Unfulfilled with her time at a Danish university Jade Johnston, of travel blog Our Oyster, decided to join a volunteering project abroad. Here she shares her experience of volunteering on a conservation project with Youth Challenge International in Costa Rica.
Not keen on facing a winter semester in Denmark with no friends to speak of, I turned on my computer, and started researching volunteering opportunities abroad. I didn’t really know where to start. Most volunteer programs I found charged exorbitant prices for volunteering terms that were much shorter than I was looking for. After living in Denmark for seven months, one of the world’s most expensive countries, I only had a limited budget. Eventually, after following what seemed like a never ending trail of links (there was no Goodtrippers back then to help me in my search! – “Thanks Jade!” – Ed.), I came across a program called Youth Challenge International (YCI).
The program which is based in Canada accepts volunteers from Canada, America, and the European Union. There is also a partner organization in Australia called Youth Challenge Australia (YCA) which partners with some of the same organizations.
Where Does YCI and YCA Operate?
YCI works in a variety of countries, mainly in Latin America and Africa. YCA also has indigenous Australia programs as well. The programs vary in length from four to 12 weeks depending on what location and type of program you choose. There are usually at least two departure dates per location, although this does vary depending on the partner organization. What originally drew me to YCI is that is offered a long term volunteer program, but at a reasonable price. I had to pay my own airfare but my program fee covered all my in country expenses – the only extra money I needed was for pocket spending money.
I chose to go to Costa Rica. The program start date nicely coincided with the start of the next university year (it was my “I need time off from school excuse”) and it also would give me an opportunity to learn Spanish, which is something I had recently become interested in.
Another factor which drew me to YCI is the fact that it is a group project. Our group had 14 members from Canada and Australia, including two team leaders. This helped lesson the culture shock as we had a large support network. It also helped ease day to day living as two members would stay back from work each day to do all the group cooking and cleaning. The only disadvantage of living in a large group of English speakers is that we didn’t get a total Spanish immersion experience. Those of us who chose to study Spanish did learn quite a bit, but others who didn’t probably went home with only a few basic words.
The volunteering work
It’s important to note that everyone’s group will be different. Projects change constantly, and the work that I did in Costa Rica may be completely different than the work you will do. Even groups going back to the same project at later stages have different experiences.
Our group lived together in a house that a member of the community donated to us to use. But the group who went the next year lived separately in community homestays as the original house had been sold to a new owner who was now living in it. Their experience will have been completely different from mine, even though they were working on the same project.
It’s also important to research what type of volunteer work you want to do. In Costa Rica at the time that I participated, most of the work was infrastructure based in national parks, or developing ecotourism opportunities in small communities. Our project was in a small community in Juanilama de Poco Sol where we helped save a community-owned patch of rainforest from deforestation for agricultural land, by developing it into an ecotourism destination. Now tourists from around the world can venture to this small village, join farm stays in extensions that villagers have built onto their homes and experience the rainforest and local culture. This is of direct economic benefit to the community members.
It was hard manual labour. We used machetes to clear walking trails, pickaxes and shovels to level out ground, and carried cement bricks deep into the rainforest to stabilize steps built into the hills. We also taught the locals basic English and wilderness first aid, but the majority of our work was hard graft.
One thing that I really enjoyed about this project was the emphasis put on community ownership. Not just any village can get a group of YCI volunteers in. They need to go through an application process and prove that the group will really benefit them in reaching their goal. This means that the community really, really wants to have the volunteers there. Also it means that the project is something that the community itself has decided it wants, and not just something that a group of outsiders has decided would be good for them.
Since the community really wanted this project to succeed, we always had lots of engagement with the local people. We worked alongside the local young men, got taught how to salsa dance by the school children, and always had people there ready to help us when we needed it. We attended weddings and dinners, and really felt welcomed by the whole village.
Recommended for… Those who are looking for a long-term project and prefer working alongside lots of other volunteers for support.
Be aware that… This programme is probably not suitable for those looking for short-term projects, or for individual travellers passing through the area. The application process was quite long and there was no guarantee I would be placed where I wanted to be. Also, I had to attend an orientation day in Canada and then fly out with all the other participants (which was particularly annoying since I lived in Scotland at the time, and had to fly back to Canada just for the day). This is the sort of program you need to decide on and plan out in advance.
- Delivering projects the community itself has chosen and needs
- Creation of ecotourism facilities to help the community develop a sustainable source of income
- Protection of community-owned rainforest
- Immersion in local, community life
About the Author: Jade is a Canadian expat now living in Australia. She writes a blog at OurOyster.com and blogs about budget travel, slow travel, destination and tour reviews, and family travel. Her next project will be a three month road trip across her home country of Canada, and she has just finished a similar epic road trip across Australia. Visit www.ouroyster.com, connect via Facebook or follow on Twitter @Our_Oyster