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Many different charities encourage and support volunteers from foreign countries, but the process for getting started is usually heavily dependent on the organization, the location, and the type of work at issue. Sometimes it’s relatively easy; this is particularly true if you’re looking to volunteer for a short time as a member of a team sponsored by an organization like a school or church. In many of these cases, the organizers do all the coordinating work and all you have to do is pay the required fees, fill out any needed paperwork, and attend. Things are often much more complicated for volunteers working on their own, particularly those who want to remain abroad for an extended period of time. Most international charities can “sponsor” volunteers in countries that would otherwise require visas, but the paperwork required to get everything sorted out often takes a lot of time. No matter how you hope to do your charity work abroad, starting with a firm idea of your timing and the work you’re interested in doing can help narrow down your opportunities. Being realistic about the costs you may be required to bear, both in time and finances, is also a good way to get prepared.
The field of international charity work is usually very broad. It’s often possible to volunteer for as little as a few days, as is often the case when doing things like helping relief efforts from a natural disaster or other calamity. Many organizations also sponsor short-term aid trips to lend support to groups like building teams, medical staffs, and orphanages in underserved parts of the world. Many of these sorts of opportunities are designed as learning trips, and participants are there as much to help out as to see another side of humanity and culture than they’ve been exposed to before.
Another sort of volunteer is willing and able to commit much more time, and may make charity work a full-time or all consuming enterprise, at least for a while. Doctors and medical personnel often plan extended aid trips to communities in dire need of healthcare, for instance, and young people often join organizations like the Peace Corps to serve as volunteers abroad for a year or more. Knowing what sort of commitment you are willing to make can help narrow down the options.
Once you have a sense of your goals, it’s time to find a group under which to work. Almost all charity work is done under the supervision of at least one formalized charitable group; it’s very rare for individuals to simply arrive in a foreign country and begin doing charity work independently. Many of these organizations have websites and local agencies, usually in big cities, and staff members can usually help you understand the sorts of opportunities that are available and more about the specifics of signing on.
Some charitable organizations may help defray the transportation costs for the people who perform charity work abroad, but in some cases a volunteer may have to be prepared to foot the expense. Many groups use or encourage fundraising activities to raise money to help with the costs. This often takes time and a bit of ambition. Most charitable organizations do pay for the food and housing costs incurred while volunteering overseas, but not always.
Charity work is almost always noble in intent and useful to the recipients, but national governments sometimes try to control the flow of volunteers, particularly into unstable or war-torn regions. Depending on the country and how long you intend to stay, you may also need to acquire a visa or other authorization to stay longer than the standard tourist entry allocations. You might have to offer proof that a local charitable group has sponsored you and is willing to vouch for your activities while in the country. The process can take some time, and may also have costs attached.
Many people who have specialized professions, like doctors, can do charity work overseas through organizations like Doctors Without Borders. These groups can take doctors and medical personnel to third world countries where they may be doing surgery, general health care, and a number of other medical-related jobs.
I sponsor a child in Kenya through Compassion International, and that organization will help schedule child visits, which always include some mission work during the trip. This is a good way for people to find out if they are truly suited to doing overseas charity work. Not everyone is called to this ministry. The ones who are can change lives in a very real way.
Find a charity you would support financially anyway, and start there. The last thing you want is to be overseas with a charity you couldn't otherwise get behind.
If you attend church, starting with that church if they have a mission team is probably a good way to get your feet wet. Start with a local mission trip and work your way outward as you learn. That way, you'll get accustomed to life on a mission trip and you'll be better prepared if you do go overseas.
Go with an established organization. You do not want to go overseas with team leaders who have never been overseas before. That's a disaster waiting to happen. Make sure your leaders are experienced
and have been to the country where you will be working. They will already have contacts in place, and you will need those contacts if something untoward happens. These people can probably help get you out of the country, or at least to your country's embassy or consulate if you need to leave quickly.
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