By Jade Floyd
This is the first post in a two-part series by Jade Floyd. Ms. Floyd works in international public affairs in Washington, DC and serves on the Board of Catalogue non-profit DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative, a non-profit devoted to providing free arts education experiences for DC public school students and teachers. Follow her on Twitter: @DcThisWeek.
My arrival to Bangkok was filled with trepidation and butterflies. I thought to myself on the plane that I was completely nuts and had lost my senses. Had I just flown around the world to a country where I knew no one to volunteer with children for a month teaching them art? Surely they had perfectly good teachers there who could give them instruction. I had spent months planning for this international volunteer program. From the onset, I knew that I wanted to partake in a program that focused on children. And after serving for four years on the board of directors for a DC-based arts education nonprofit, two years volunteer teaching at a children’s art center for two, and countless hours fundraising for similar organizations, I decided it was time to take a plunge and expand my reach outside of the US.
Choosing the Program
I researched programs across the globe from Peru to Uganda. And selfishly, I have to admit, I wanted a location that was beautiful and that would serve my purpose for a sabbatical and service project. That program was with Art Relief International in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And after 6 months of saving and planning and taking a one month leave from my job, I had finally arrived in Thailand to begin the journey.
Art Relief International is a program designed as a catalyst for releasing challenging personal and societal stresses among Thai children and encouraging cultural awareness.
Working with the director at Art Relief International, I compiled a list of art supplies — to ensure I was bringing tools that they needed for the classroom. With the support of friends and colleagues, I raised more than $1200 for supplies. And when I arrived, I saw just how great the need was. There was a real lack of art supplies and resources for the program, and this began my appreciation for what Art Relief International was doing in the community with so little. I fulfilled about 50 percent of their needs for supplies and included my own wants as well, which resulted in a happy medium.
Ultimately, I came armed with 100 lbs of art supplies in two large duffle bags, a camping backpack full of clothes, and enough Lysol Wipes for a month to handle my OCD tendencies.
Also important: the information that the program shared with me in advance. They had very detailed packets with testimonials, information about the program and places where we would volunteer, and what I could expect. Any program that doesn’t provide you with this information may not be reputable. You can even ask for photos from projects or case studies about projects they had led. I highly recommend that you communicate with the program director or volunteer coordinator directly and ask questions.
How You Can Plan
I knew nothing of global volunteering when I started out and, in hindsight, wish that I would have read more about what to expect. How I could choose a program that was reputable? But most importantly, how much it would cost? While volunteering can be expensive, every penny was worth it for me in the end run; however it took me many days to finally realize this. There were a few things that I encourage everyone to do before they go:
1. Write out a detailed budget. You need to factor in program fees, passport/VISA, transportation in-country, airfare, flights, food, lodging, health insurance, lost wages from work, immunizations, personal travel and guest houses, cell phone usage, and personal experiences like the daily $3 massages (they add up!. There are several programs that are free or pay you a small stipend; however you must arrange your own lodging and transportation. I chose a program that was all-inclusive and included food, lodging, transportation in-country, a driver who took us everywhere, laundry, and a translator while we were with the children. While I felt every penny was worth it in the end, it took month of budgeting and saving to ensure I could pay for the entire program and for bills back home.
2. Look at the weather patterns in the place you want to go. Some places might rain 4 months out of the year, or freeze during your normal summer. Research the climate.
3. Research multiple programs online and find people whom have been before. I contacted past volunteers who posted on their Facebook page and reached out directly. You must dig deep on your own and you can’t rely on a programs website to give you the full truth. Look for news articles on the program and personal accounts.
4. Purchase a book and or read online articles on global volunteering to learn more about programs, people and experiences and how you can prepare. I would suggest Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide from Lonely Planet.
Adapting to Your Environment
Your first few days in country are a whirlwind. Adapting to your living conditions. Making new friends. Finding your way around. Learning the language and learning about the program and the people that you will support. I must admit that I was terrified when I arrived at the guest house, which in Western standards was roughing it. In Chiang Mai, it was a palace. We had running water, natural toilets, cook and cleaning person, driver, and translator with us at all times. And our house was along a very popular street that turned into a weekend market and had silversmith stores lined up and down the street. Yet still the culture shock had me wondering for the first week if had I made the right decision. It wasn’t until I was able to tackle my first art project with the Thai children on my first full day of service that the joy of being there set in.
My program had 15 women from across the world participating. They hailed from Australia, Germany, Ireland, Canada, and the United States and they had all taken time out of their lives to volunteer abroad – some for just a month like me and others for half a year. I admired their commitment to these children and the relationships that they developed with them. Some had come on holiday, others for gap year. One was a mother who took a short time from her family and had them come visit her on vacation and one had saved tirelessly and quit her job in New York to live abroad for a full year.
One thing that I didn’t expect was the little time we actually spent with the children. While I appreciated the ability to plan lessons, gather supplies, and write assessments of our projects, I spent most of the time in the volunteer office and usually only one to three hours each day with the children. It’s important to ask those questions of the volunteer program before you go. Specifically, how much time you will spend with the program actually doing work and what days per week? It helps you to better plan your days so you can get the most out of the experience.
Enjoying Your Volunteer Experience
I learned so many things from this trip, but first and foremost to be patient and relax and just enjoy what is taking place around you. Coming from a public affairs firm in DC, I often spend my days at the office, which is a bit stressful at times. In Thailand, everything comes to a slow halt — and minus the wild tuk tuk drivers and motor bikes whizzing by, the people are very calm. For three weeks, I spent every day working on a project in a different place — from orphanages with more than two hundred children to small schools with just 10 kids. I visited Wats daily and read many books. I drank fresh fruit shakes and had savory Thai cuisine each day for just a few dollars. Learned bits and pieces of a new language. Met women from around the globe. And had time to reflect on my life and what I wanted to do in the future. Not many people have the opportunity to travel abroad, or the desire to devote their time to others. You need to appreciate it all. Because it will go very fast.