Volunteering is an integral part of expat life. Expats often have opportunities to help the local population because they have knowledge, experience and financial resources that are not locally available.
Expat spouses typically have time to volunteer because they’ve left their old lives and jobs behind; some even make a whole new career out of it. In the past decade, during which I’ve been following my husband all over the globe, I’ve had more volunteer jobs than paid jobs.
For me, volunteering abroad has always served multiple purposes. I did it to help others, to develop new skills, to try out different jobs, to learn about new topics, to update my CV, and to stay busy. So I haven’t always volunteered purely for idealistic reasons, but I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Now my volunteering days may be drawing to a close. Soon, I’ll be working at the embassy full-time. It feels good to know that any day now, I’ll actually be paid for working. On the other hand, I might miss the freedom I had before.
In this post I’d like to reflect on the different jobs I did and how I (dis)liked them. In the past decade, I worked in a health clinic, built houses for the homeless, taught English language, wrote letters to political prisoners, did sports with street kids, provided legal advice to refugees, and evaluated grants for poor women entrepreneurs.
1. HEALTH CLINIC IN AFRICA
As a kid, I always dreamt of “building an orphanage in Africa.” But when I finally went to Africa I found out that there was a bigger need for healthcare. So every Friday afternoon I went to a village with two embassy wives and a Nigerian doctor to see kids aged 0–5, giving them free medicine we’d buy on the way over there.
The main purpose was to make sure the village kids didn’t die from malaria, because too many kids still do there. The doctor also gave lots of nutritional advice, telling the mothers to give their children (free) fresh fruit instead of the cookies they so proudly bought them.
The work was chaotic; health records were messy and all the kids had different versions of the same names; mothers frequently demanded medicine they didn’t need and wouldn’t leave before being given at least something. But it was a lot of fun because people really appreciated us and the work was about as grass roots as it gets.
2. WRITING LETTERS TO PRISONERS
Before I ever went to a developing country, I volunteered for Amnesty International. I joined the educational team, giving lectures at elementary schools on human rights. I also helped with money collection and wrote friendly letters to political prisoners all over the world. It was interesting work that felt important. The only problem was that I was still in a turbulent period in my life, constantly moving, and unable to really commit or follow up on things.
One time I sent a letter to a Louisiana prison and got a reply. It was from a man who has been in solitary confinement for 43 years. Years later, in 2015, he got his conviction overturned. He was one of the “Angola Three”–quite a famous case. In pleasant handwriting, he told me all about his daily routine (he watched a lot of CNN).
I was surprised and awed to receive a letter from a prisoner like that but, as life goes, I didn’t find the time to write him back. Feeling terrible about myself, I decided to write him back a year later, but I never heard from him again (I’m still worried that perhaps he did reply but the letter got lost because it went to some old address of mine).
3. BUILDING HOUSES FOR THE HOMELESS
I once spent a weekend building a small house (container size) for a homeless family in Uruguay. I don’t mention this because I’m particularly proud of this small effort, but because it’s a type of volunteering that I’ve come across in other places, too.
The good thing about building houses, or doing maintenance on old school buildings for example, is that the results are very tangible. It felt great to make a house for a family, especially when I saw how happy the family was. They immediately furnished the place with their paltry belongings (from the dirty hut they’d been living in) and thanked us profusely.
4. TEACHING ENGLISH
I’ve taught English to a variety of people: diplomats, senior citizens, young women, and kids. I found that teaching English is as much about teaching culture as it is about teaching language. Students want to know all about you and your background, and the reason they want to learn English is often related to some specific interest they have. Also, topics and materials are often related to English culture.
I have an English teaching certificate, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for volunteer work. What’s more important is having the ability to motivate yourself and the students, who are often people with other jobs or worries and who may not be very committed to the lessons since they’re getting them for free.
5. LEGAL ADVICE TO REFUGEES
My favorite volunteer job was helping refugees with their legal problems. I worked for the Dutch refugee council during a period when the country was dealing with a big influx of refugees from Syria and Eritrea, in addition to those coming from Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. They were often confused about immigration law and requirements, as anyone would be, especially since most didn’t speak Dutch.
My most interesting cases involved women, mainly from Nigeria, who claimed to be victims of trafficking. Having worked on trafficking issues in Nigeria before, I felt like I could make them feel better understood and explain things in a way that made sense to them.
6. GRANTS FOR WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS
The volunteer job I did the longest was for an organization that provided grants to women entrepreneurs in developing countries. The concept of my job was simple: I reviewed grant applications from women groups in Africa for amounts up to $2,000. There were not a lot of requirements to worry about, like there often are with government and larger organizations. I just approved everything that seemed useful and made sense.
But I got roped into doing a lot more than reviewing grant applications. The organization was in a phase where they needed to update everything: their communication strategy, website, logo, and their strategy to find donor groups. I chaired the innovation committee to get the wheel going on a number of these things, but when I left I still felt like I should have done more.
7. SPORTS FOR STREET KIDS
I once spent a month in a Brazilian favela, working with street kids through a government-sponsored “voluntourism” program. It was in a big circus tent in the middle of an extremely poor neighborhood. Professional circus trainers kept local kids busy after school by having them do acrobatics, steering them away from a life of drugs and violence.
Most of my time there I felt useless. I didn't feel like I had a lot to offer; I could have brought school supplies, or made a bigger effort to teach the kids some English. But I didn’t really know what I was getting into beforehand, so I came unprepared and didn't have enough time to figure things out. I mean, I understood the concept of the program, but I didn’t know how to actively participate in it.
Still, I enjoyed being there. The kids and the trainers were funny and inspiring. And I learned that a month is really nothing if you want to help out somewhere unless you have a solid plan how to do it.
Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
Read more! About my experience with the Foreign Service in the section How To Become a Diplomat; different Foreign Service career tracks in Diplomacy 101; my experience working as a FSO in What Diplomats Do.
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
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