Travellers are blessed in so many ways and paid in experience, so what better way to give back than to volunteer while travelling? As we planned our 14 month round the world adventure, Mr. Zen and I pondered ways we could give back to the world that has given us so many incredible experiences. My previous time spent volunteering with All Hands and Hearts (All Hands) in post-earthquake Haiti was easily one of the most profound experiences that I have ever had while travelling and I was eager to volunteer with the organisation again, because their commitment to responsible volunteering is commendable.
Is Volunteering Abroad Always a Good Thing?
Volunteering abroad can be an amazing experience if done responsibly. Unfortunately, many volunteer, or “voluntourism” experiences are exploitative and bad for the local community. Some examples of this horrible form of tourism masquerading as volunteer experiences are fake “sloth sanctuaries” in Costa Rica, where baby sloths are orphaned by poachers and then put on display for tourists to “volunteer” (re: pay) to take part in their care, or school-building trips where local tradesman have to spend the night undoing the work that unskilled students made during day, and orphanages where the children are deliberately kept in poor conditions so people will donate more to their unscrupulous owners who often funnel them into sex trafficking.
Indeed, voluntourism can be a life-changing experience when done right, but can also be one to avoid if done wrong. Good intentions are simply not enough when dealing with the world’s most vulnerable people and species.
That said, volunteering with All Hands is time very well spent. The disaster-response organization’s focus on partnering with the local community and filling the gaps left by governments and NGOs, All Hands bridges the gap between good intentions and doing good work.
I volunteered previously with All Hands after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It is widely held as one of the worst disasters in the history of the Western Hemisphere, with its astronomical death toll, incomprehensible amount of people displaced, and some places having 80-90% of their buildings destroyed. The nation already beleaguered by endemic poverty, 200 years of cyclical political violence, and battered by hurricanes and flooding, was utterly overwhelmed by the earthquake. All Hands arrived shortly after the initial disaster response and began putting volunteers to work on clearing away rubble and re-building schools that had collapsed in order to give Haiti a brighter future.
When I arrived a full 6 months after the earthquake, acres of rubble remained and I was quickly put to work shovelling it into wheel barrows and then wheeling it away. The work was backbreaking and buckets-of-sweat-producing under the hot Haitian sun, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless. The feeling of camaraderie I felt with my fellow volunteers is something that I still cherish to this day. Despite the devastation that surrounded us, we were able to bond over egg sandwiches and lukewarm bottles of Prestige Lager consumed in bars made out of tarps. I left feeling like I had helped out in a terrible situation and had also picked up a few couches that I could crash on around the world.
Volunteering in Puerto Rico
On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, first hitting a small town named Yabucoa and then careening across the island killing over 500 people and destroying many buildings in its destructive path. Power was knocked out in Yabucoa, and has only returned to approximately 33% of municipal buildings. That means people have been without power for in their homes for over 8 months. The hurricane also tore holes in roofs that are now leaking and causing dangerous mould growth inside their homes. Since we have arrived in Yabucoa, we have worked with other All Hands volunteers on roof repair, digging ditches to prevent flooding, and mould sanitation so that people may get back into their homes safely. The organisation matches volunteer’s tasks to their skill levels and there is plenty of good work to do for those who are strong in good intentions.
Since we arrived here almost two weeks ago, we have dug a trench to install a french drain to keep the volunteer base from flooding, worked on over 10 roofs, completed mould removal and sanitation work, helped a pig heal from a terrible wound, and made some friendships that we hope will last a lifetime. There is something about sweating on a roof together that bonds people. We’ve also enjoyed some great adventures on the weekends, such as taking a trip to the beautiful chilled-out island of Culebra, and feasting at our new friend Olga’s house.
We recognise that there is always a need to keep beautiful places beautiful and safe, so that is why we are spending the first two weeks of our round the world trip volunteering with All Hands. We are already meeting fun new friends, and lending a hand to people who have suffered in the dark for too long. If you are moved at all by any of this, please consider joining us in beautiful, tropical Puerto Rico or donating to our All Hands fundraiser. All Hands is a non-profit organisation that is completely donor-funded and funds received go to continuing to do their good work.
So whether you’re looking for a unique travel experience and wanting to give back, consider seeking out a good volunteering experience with an organisation like All Hands and Hearts. Exploitative volunteering experiences need to be avoided at all cost, but ones that benefit the local community and fulfill a tangible need should be pursued by all travellers.