January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments
Since I first started traveling, I’ve had one question asked of me consistently: how did you do it? I’ve been astounded by how many girls, women (and young men) are at a loss when it comes to getting overseas by themselves. Mission teams are a dime a dozen. Anyone can go and build a house in Mexico with fifty other people. But the question I’m being asked is how one does it by him or herself – how do you break into philanthropy on your own? How do you know what’s safe, and what isn’t? How do you decide where to go?
Today’s post is a long awaited how-to: a get-on-a-jet-plane-and-go guide.
First, you need to find a reputable organization. I would worry about this more than I’d worry about which country I was headed to for my first time. It’s better to have a good experience overseas, so that you keep going, and reach your travel goals.
For your first trip, I would recommend two things:
1. Find an organization that takes groups, as well as individuals.
2. Find someone you can meet with in person who has either gone with the organization, or is part of the staff there. On my first trip, I went with Three Angels to Haiti, after reading that they have medical teams come in and out of the orphanage on a regular basis. After that, I went to a local meeting the organization was having, and met Shannon, who was running their school at the time. My second trip wasn’t as easy, there was no one working locally with the orphanage I went to work at, but someone I met had adopted from there, so I asked them about the trustworthiness of the organization.
Second, find out what you can do to benefit them. Most small nonprofits are looking for volunteers who can not only do what they’re told, but can see what needs to be done, and jump in and do it. When I went to Haiti for the first time, I failed to mention that, aside from helping out with children, cleaning and organization, I could write. Their head of media found my work, and asked me to do some writing for her – and voila! At 18, I wrote several feature stories for a quarterly nonprofit newsletter, and ended up returning to Haiti several times to write profiles of local children at the Three Angels’ school, and update parents on the status of their adoptive children. From there, I was able to write internationally at UPI, and, eventually, run my own media for Align Ministries
Third, you’re going to have to fundraise, if you’re anything like me. I’ve found that the most successful way to fundraise is the ‘ol snail mail. You’d be surprised at the response to a carefully crafted letter, with a detailed list of exactly how much funding you need – and for what. I have never failed to raise sufficient funding for a trip using snail mail, email and, more recently, social media. You’ll want your media to include details about what your organization does, what you plan to do to help them, and exactly how you plan to carry it out.
Fourth: it’s time to ready yourself. Check with the organization you’re going to work with about their protocol for travel. Do they usually have a driver pick volunteers up at the airport? If the organization works with locals, and there are no Americans in country, find out who is picking you up, and email them. The important thing is that you get in contact with someone on the ground about your flight, and plans, before you buy it. Next, book your flight! Thanks to the boy beside me breaking his arm on a white water trip on the Nile, I’ve learned it’s best to go ahead and purchase travel insurance, so fork out the money, and get yourself covered – if you ever end up hurt, or seriously sick (and I have been), you’ll thank me.
Fifth: it’s packing time. As far as clothing goes, ASK, ASK and ASK again. I know you want to wear your cutest summer dress into darkest Africa – but you need to know local customs, and what the guidelines are for a white girl walking into a culture that may have different religious or societal boundaries for women. When it comes to food, I’ve learned to bring lots of Luna bars for all the times there isn’t food to grab before you’re on the go for several hours. I’ve also learned a couple of things I can’t live without are: peanut butter, cheese its (insert your comfort food craving here), instant coffee (thank you Starbucks!) Bonine, Ibuprofen, Tampons and Pads (the time change can throw your period off – and it can show up when you LEAST expect it, sometimes even twice), my own set of sheets, a journal, bandanas for the days (most days) when you just can’t get to your hair, and (god love them) crocs. I don’t care how ugly they are – foot parasites are much, much worse.
Lastly, and most importantly, please remember Confucius – and, wherever you go, go with all your heart. Regardless of how much you hate cockroaches, sweaty nights and/or the sound of a rooster repeatedly crowing outside your window, you’re going to miss it all in hindsight. So, remind yourself that it’s just for a period of time, and focus on people, because it’s the people you’re going to miss (and, I’ll let you in on a secret: they don’t like the cockroaches either).