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VOLUNTEER IN SRI LANKA

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Traveling to a different country to participating in a volunteering project has become a very common fact in the present world. Though there are various type of categorisation for volunteering, the real meaning of the word “ Volunteering” contains an altruistic activity where people can provide a service as an individual or as a group for free. Though the original invention of this concept recorded in early 1755 with some activities related to volunteering for military services such as salvation army, the present era is full of various type of associations, clubs, societies, business organizations and non business organizations who are engaging in this concept all around the world. As a founder of a volunteer travel organization in Sri Lanka as well as a person who engaged in the volunteering concept in different perspectives during last ten years, I decided to write this blog to share with others about how I actually find the concept of Volunteering abroad while traveling. And the facts I have mentioned here is mainly based and focused on Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean. 


                    


First of all I belive,  to be volunteer, or to experience volunteering, travlling is not an essential point. We can start to volunteer at our home, our village, our town or our country. This can be a very simple activity of cleaning the surrounding environment. But in the present world where the technology and the media has been improved, people can see there are plenty of oppertunities which exsisting out side of your area. While a considerable number of people traveling around the world every day, I would like to high light about the youth travel in this blog. 


Lets see some of the common categories which  I found during last ten years related to youth travel 
  • Au Pair
  • Language travel
  • Study abroad
  • Sustainable tourism                                    
  • Volunteer travel 
  • Backpacking, Flash packing or Poshpacking    
  • Work experience travel 
  • Camping and adventure
  • Gap year
  • Archaeological sites travel  

 
Though millions of people traveling around the world every year, the number of youth sector who travel for volunteering is still own a really small % comparing to the other reasons. But since 2009 to 2019, there is a masive improvement of the youth sector who follow this concept. As I mentioned above, still nobody wants to travel to proof that they have the kindest heart or intention to volunteer. So volunteer travel we can also explained as a 'win win” concept as you get to see the world whilst giving back to the community in a different country. But, I found the bellow mentioned catagories through the participants who were participating in projects with us. 

 

  • Those who comes to experience a new destination with the purpose of volunteer travel, try their hard to addopt the culture and experience the best possible opportunities while supporting to the community as a volunteer who shows and prove a great commitment. 
  • Those who comes to do experience a new destination with the purpose of volunteer travel, but who find difficult to adopt the culture in country and unable to experience the best possible opportunities due to the high expectations and then leading that point to loose the motivation to the commitment of chosen volunteer project. 
  • Those who comes just to experience a new destination with the purpose of meeting like minded travelers but then get distracted and convert their volunteer travel to a party holiday but still use the concept of volunteer travel to achieve their expectation. 
  • Those who comes to experience a new destination with the purpose of volunteer travel as its a low budget profile to travel abroad and enrich their social media. 
  • Those who comes to experience a new destination with the purpose of gain their acadameic knowledge and gather experiences through practical or just observations such as medical students as a university requirement or elective placement while contributing to the development of the local institute in both service and financial.
  • Those who comes just because they are asked or forced by the parents to volunteer travel concept.

 


What makes a successful volunteer travel programe ? 

 Right Time

Just don't follow others, or do it just because you have asked to do so. Wait for the right time to think that you are ready to go away from your loved once for a couple of days/weeks. Wait for the right time to plan a budget to the trip. Wait for the right time where you feel confidence to experience a less comfortable life style in a different country. For an example, a traveler of 18 who coming from a luxury living background from home decide to do volunteer travel in a developing country who has to share a dorm with 10 to 30 others and volunteering in a project under 35 degrees hot and served by local food can get easily feel uncomfortable if that was her/his very first solo trip. They can easily experience a culture shock which is a combination of home sick, a simple fact such as missing your dog or cat, missing your bed, missing your private bathroom etc. So, been well ready to expect the unexpected is the right time to do a volunteer travel as a solo young traveler in my opinion.    

Right Pick

Just don't follow fellow travelers/ friends or their style of trips. Be you. Take your time to decide where in the world and as what you would like to experience. No one knows your passion rather than you. As the budget and the time been the main two barriers for a young traveler, choosing the right country and the volunteering project is a main fact to complete a successful volunteer travel trip. Just don't pick a country based on an amazing social media uploads of another person. Because a person can be seen in three different perspectives such as how the person wants others to see him/her. How others actually see him/her. But Actually who is he/she inside them self. So its really difficult to judge a volunteer travel trip just based on the social media. But it can be just a one of many facts to research. Reviews can be also another source but then, if the wrong person in the wrong country or project at the wrong time will never leave a possitive review. So check the other reviews of that person and check the pattern of them. Also the average feedback. Other wise you may have missed the best possible pick to your self just based on beliving a person's review who even you never knew.

Right Host

There are thousands of hosting organizations which can be judge based on the combination of reliability, safety, sustainability and quality. After you realized the right time and the right project, Then the next challenge is finding the right host. Don't let a colourfull high classed web site to attract you. Of cause attracting web site is really needed but the priority should be the accuracy of the actual project. If you are participating in a volunteer travel program, and If you have to pay, then there are few important facts to compare the hosts as below. 

Period of the existing - There are hundreds of hosting organizations in each countries. They are estsblishing like " mushrooms". A sound inspirational name, an attractive web site is not just enough. You should check the experience of hosting International young travelers such as for how long the host has been exsisting. This reflecting the legal stability of the organization which is really important. Because of the potential high numbers of participants, lots of individuals starting their own hosting organisation with a lack of experience and knowledge. This may includes  a simple fact as understanding of a western young traveler's expectation to an action plan to be taken in an emergency situation such as health related. So your host should be capable of understanding you and for that it needs experiences. This is no way means that as the person who write this blog, my self reflecting as the best hosting organisation. We still facing challanges pretty much every day. But a hosting organization must learn from experience, change and move with a better action plan. 

Projects and the Impact - If we take ten different organisation in a same area, its pretty much same projects in every single organization. But what makes a one different from others. One different can be having the highest numebers of volunteers, another different can be the organisation who is the biggest in assests such as hosting buildings and branding, another different can be the most reputed establishment such as having the accurate legal memberships and government related permission to conduct such operations etc, and another different can be the most fun looking based back ground such as easy stay without any decipline agreements. There are many more differences you can find in comparison. But, the most important fact which highlight a better organization is the impact which they have made to the community. This is a kind of hidden fact to notice from out side. You have to have a deep look in to the organization. As I mentioned earlier, its not a walk you going out to bring home some vegetables. It is a life time experience you are expecting to achive by paying your hard earned and saved money. So you have the right to check with the organization about the impact history which they have made. The only thing is you have to have an idea that this is a "win win" concept. So you can't expect 100% of your payment to go to the community. But at least you should check the break down of the ground projects. Because there can be lots of international agencies contact you to a local partner and charge a hughe amount but even without paying a single visit to that local project. So you have to compare the impact made based on average fees.  

Where your money goes - A well established host in Sri Lanka must contain a valid registered number bearing registration which including the accurate objectives in their article of association, must be a tax payer, must have the legal written permission from relevant authorities to place international students, a professional staff and also enough number of staff comparing to the number of volunteers, A well organized pre departure information support, delivering a basic but clean and safe hosting background and a method to proof the transperency of contribution towards the community.  So the easiest way to compare the value for the money paid is after you made the payment, minimizing all in country taxes, if you can split the rest amount for the number of days. Because if you do the calculation based on entire expenses you made such as flights, insurance, vaccinations etc, thats not a fair image to judge the value for the money in host organization. So by considering just the program fee, you can easily compare what you get for what you have paid and whether is it a fair contribution to the community. 

International contact point - Some times people belive just participating directly with the local organization is cheaper and no point of a international company. But as a local organization Director I would highly recommend always to use an international agent to participate in such programs. But then again you have to be smart to find the reliable and quality based agent. The reason is between the decision of volunteer travel and starting project with the local host, there are so much things behind. Such as flights related, insurance related, visa related, basic info related etc. So you must need a quality communication as well as a international guarantee for the local ground project. Imagine you paid directly to a local host organisation in Sri Lanka and you arriving to the air port as a first time traveler and the hosting organization has missed your pick up. And then middle of no where in the night you try to call them but they not answering. Also When you arrived and the project you wanted to participate is not existing or its not the same one you communicated.  These kind of unexpected issues can happened and then that can ruin everything. But having an international agent is also like an extra reassurance to your family back home.     


 
What are the most common negative feedbacks of volunteers?
 
"This is not what I expect" - I have mentioned earlier also that pre departure information, accuracy of the website info and the level of volunteer's expectation lead to reach a successful volunteer project or for a negative experience. Please read the handbook properly. may be twice. All the information usually address in the handbook. Because some times there are limits of the bounderies which hosting organization can pass to make you feel "happy". But they will do every thing to deliver you a satisfying volunteer project if you express your feedback. If there are any thing they can not change as you wished, at least they can show you why they can't. If you don't open up to them, then they don't know how to meet your expectations. But again if you communicate well and express your feedback on place, but if still the situation is not solved, that means a wrong pick of the hosting organization or wrong time in wrong place as I mentioned earlier.  
 
"There are too many volunteers in the project. Feels like we are not needed" - A very understandable and reasonable feedback from a volunteer. If the hosting organization accepting lots of bookings, they must have the availability to place the volunteers where they feel they are doing some thing helpful. For example for a teaching project which has 10 children, if there are 12 teachers, then there is a big mistake of the management. But if you have volunteers similar to the number of children, there is still an opportunity to have a great experience. Because one on one experience is the best experience. Non of us can change the entire life of a children within a two weeks or two month. What we can do is just change a little bit. So if you have only one child to teach, teach that child with your 100% effort. If its only the alphabet, or only a poem, or a grammer, does not matter what it is but if you can teach that to the child perfectly before you leave, thats the real impact of your project. We can not measure the impact based on numbers of children but amount of what they exactly got from your participation. 
 
"Too many people in the volunteer house" - Well, its your hosting organization's responsibility to provide you accurate information of the facilities before you book a placement with them. If you are coming knowing the potential numbers per room or per house, then this feedback is not fair enough as its a matter of managing the expectation. Remember I mentioned earlier about how to check how much is your per day average fee? This is a good point to judge it too. If you can use a search engine such as booking.com or hostel bookers.com and check the average price per night just for a dorm bed/private room, then you can realize your self that the accommodation you have got is worth the payment or not. This includes full meals, water and electricity, transport, general service. If all these included and if the fee is comparly cheap, then we can't complaint the hosting organization if they haven't promised you luxury accommodation. But If the hosting organization charge a considerable high amount which is similar to a luxary  room fee to a basic dorm bed  in a search engine's hotel room per night,  then this is some thing not apropriate from the hosting organization end.
 
"Everything is money oriented' - This is a sensitive matter which can be different from a one organization to another as well as a one volunteer to another. Let me put it in this way. Some times volunteers complaining about buying wifi as they expecting wifi to be free. But depend on the country they go, there can be different policies when comes to wifi. Like in Sri Lanka wifi is not free of charge or unlimited. So the group who comes at the beggining of the month have enough wifi. They will down load songs, watch series, movies, video calls etc. then there is a limit of the availability and then the service will be terminated. Then comes the next group in two weeks and now every one start to complaint. This is a very common matter which hosting organization fails to manage. But then, when the organisation invest to a system where everybody has to buy their own wifi tokens to use in their devices, then some volunteers finding it like " making money from the wifi too". 
 
"Lack of freedom. Why curfews and alcohol policy? We are adults" - Another most common feedback. Specially among youth travelers. This is because some hosting organizations having a curfew in the accomodation as well as not allowing to use alcohol in the volunteer accommodation. I would say this is a really important and a must two policies. Of cause thats for the safety and for the general quality. Not every one get in to problems or getting sick been drunk. But in a house full of 20-40 volunteers, even if a one person act drunk, then the concept of responsible volunteering will not meet the exact meaning. The question is why this person didn't come as a normal tourist and stayed in a hotel and do as what that person wish to do as an adult. Because it is his/her choice to do a volunteer travel program instead. So as I mentioned in a previous chapter, there will be various type of volunteers with different expectations. But when in a one volunteer house, they should understand that they have to be abide by the hosting organization's house agreements. 

 
Benifits of a successful Volunteer travel program to your life!
 
You get to meet lot of new friends from all around the world. You get to share your life stories and listen to others. If you were worrying about a matter and then you going to find out that you are not the only person in the world to have the same matter. You will realise how privilege to have what you have at the moment when you comparing to what you see in the volunteering project. You will learn how to work under pressure. You will find out what and who you misses the most and be missed the most. You will get a chance to evaluate your self for the first time and judge your self instead other knowing bunch around you.  You will be familiar to live with out some stuff which you thought you must need to live. You will gain the self confidence. You will be ready to be a leader. You will realize the different of sympathy and the empathy. Basically you will feel that you are living the life. 
 
More than everything you will start right away to plan your next volunteer travel trip !!!
 
Volunteer travel is an amazing concept. It changes the life a lot for a better side. People say if its not opening, thats not your door. And for me volunteer travel concept was the right door and it changed my life a lot where I started to live and love the life I got. And surely it will change yours too. 
 

Ashika Senevirathna
28th May 2019
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Shakthi Foundation

Shakthi Foundation is a Non-Governmental Organisation, which was established within Ambalangoda. The foundation was established to act as a leading force for developing communities and wild life conversation projects that are supported throughout Sri Lanka. Shakthi Foundation was born in May 2013, thanks to donations and contributions that were provided by Shakthi Eurasia Exchange private Limited; a commercial and business based company.

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