by Amy Neal, Greenheart Travel Volunteer Programs Manager
After a natural disaster or major crisis many well-intentioned, but ill-equipped organizations pop up in order to provide volunteer aid. Before deciding if you want to volunteer or choosing a sponsor organization, there are a few things you’ll want to consider.
The first thing is understanding that the dynamics of volunteering in a crisis or disaster struck region are different compared with volunteering in regions of poverty that have always experienced a severe lack in resources. Generally speaking, the atmosphere surrounding an area that has just experience a major crisis consists of heightened panic, confusion, and intense desperation. Also keep in mind that every disaster can affect a community differently depending on the severity and local contingency plans that were in place prior to the disaster. Therefore, even experienced volunteers may not be fully prepared for what to expect.
Before applying for a volunteer position, thoroughly investigate how much experience your chosen organization has with regards to relief efforts, the support structure and how much guidance you’ll receive as a volunteer, and whether or not they have the resources and management capabilities necessary to be effective on site. It is usually best to seek out well established organizations that have experience with the particular type of crisis you’ll be dealing with and that have a network of trained staff in-country to help train and guide volunteers and respond to emergencies.
Additionally, learn what the requirements are for volunteers, what your responsibilities would be, what skill sets the organization typically looks for, and what to expect in terms of living conditions. Assess whether or not you meet the requirements and possess the types of skills necessary to fulfill the responsibilities. If your skills are lacking, ask if they provide any training or if they have recommendations about where to get training prior to your trip. Most experienced organizations will perform their own skill assessments so you are appropriately placed. Always communicate anything about yourself that you think might pose a challenge to you or your volunteer team – health concerns, physical limitations, etc. You want to be certain the program is a good fit for you, and if it isn’t there may be other volunteer opportunities.
Lastly, if you are accepted to the program or offered a volunteer position with an aid organization, ask a lot of questions. The following list of questions is a good place to start:
- What specific skills are needed?
- What, if any, are the requirements?
- What are the living conditions?
- What modes of communication are available to contact home and how often will I have access to them?
- What are the costs involved before and during the trip?
- Do I need vaccinations or a visa for the destination country?
- Should I get my own travel medical insurance?
- What should I pack?
- What are the risks involved?
- What is the day to day going to be like – is there a schedule, will my tasks be the same each day or will they change?
- Who do I report to? How often will I/they check in?
- What is the protocol if I get sick or injured? If political instability occurs?
- Will I be registered with the US Embassy?
- What are the typical challenges that your volunteers face?
- Can you give me any resources that will help me prepare for this experience?