Why and How to Volunteer When You Travel

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

If you’ve ever wanted to know about volunteering when you travel but weren’t sure where to start, I have THE BOOK for you.  Author Amy E. Robertson has penned the best volunteering guide I’ve ever read: Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America. And while it focuses on Latin America, this book should be the first thing you pick up if you’re ready to learn about volunteer travel.

Why and How to Volunteer When You Travel: Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America

As with all Moon Guides, Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America covers a lot of ground. The beginning section, Why Volunteer?, will be one that you refer to again and again. I learned so much from reading it – and equally, was inspired. This kind of travel? It changes lives. But what I learned was something I’d read a few times, but was clearly delineated here – HOW you volunteer makes a difference. This is the critical part of volunteering – by doing so thoughtfully and not by helping “them,” but by working together to make long-lasting changes for the better. 

Amy is a Seattle native who has visited more than 60 countries and lived in six. Her favorite travel experiences always include connecting with the local culture and people. Her professional experience includes traveling the globe to conduct surveys on the cost of living, raising funds for international refugees, and writing about travel and food for guidebooks and magazines. We’ve shared her study abroad experience here on Wandering Educators, and she has extensive experience in the area. She's an expert who knows, and cares. This is rare to find, so read ANYTHING by her! She's amazing!

All this comes into play when you read the country-specific chapters in Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America. The countries in this guide range from Mexico, in North America, through Central America and down to South America. Each country-specific chapter details the country, has a map, showcases volunteer organizations, has personal stories shared by volunteers, and covers the in-country essentials of geography and climate, history and economy, transportation, passports and visas, money, health, and safety. And while there are many organizations that cover multiple countries, Robertson also lists organizations that work only in certain countries. She covers what types of work the organizations are looking for, the application process, cost, placement length, language requirements, housing, how long the organization has been operating, and the number of volunteers they’ve worked with. This information is critical to making a decision that works well for you and your skills – and travel plans.

Not only does this book educate, but it inspires. Travel should be about meaningful interactions with locals – and this is one excellent way to achieve that goal, and learn about the world. Highly, highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Amy, and ask about her book, inspiration, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Please tell us about your book, Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America...

I consider it the ultimate guide to the best volunteer experiences available in Latin America. Broken into chapters based on destination, the book gives a comprehensive overview of the best programs offered in each country and includes information about housing, program costs, placement length, language skills required, and much more, as well as country descriptions in a nutshell. The countries covered (from north to south) are Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

What inspired you to write this book?

Back in 2009, I had already written a guidebook (on Honduras) for Moon Handbooks, when I pitched them the idea of a guide to what I called “positive impact” travel – encompassing both sustainable travel and volunteer vacations. I firmly believe that whatever kind of travel you prefer – from budget to luxury, independent to all-inclusive, you can make choices about every aspect of your trip (accommodations, activities, restaurants, shopping, etcetera) that can have a positive impact on the local community and minimize our damage to the earth. 

While that wasn’t the right fit for Moon at the time, they decided a few years later to move forward on a book on volunteer vacations. The acquiring editor remembered my passion for the topic and asked if I’d be interested in authoring it. My answer was a resounding yes!

I'm all about the research! What was it like, researching this book?

Having already traveled in every country included in the guide and taken my own volunteer vacations, I had a head start. It would have been impossible to personally visit all the hundreds of organizations considered for inclusion in the guide, experience each program, and so forth (as much as I would have loved to!). I read as much as I could about each organization, not only their own materials, but also looking for feedback online  and reaching out to former volunteers to ask questions about their experiences. I also reached out to my fellow Moon authors covering Latin America to ask for their recommendations, and to people I knew that were living or had lived in the countries covered. 

As important as the volunteer experience is, it is secondary to the program itself. I looked hard at each program. How had the organization identified the need in the community (was it community-driven or externally imposed)? What purpose did the project serve? What was its impact? If there were expenses associated with volunteering (which is most often the case), did they seem reasonable given what was offered to the volunteer in exchange? I have a Master’s in international development, so I put that background knowledge to use as I looked at each program.

In other words, it was a heck of a lot of research! But as I enjoy research and am passionate about this topic, I really enjoyed it. 

What might readers be surprised to learn about volunteering in Latin America?

There really is something for everyone. There are no fixed rules about a “good” volunteer program, but rather each experience should be evaluated on its own merit. There are opportunities that can take just a few hours of your vacation. You can help sort cans at a food bank in Argentina, or maybe you have a talent in music or basketball and can teach a workshop at an afterschool program in Honduras. And of course, there are countless amazing opportunities for those who can commit more time.

There are plenty of volunteer opportunities that do not require specialized skills – what matters is that they should be part of a well-conceived program. On the other hand, if you do have special skills – and you don’t have to be a doctor, it can be anything from graphic design to permaculture to firefighting – there is an organization that would love to use your skills.

Lastly, there is no age limit. There are family-friendly volunteer opportunities, and senior-friendly opportunities.

Amy E. Robertson and her mother Georganne cut construction wire while volunteering in Honduras with Habitat for Humanity. From Why and How to Volunteer When You Travel: Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America

Amy E. Robertson and her mother Georganne cut construction wire while volunteering in Honduras with Habitat for Humanity

What are your top tips for figuring out how to volunteer in Latin America (besides reading your book cover to cover!)?

I believe there are two key things to examine when you’re considering a volunteer vacation. First, you need to take a look at yourself, to figure out what you are really interested in doing, and what you have to offer. I suggest would-be volunteers think about these questions. The next step is to find an organization that you think would be a good fit, and ask it lots of questions. The questions I suggest asking the organization are here

What's up next for you?

Right now I’m writing regularly for TransitionsAbroad.com and for a couple of food and hospitality magazines here in Lebanon (where I currently reside), as well as publishing articles in a variety of print and online outlets in the U.S. In recent months I took four courses in Sustainable Tourism offered by USAID, and am very interested in finding more opportunities to apply that knowledge.

Next on my writing horizon is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so perhaps my next book interview will be about a fiction book! On my travel horizon, I’m looking at a “girlfriend getaway” to Iran. 

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

I’d like to talk about why. Why should you spend your vacation working?  

It’s not about work——it’s about travel.

Travel becomes transformative when it is about sharing experiences and integrating with the people, culture, and environment of the place.

It’s about sharing talents and abilities with others, mutual learning, and pulling back the curtain that separates the foreigner from the country.

It’s also about fun. From the beaches and colonial cities of Mexico to the European-Latin fusion of Argentina and Chile, Latin America offers something to entice any traveler.

And of course, it’s also about need. International volunteers can support and draw attention to local efforts that address issues of poverty, inequality, environmental damage, and wildlife conservation.

Travel becomes transformative when it is about sharing experiences and integrating with the people, culture, and environment of the place.



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All photos courtesy and copyright Amy E. Robertson