Thinking of volunteering internationally? You’re in the right place. Grab a cup of tea–it’s a long one (or skip to the end for the main points, if you’re in a hurry).
I have always wanted to volunteer abroad. My whole life. So, for four years, I saved the money I made from my photography business so I could do it. Eventually, I had the money, but I had no idea where to go or what organization to go with. One day, I saw on Instagram that a friend of mine who I had volunteered with in St. John’s (if you’re reading, hey Sydney!) was going volunteering in Sri Lanka. The country looked incredible, simply breathtaking, so I messaged her. She kindly gave me all the details about the organization she was with and I got in touch, but I didn’t stop researching other agencies.
I came across a bunch that advertised amazing opportunities: work with elephants, turtles, or exotic birds; build houses, schools, or wells. These all sound incredible—amazing work that needs to be done and in beautiful countries no less. But they weren’t me. Then I remembered SLV.Global, the organization Sydney volunteered with, which is a psychology placement that provides community-based mental health support in Sri Lanka (and now in Bali and India as well)— that sounds more like me. I’m a social work student with a background in sociology and psychology, so you get why I loved the idea. It would be valuable work experience that will be helpful to the Sri Lankan community and educational for me.
One day I was scrolling through blogs and found a post about something called ‘voluntourism.’ I’d never heard of it. Essentially, voluntourism is the act of going abroad for ‘volunteer opportunities,’ but actually getting a vacation. Often voluntourism initiatives are actually hard on the communities in question, not helpful. The voluntourism agencies are often those who advertise with photos of happy white volunteers holding a smiling African or Asian child or a group of enthused volunteers releasing turtles before heading to a wild beach party. This video sums it up perfectly.
Finding this made me feel really guilty about wanting to volunteer abroad. I actually did want to make a lasting change, I actually wanted to learn.
I started frantically researching SLV. I read their website, read reviews, chatted with my friend who had gone, and then I called the organization and started asking questions. They were so helpful. After a lot of research, there were three main things that made me feel comfortable and confident in my decision to apply: 1) they had a focus on sustainability in the communities they work in, meaning they do not initiate new programs, they only support ongoing local programs and they minimize the impact of a high volunteer turnover on their service users; 2) there are criteria and minimum levels of education you must have to attend—not just anyone can go; 3) the staff were so passionate and helpful. So I applied, had an interview, and I got accepted, yay!
In the months leading up to my placement, SLV was professional and organized beyond my wildest dreams. I got my own portal login, a webpage I could visit to pay my fees, upload my documents, communicate with staff, and get information about my placement (from packing to needles to cultural requirements) all in one place. It made an intimidating process a lot less scary. Shortly before I left for my placement, they released this evaluation report, which made me even more confident in my decision:
Finally the day had arrived. I was off to Sri Lanka by myself, my first time going to Asia, my first time further East than Rome. I was excited, anxious, and nervous all at once, but I felt good. ‘Voluntourism’ was lurking in the back of my mind, but I had firmly decided that no matter what happened, I’d make the best of my placement. My first week in-country was filled with thorough training, experiential learning, practice and supervised sessions, and educational workshops with Sri Lankan mental health professionals. I felt completely prepared to begin my work with the service users on the projects.
Volunteering with SLV is no vacation. It’s hard, emotionally and physically. It is intense and important and you hold a lot of responsibility. Do not take that for granted. That being said, it is VERY rewarding. Plus, they give you the weekends to travel. There are two reasons why this is important: 1) it is part of learning about a new country and culture, and 2) if you worked the whole time, you’d burn out really fast– we needed that weekend to wind down and decompress after the challenging work we did during the weekdays.
Here are some examples of the work we did with service users at various projects:
SLV gives you accommodation with a local family and several other volunteers. I loved the homestay experience– living like a local in the community added a whole new level to the experience. The home was clean, comfortable, and the food was incredible. It was really nice to have a cozy, happy home-away-from-home. I was also super impressed by the level of support that was available to volunteers 24/7. There was always someone to reach out to in case of emergency or just to talk to if someone needed it. The permanent staff were always eager to help and shared their personal contact information with us to use anytime, and some permanent staff even live in the homestays with you. In all homestays there are peer mentors, which are other volunteers who stay in the country for at least 12-weeks and receive additional training to provide peer support.
At the end of the placement, we were invited to purchase sarees to wear to a going away beach party. This was a chance to have a final bit of fun with our fellow volunteers and the staff members before we parted ways. I made so many memories in Sri Lanka with so many incredible people. I learned more than I ever thought I would about global mental health, mental health in developing countries, and community-based mental health initiatives. Sri Lankans have some really great perspectives that I hope to implement here at home one day. This experience benefitted me and changed me in more ways than I thought it would–more ways than I’d ever be able to express here. Most importantly, SLV is doing really great work in Sri Lanka by supporting initiatives designed by Sri Lankans, by creating jobs in the community, and by working tirelessly with local professionals and organizations to reduce the stigma that exists around mental health in Sri Lanka.
A summary of all the reasons why I think SLV is a great choice for your volunteer trip:
- There is a strong focus on sustainability in the communities they work in, meaning they do not initiate new programs, they only support ongoing local programs. They encourage volunteers to pass on knowledge and expertise to the caretakers at the projects.
- There is a strong focus on confidentiality and putting service users first. If you’re thinking about posting a cute pic on your insta of you with a local child, think again. This not only puts the service user at a huge risk, but it jeopardizes the integrity of the organization and the work they’re doing.
- They minimize the impact of a high volunteer turnover on their service users.
- They are very concerned with respecting community/cultural norms and customs, such as appropriate dress and covering tattoos and piercings.
- They provide volunteers with a lot of educational opportunities such as workshops, lectures, and field trips where you get to shadow local psychiatrists. My group got to go on home visits with him and it was a really humbling experience and I learned a lot by seeing it firsthand.
- 24/7 in-country support with incredible staff.
- There is a strong focus on stigma reduction and raising awareness in-country.
- You get weekends for travel!
- They create jobs for locals through permanent staff and homestay family opportunities.
If you have ANY questions at all about SLV.Global please ask me. I would love to help you out. But also ask them, because they are the pros! Check out their website: slv.global and social media: @slvglobal
Thank you for reading what basically turned into an essay. If you have volunteered abroad before, leave us a comment! Let’s start a conversation about ethical volunteering! Hit us up on social media @twowildtides to chat directly.