Want to Volunteer Abroad? Learn From My Mistakes

Since pouring over Gloria Whelan’s “Homeless Bird” at 9 years old, I knew I had to travel to India. Growing up, I devoured Indian culture through food, mapping trips throughout India, and studying Hindi. In July 2018, I booked a five-week volunteer trip to Kolkata before beginning my Master of Social Work degree in the fall. 

In my experience, to volunteer is the best way to understand a community. As a volunteer, you engage with community organizers who are both passionate to show off their beautiful societies and committed to addressing their problems. 

When I spoke with the organization I would eventually volunteer with, Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development (SHED) who empower the Rag Picking community of Kolkata, they described their need for a Menstrual Cycle education program. Students and teachers in India still face fear, shame, social taboos, lack of disposal facilities, and more. During the months before my departure, I researched, wrote, and spoke with fellow menstrual cycle educators to create culturally competent lesson plans. When I arrived at Tijlala SHED, I reviewed the lesson plans with my translator Puja, to ensure clear and respectful lessons. 

Every day, I peered down at 12 preteen women sitting crossed-legged on the jute mat before me. Each week, we met in the same classroom covered wall-to-wall with posters and hand-drawn pictures that highlighted the Hindi language, good health hygiene habits, and the days of the week. Although these women were clearly too old for the room, they didn’t care. If they had a question about their changing bodies, they pulled me to a corner of the room and whispered in my ear. At the end of the five weeks, that room had cultivated intimacy for our group. 

Two years later, as a Licensed Master of Social Work, I can now see that, while I developed meaningful connections with the women I met, I did not volunteer in a sustainable manner. Participants’ goals are not only to uplift a community, but also to ensure their contributions are sustainable. When a participant leaves, what happens to the work they started? Does the organization have an unlimited supply of members to continue programs? Or are students and projects left high and dry? Most pressing, did failing to finish programs hurt the community more than it temporarily helped? 

I don’t have answers to all of these questions, but I do know that by following these tips, any future lessons have a better chance at sustainability.

Spend time with community organizers.

They understand what their programs need; a volunteer’s role is to assist filling in the gaps. Entering Tijlala SHED, I felt too shy to engage with others, and because of this fear, I did not know or understand other educators’ wants and needs. If I had, I would have learned how many of my colleagues wanted to teach the menstrual cycle as well. I should have been aware of this, which brings me to my next tip. 

When time allows, let community organizers run lessons and projects.

Again, I wanted the menstrual cycle program to be sustainable; there was no need for me to teach every lesson for the full time. I should have partially taught a lesson and then had Puja lead the remainder. Plus, when Puja did take over lessons, students’ interests grew since they related to her more than they could to me.

Ask community organizers what they need from you.

Towards the end of my time in Kolkata, I sat with female Tijlala SHED employees one evening and they confessed their feelings about teaching about the menstrual cycle. They wanted help to feel more confident teaching vulnerable topics. I believe if I made an effort to know this, I would have focused attention on this hurdle. 

Volunteering is an incredible way to understand a community and society. I believe it helps organizations take off, continue, or complete projects that may not have previously been possible. Participants can see missing pieces in their own communities, and organizers may be able to fill gaps to their programming. Volunteers just need to remember: Community organizers have this — they are in control and know what is needed. So when a volunteer appears on sight, first ask questions, digest requests, and comprehend what is needed to build a program — and ensure they have the resources to maintain it for the long run.

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