Whether you apply to participate in a volunteer abroad program like the Peace Corps or join a volunteer project abroad, volunteering can dramatically change your life and the lives of those around you.
- Volunteering overseas can teach you to let go of preconceptions about what other people need. You have an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the ideas and resourcefulness of those in the host community.
- International volunteering provides an invaluable opportunity to experience firsthand what you learn in the classroom, see in movies, and read in books and on blogs.
- Gain insight into your own culturally-based perceptions of disability, through the lens provided by interactions and experiences in a different culture.
- You gain unique skills and experiences that can open doors to employment in international and domestic fields, including international development, public health, education and more.
- Living in another country and taking part in day-to-day activities and traditions provides an invaluable intercultural experience.
- There is great value in studying and using another language to the best of your ability. Language provides rich clues about individuals, their worldview and the cultural context in which they live.
- Make friends with people from many different countries: volunteer abroad programs often bring together many volunteers from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
- Journeying to an unknown country and culture can be a wondrous adventure, full of new sights, sounds and aromas.
“It isn’t just about warm fuzzy feelings. Aggravation and frustration, give and take, bewilderment and enlightenment are all part of living and serving in another culture. Volunteering in a community elsewhere in the world provides ample opportunity to see myself and my own culture in a new light. Getting to know the local people and learning their language and culture really enriched me.” - Pam Houston, who has cerebral palsy and volunteered with Food for the Hungry in Peru and with the Peace Corps in the island nation of Kiribati
Funding a Volunteer Experience
Past volunteer abroad participants have used creative strategies for raising money, including setting up crowdfunding websites, hosting fundraising dinners, approaching local businesses and service clubs, having a garage sale, and much more. If you travel through a volunteer abroad organization, they may charge a fee to assist with logistics, but they may also have scholarships or fundraising strategies to give you. See the Table of Contents on this page for other useful tips.
Volunteering with a Disability
For people with disabilities, international volunteerism can be a particularly empowering experience as they have historically been considered recipients – not providers – of volunteer service. Since many volunteer organizations offer opportunities to work with disability communities overseas, people with disabilities can be valuable role models at these placement sites.
“When I pushed myself around my community, people stared at me curiously. Many had probably never seen an independent woman in a wheelchair before. Every time I heard, ‘Qué quapa (you are hardworking)!’ when going to work on my own, I knew that I had changed another person’s perspective.” - Shannon Coe, who has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair on her Peace Corps experience in Paraguay
As you consider your disability-related needs for a potential volunteer abroad experience, remember that many people with disabilities have successfully coordinated a variety of supports in order to thrive in international volunteer settings. Some suggested strategies for selecting a volunteer experience that meets your needs include:
- Enlist the support of volunteer program staff (if planning to do a formal program) in the U.S. and abroad to identify potential barriers and disability-related resources in the destination country
- Find out more about the specific tasks involved in the volunteer experience and identify adaptations or alternatives for tasks that are not independently manageable
- Approach disability organizations in the host country about local resources, such as refrigeration for medications, bicycle repair shops for wheelchair repair or counseling
- Consider your strategies for managing disability concerns, and then make an informed choice about a program’s suitability
Reading stories from people with disabilities about their international volunteer experiences is also a great way to learn new strategies and what to expect. Check out some more tips on finding your volunteer style and firsthand stories in the Table of Contents on this page. Also search for programs that might fit your interests, and learn questions to ask the programs, in the Related Links below.