One of my tour participants emailed me last week asking what I thought about volunteering in India. She was interested in returning after having gone on our North India tour this fall.
She had read in a blog post (written by an expat living in India for nearly 20 years) that people should not go to India to volunteer. In essence, the reasoning is that there’s a lot of corruption in India and that there are more than enough middle and upper class people to take care of their own. Instead, we should volunteer in our own back yard because there’s plenty of work to be done at home. Mother India doesn’t need our help.
While I agree with the assessment that corruption is rampant in India (as it is in many countries) and that there’s always work to be done closer to home, I have a few thoughts that favors volunteering abroad.
Find Your Motivation
You have to follow your passion in whatever way you’re moved to do so. Whether that’s half way around the world (carbon footprint be damned), or down the street. When you follow your bliss, you’re happier, you have more energy and compassion and you’re motivated to get out of bed each day to volunteer. Whether that “work” is in your neighborhood, city, state or country, OR it’s abroad, follow the direction in which you are being pulled.
While volunteering for your local food bank is an excellent idea, if your heart isn’t in it, your interest will quickly wane and before you know it, you’ll be making excuses as to why you can no longer help.
Open Up Your World
I’ve always maintained that travel opens up our world. When we return to our homes, family and community, we have a broader and (hopefully) more excepting view of the bubble of a community that we live in, as well as the whole planet. Travel (and volunteering) simply makes us better people as a result.
Your Intention Matters
In Buddhism, it’s taught that while actions matter, the intention behind those actions are just as important. While you might be able to convince someone to look for volunteer opportunities in their neighborhood, you can’t change their intentions of why they want to do good. To ask someone to put aside their intentions and refocus them elsewhere is unrealistic and unfair. Volunteering is just as much an opportunity to bring happiness to others as it is to bring satisfaction to ourselves because it allows us to share our compassion.
It All Adds Up
We can all help in small ways. And travelers know better than anyone that small amounts of money can change the life of someone in a developing country because that money can go much farther.
There’s a wonderful story about a man walking along a beach who is picking up starfish that have washed up on shore. There were thousands of them and one by one he’s picking them up and throwing them back in the ocean. Another man approaches and says something to the effect that what he was doing was futile because he couldn’t possibly save them all. But the first man states that it’s not futile for that one (or 2 or 3) starfish.
Putting My Money (and Time) Where My Mouth Is
Ever since my early days of traveling, I’ve found ways to give back to the communities I have visited. After a year-long trip around the Pacific Rim countries, I returned to Seattle and helped found (and was on the board for nearly 10 years) of a sister city organization between Seattle and Hai Phong, Vietnam. I helped raise funds each year that went into such things as building a playground at an orphanage in our sister city.
I’ve also volunteered at home. For 9 years I was a Big Sister to a Vietnamese girl in Seattle, mentoring her through a terrible home situation, medical problems and also with her transition from living at home to being on her own.
Now, I’m the co-founder of a non-profit called Passports with Purpose. We’re in the midst of our yearly fundraiser and plan to raise $100,000 to build 5 water wells in Haiti. In our 5 years as an organization, we’ve built a school in Cambodia, 25 homes in South India for a dalit (untouchable) community and 2 libraries in Zambia (grab the tissues and please watch this video):
In the scheme of things, Passports with Purpose is only making a small difference in the world, but to the people who are the recipients of our funds, it’s life changing.
So, my advice? Do what moves you. Give your time or money where you can. No matter what path you choose, there will be naysayers and those who want to rain on your parade. Ignore them and follow your bliss.
Whether that takes you abroad or not, that’s up to you. But you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that volunteering anywhere other than your hometown is a bad idea.