Ever fancied volunteering abroad? Whilst it can be such a life-changing and rewarding thing to do, it certainly doesn’t come cheap. It also requires a big time commitment: often you have to sign up to a program that’s several weeks long and pay a big upfront fee. That may seem a bit risky if you’ve never volunteered before – what if you end up hating it or you can only hack it so long? Or you actually want to travel round and see this beautiful country you’re volunteering in too? Introducing the #volunteeringvacation – where you can combine your vacation with volunteering – read on about my (totally unplanned) experience in Colombia!
A last-minute trip to Colombia
Back in April 2017 I took a last minute solo trip to Colombia. I literally decided that morning I would fly to Bogotá that evening and travel round Colombia alone for 10 days. I booked the flight, made a brief itinerary, found a bed in a hostel in Bogotá for the first night and then hopped on the plane.
The plane landed at 2am into Bogotá. I got a taxi to the hostel and managed to get a few hours kip. When I woke up the next morning a fluorescent pink poster in the hostel caught my eye: “Don’t just be a gringo, come and teach the lingo” it said. The rhyme made me chuckle but also hit me on a deeper level. For me the best part about travelling is the interactions I have with the locals. It gives me so much happiness being welcomed into their culture, and even better if I can help them in some way.
Organising the volunteering
I had taught English in Italy for a year, but I had never done any volunteer work. It was something I had always longed to do though. So when I saw this poster advertising to volunteer with Colombian children for an afternoon I literally jumped at the chance. It was totally unexpected and definitely not what I had planned during my trip to Colombia, but I seized the opportunity, messaged the organiser and asked if I could take part the afternoon. He was thrilled and we arranged when and where to meet – it was that simple. I was so excited too: I knew sacrificing half a day of sightseeing would be worth it as I would come back with truly unique and heart-warming memories.
I met with the organiser before we got to the venue and paid him the small fee (15,000 Colombian pesos, which is about £3.50) for the transport and materials for the children. He told me we would be going to a fairly underprivileged part of Bogotá, which was kind of what I was expecting anyway – you don’t expect to be volunteering in super well-off neighbourhoods. It didn’t bother me – I was excited to see the real Bogotá and not just the touristy sights. When we arrived there, the children immediately ran over to me, full of smiles and literally jumped on me to welcome me. I felt so overwhelmed and such happiness from these children!
We were in an after school youth centre with children from 3 to 11 years old. Every week the organiser takes some volunteers to the children to play with them and immerse them in the English language. Some of the volunteers came every week, and some were just there as a one-off, like me. We played games with the children and did some worksheets to help them with their English.
The children all loved me because of my red hair and fair skin – I don’t think they had ever seen someone who looked like me before! All the time they wanted to be near me and take pictures with me, it was so endearing – I could really feel the love from these children! When the time came for me to leave, they were so sad to see me go and begged me to come back the next week. I felt so bad I wouldn’t see them again, and even got texts from the organiser the following week saying they were all asking for me, which touched me so much!
How the volunteering impacted me:
I left feeling sad knowing these children wouldn’t have the same opportunities many children have growing up, but I felt happy I was able to share some happy moments with them. Their positive energy was infectious, they were all smiling and laughing all the time which filled up my heart so much. They brought me happiness and reminded me happiness is a choice and it comes from within: that you don’t have to be well-off, you just have to make the best out of your situation. I was so glad for this opportunity: the feeling you get when you know you have made a difference to someone, helped them in some way, it really cannot be compared. It made me realise that volunteering even for a short period gives me so much satisfaction and happiness that I would love to do more in the future.
Why I hadn’t done a volunteering project before:
I had always fancied doing volunteer work but it just wasn’t possible for me to take several weeks off work all at once or take a career break to go on a volunteering program. The company I was working for wouldn’t allow it, I didn’t want to spend all my vacation time ‘working’, and I just couldn’t afford many of the programs. So doing some volunteering during my vacation in Colombia seemed like a great way to get into it, plus it fitted around my schedule and travel plans AND it was very affordable!!
Can you really combine a vacation with volunteering?
Yes absolutely! So next time you’re planning your travels, try having a look into some short term or one-off volunteering sessions that you can do whilst on your vacation. Sadly the company in Colombia I organised it with no longer exists, but there are many short term volunteering opportunities you can help with when on your vacation. Visit Go Overseas for short-term and affordable volunteering placements around the world. Alternatively if you know someone from the local area they may be able to guide you to a volunteering program that isn’t available online, or you can try contacting local hostels to see if they can put you in touch with any 1-day volunteering programmes. You can even try writing to wildlife projects or orphanages in the local area, or find a Facebook group in the area or something.
If you plan to do volunteering for several weeks as well as taking your time exploring the country, make sure you get a longer-stay visa for Colombia.
I hope my experience in Colombia will encourage you to consider a volunteering vacation, if you need any help just write to me in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you!
For more Colombia inspo check out my articles on Comuna 13 in Medellin!
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