking from the country, you’re actually giving something back. I felt like I left my mark by the trees I planted. I can go back in however many years time and see how they’ve grown. As well as going somewhere and taking in all the beautiful scenery, I’m actually helping to make it more beautiful.”
Because every program was unique, Anna had trouble picking favorites.
“All of them were absolutely amazing: seeing the maraes in New Zealand was fantastic; in Thailand, there’s nothing more amazing then waking up to the sound of gibbons; in Nepal, it’s just the whole culture-sitting on the floor, eating with your hands, trying to do you washing in the middle of the village with everyone watching. Every place has given me such an amazing set of memories.”
For a woman who had never taken the train into London alone before, eating with her hands in Nepal dressed in a sari was the last thing anyone expected of her.
“I’d never even been away from home before,” Anna said. “I didn’t even want to live in the university dorm. I never did. I’m so un-brave, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know what happened. I guess I just thought, if I don’t do it now, I don’t know when I’ll ever do it. It took that leap and shocked everybody, including myself. And now I just feel like I could do anything.”
Anna’s friends and family weren’t just shocked by her boldness, but also questioned her new path.
“They think I’m absolutely insane,” she said. “They can’t quite understand why I’ve decided to spend all my money going around and not getting paid for things. My mom was really against it at first. She thought I should be out earning money like normal people. But now she’s really proud of me.”
Anna’s family wasn’t the only ones that needed convincing. Natalie Buckler, a student in California, had some explaining to do when she told her family she wanted to volunteer in Vietnam, again.
“At first, they were like, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?'” Natalie said. “The second time I went back, they said, ‘Don’t you want to go somewhere else?”
For Natalie, the answer was no. After volunteering for a month at an orphanage in Dai Loc, Natalie counted down the days until she could return. She originally chose to volunteer in Vietnam after studying the Vietnam War in college and decided she wanted to visit the country, but not as a tourist.
“Leaving the orphanage was the biggest challenge,” she said. “And that’s why I went back. I felt like I had a responsibility to the children.”
It’s this feeling of responsibility, and a passion to make a lasting impact on communities, that has volunteers returning. Nooshin Shabani, a resident of Newcastle in the UK, first volunteered in Nepal in 2003 because she wanted to combine humanitarian aid with travel. But Nooshin just couldn’t put away her travel pack when the trip was over, and set off to volunteer as a teacher in Ghana and at a preschool in the Philippines.
“After my first volunteer experience, I simply couldn’t go home and forget everything I’d seen and done,” she said. “You become addicted to travel because when you have done it once, you realize the world is not just the country you live in.”
While volunteers are discovering that the world is bigger than their hometowns, they’re also surprised to find the similarities between people everywhere they go.
“Everyone is just the same,” Anna said. “They just want to get on with life and get on with each other. They’re just trying to do the best they can with what they have. It was amazing to learn the language in every country and find yourself having the same conversations with people everywhere you go. In Nepal, we had a beauty day with the women and talked about boys.”
As for their addiction, these volunteers won’t be seeking treatment any time soon.
“When you volunteer, you will be moved by how much the people appreciate you spending time with them,” Nooshin said. “A little piece of your heart, a few weeks of your time, will be an everlasting memory in the lives of many. All I can say is, do it once, and I’m certain you will do it again.”