How to Get into Volunteer Travel

If your idea of an exotic vacation involves swinging in a hammock, enjoying margaritas made with bottled-water ice and a 24-hour concierge, you really won’t want to read this. But if you’re hankering for a travel adventure that might even do some good in the world, this is for you!

The international peace organization Service Civil International looks for hearty volunteers to work on projects aimed at promoting peaceful interaction among people from different cultures. This worldwide peace movement started in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War, on the premise that if we know, respect, and care for people from other cultures, we’re less likely to want to go to war against them.

SCI co-ordinates short- and long-term voluntary projects on five continents for people of all ages and backgrounds. Volunteers can participate in a huge variety of projects all around the world, such as:

  • Working in a Wolf Sanctuary in the USA
  • Running activities for refugees in Kenya
  • Planting trees in Iceland
  • Helping to organize a Multicultural Arts Festival in Finland
  • Promoting the idea of a democratic Palestine to children in Syria
  • Rebuilding a community hall in Sierra Leone
  • Teaching English to nuns in Nepal

The projects are very practical and rarely require specific skills. Anyone can participate, regardless of gender, culture, nationality, religion or age. According to the SCI website, “Living and working with people of different backgrounds helps volunteers to break down prejudices and stereotypes and allows them to experience a world of mutual respect and understanding. In this sense, volunteering can be seen as a way of life - a demonstration of the possible reality of a peaceful and co-operative world.”

I learned about SCI in the mid-1990s, when I was a graduate student in Peace Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics. I wanted to travel to continental Europe but needed a focus and purpose so I could more fully integrate into the cultures I would be visiting. Through the Irish branch of SCI, called Voluntary Service International, I traveled to Turkey to make a documentary with Turkish Radio and Television that aimed to educate the European Union about secular aspects of Turkish culture. I also worked on an eco-friendly commune in Berne, Switzerland, spending most of my two weeks there on a scaffold plastering walls with adobe. This home was designed to minimize its impact on the fragile alpine ecosystem by incorporating a green roof and a rainwater harvesting system long before the modern green movement popularized these ideas.

Volunteers must pay their own way to their volunteer location, plus a nominal fee for room and board while they’re there. But you won’t find a better deal anywhere for travel adventure. And I guarantee that you won’t look at the world in the same way after you’ve given your time in service to others.


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