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volunteer abroad

What It’s Really Like to Quit Your Job to Volunteer Abroad

Ever wonder what it would be like to drop everything, quit your job, and travel abroad indefinitely? It’s a pricey proposition, but adventurous travelers can bring down the cost by finding ways to volunteer abroad and travel.

If you’re not sure if voluntourism is for you, or wondering where to begin, you’re not alone. I talked to two people who are traveling the world as they volunteer abroad. And while both made no secret of the challenges, they also sang the praises of this worthwhile adventure.  Here’s how a Texas teacher and a British project manager made their dreams of volunteering abroad a reality.

Taylor Carroll has been teaching in Tanzania and is now joining a surf outreach program with  International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ) in South Africa, both as part of his year volunteering abroad. Hannah Cox and her partner recently left the United Kingdom to work on organic farms (WOOF) across Europe on an overland journey to Bhutan—which she details in their  blog.

What It’s Like to Volunteer Abroad

What was your job before you left, and how did you decide to quit and volunteer abroad?

Taylor: “I was an 8th grade math teacher in Dallas for three years. I had always wanted to volunteer abroad. Originally, I looked into the Peace Corps. I decided on using International Volunteer Headquarters because the time frames were flexible, and I had more destinations to choose from.”

Hannah: “I was a freelance Project Manager for a creative agency. Although I loved the job, it was never my passion—travel was. I decided that if I worked really hard for a year or two, started some side hustles, and cut back on luxuries, I would have enough money to get away and explore the world. I’ve never been interested in marriage, kids, or a mortgage, so when everyone I knew started to settle down, I knew it was time to leave.

What did your boss say when you quit to volunteer abroad?

Taylor: “My boss, although not thrilled that I wouldn’t be there the following school year, understood: She had previously volunteered in Namibia. She wished me the best of luck.”

Hannah: “I think most people thought I was joking, because I wanted to travel overland and such a great distance (U.K. to Bhutan via rail and road), without much of a plan. Many people’s reaction was ‘Oh I wish I could do that’ and I just thought ‘You can!'”

What was the first thing you did after you made the decision to go?

Taylor: “Within two months I sold my car, all of my belongings, canceled all my services, and moved my official addresses to my parents’ address (travel credit cards, bank statements, forwarding address). I tend to be pretty methodical, so I made several lists of everything I needed to do before stepping on the plane, and then I ranked them by level of importance and time sensitivity.”

Hannah: “I started a small e-commerce business with my best friend, who also wanted to escape her job. I took on more freelance work so that I was earning as much money as possible in a short amount of time. I researched volunteer programs in the countries my partner and I were visiting that would allow us to spend time with local families and really get to know and understand the culture.”

What was it like when you arrived for your volunteer opportunity?  

Taylor: “I arrived in the middle of the night. I was given a brief show around the volunteer house in Arusha, Tanzania, and then slept. Waking up in the morning, I was welcomed by both new and seasoned volunteers and the staff. The high point was making connections with the other volunteers and the locals. I will remember them always and all their wonderful personalities. I’m smiling now thinking about it and laughing at all the outrageous times. But the low point is realizing that no matter how hard you prepared, or thought through the issues that you would face, that the problems are going to be more complex than you imagined.”

Hannah: “So far we’ve volunteered at three WOOF farms—two in Denmark and one in Finland. Meeting new people is always a bit nerve-wracking, but we made sure only to apply to farms that took on small groups of volunteers, and were very clear about working hours, facilities, and opportunities/tasks while we were there. We made sure to communicate well with all our hosts in advance, and tried to go above and beyond what was expected of us.”

What’s the day-to-day of volunteering like?

Taylor: “There’s a mixture of bright moments of feeling useful, and dull moments of feeling useless. You learn to weigh yourself not by doing what you thought you would, but doing what you’re able to. I tried my best not to have any expectations about the experience. I wanted to be as open as possible and not be disappointed if the experience or set up didn’t match the preconceived picture I had formed in my head.”

Hannah: “WOOF volunteers often end up fulfilling the roles that farmers just don’t have time to get to. For example, in our first host home, we spent weeks fixing old cattle fences. On our second property, we helped build some new greenhouses and paint a kitchen. Our third hosts had us weeding fields. Most of the work is quite physical, which I struggled with sometimes. But you only work four hours per day, giving you plenty of time to rest and enjoy the countryside.”

Do you think you’ll return home when you’re “done”? Why or why not? 

Taylor: “After Tanzania and South Africa, I’m traveling to Morocco and Italy. I’m not completely sure I’ll know what I want after that. I am open to other options if they seem like a good fit for me at the time.”

Hannah: “I have no idea! WOOFing has only broadened my horizons; we met some incredible people who have inspired us to volunteer further afield. There are so many opportunities overseas to volunteer that I think I’ll struggle to do all the ones I want in this lifetime.”

Is volunteering abroad a good environment for making friends?

Taylor: “I haven’t met many others who have quit their jobs and are doing a whole year of volunteering. Most of the volunteers seem to want to gain a broader world perspective, some just want a cheap vacation, some have big hearts and want to do as much good as possible … I think it’s a fantastic environment for making lasting relationships. I have already met so many unique individuals who I plan to see again.”

Hannah: “It’s a great environment for meeting people who are looking at the world with a different viewpoint. Talking to farmers about the issues they face is very different to working in an office—there is no way for them to ‘switch off.’ People who volunteer also tend to be more interested in learning about a culture, and the communities they visit, rather than the tourist trail.”

What’s the hardest part about volunteering abroad? What’s the best part?

Taylor: “Some days it’s just not what you thought it was going to be. You can feel a little lost. The best part is when you get over those hurdles and remember what originally brought you down this path. Finding your own strength is always empowering. I’m lucky enough to have had several of those moment already, and I’m not even halfway through my year of volunteering abroad.”

Hannah: “The hardest part for me has been the physical aspect because I have chronic pain issues. While movement is a positive thing for me, some mornings I felt I couldn’t face another day weeding in the rain. But meeting our hosts and their friends has given us valuable life lessons and friendships. I think it’s impossible to really get to know a country as a tourist, and volunteering affords a real opportunity to get under the skin of a nation.”

Editor’s Note: These answers have been condensed for clarity.

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Associate Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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