Volunteers For Peace: Making Travel More Meaningful
By Jessica Courtney
Imagine practicing yoga in India, educating communities about AIDS in Kenya, or working with orphans in Peru. Volunteers For Peace (VFP) makes it happen.
VFP is a non-profit organization located in Belmont, Vermont. Their mission is to promote international voluntary service as an effective means of intercultural education, service learning and community development.
They offer placement in more than 3000 projects, often referred to as work camps, in more than 100 countries every year. VFP also organizes 50-60 service projects in the United States each year.
Some of the most popular destinations for volunteers in 2007 included Italy, France, India, Thailand, Kenya and Vietnam. Many different kinds of work are available, including environmental protection, working with children and orphans, and historic preservation, to name a few.
VFP exchanges volunteers with their international partners, who organize the projects taking place in their own countries. At each project, volunteers from diverse backgrounds, usually from four or more different countries, live and work together.
“Volunteering abroad makes travel meaningful,” said former volunteer Noor Che’ree. “When you go on vacation, you go to tourist areas. You don’t meet the local people. [Volunteering] gives you the opportunity to see how people live.”
Many former volunteers agree that participating in a VFP project was a rewarding, and cost-effective way to travel.
Working with Children in Peru
Tiffany Chang, 21, participated in a project with Hogar Urpi, a home for boys in Huamanga, Peru. “I decided to go to Peru because I was taking a Latin American History Class at the time, and one of the countries the class focused on was Peru, specifically, the region of Ayacucho, because of the terrorism,” she said. Chang participated in the project during the summer of 2007, and again in the summer of 2008.
Hogar Urpi provides shelter for boys who have been abandoned by their families, or who have been removed from their homes by the state. “Our goal was to do activities with the boys that would be something they could use in the future,” said Chang. “Something that would help them in a long-term way.”
The program lasted two and a half weeks. Each day Chang arrived at the home around nine in the morning to help the boys with homework, get them ready for school, and engage them in planned activities, such as English lessons, cooking, gardening, athletics, circus activities, and photography.
“I really enjoyed working with the children,” said Chang. “I also enjoyed having a cultural exchange with other volunteers.” She met volunteers from Italy, Canada, France, Spain, Germany, Korea, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Peru, England, and the United States.
During the project, Chang lived in a house with the other volunteers. The house had two large rooms for sleeping — each room fit about ten people — as well as a kitchen, living area, and a bathroom. There was also a patio area with a sink for doing laundry. “There was only cold water, and sometimes we would run out of water,” said Chang of the differences between living in Peru and her home country.
Despite the basic living conditions, Chang found the project worthwhile. “There are a ton of moments that I remember like photographs almost,” she said. One such moment was when Walter, a child who didn’t smile often, was learning how to perform a circus activity called bolas. “He was laughing and shouted with glee,” she said.
In order to help the boys at Hogar Urpi in the future, Chang and another former volunteer are starting a scholarship fund. They plan to register the fund as an official non-profit organization. “We decided it was the best way to do something long term,” she said.
Planting Olive Trees in Palestine
Laurie Eggett Goundeiah participated in her first VFP project in Bojnice, Slovakia in 2004. The goal was to improve the landscaping at Bojnice Castle. “I decided to volunteer abroad with my first work camp in Slovakia because I had frequent flyer miles I wanted to use, but didn’t have any friends with the financial means to travel with me,” she said.
“With Internet browsing I found the Volunteers For Peace website and realized it would be a good way to travel alone. I would be involved with people there, in a meaningful project, and have food and boarding for two weeks for only $250.”
In the morning, the volunteers prepared breakfast together before working in the gardens. “The girls typically weeded — we got bored of this all day—the boys did more manual labor with shovels and wheelbarrows,” said Goundeiah. After a lunch break, the volunteers worked until early afternoon and had evenings free for dinner, sightseeing, and socializing.
Goundeiah enjoyed playing games with the other participants in the evenings. “It was so fun to realize that every culture has the same games and laughs at the same kinds of jokes,” she said. “We really are universal.”
The only thing Goundeiah didn’t like about the project was that the other volunteers went out drinking frequently.
“I don’t drink, and another Muslim participant didn’t drink, so we stuck together in the evenings,” she said. “We still got along very well with the others, but the difference in habits interfered in evening socializing.”
Because she enjoyed the first project so much, Goundeiah participated in another work camp in Hebron, Palestine in December of 2006. The purpose of this project was to help Palestinian olive tree farmers, and also to bring awareness to the hardships Palestinians face due to Israeli occupation.
The volunteers attempted to plant olive trees in the mornings, but this ended after two days due to the opposition from Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers.
Kids Throwing Rocks
“The first day we went to a farmer’s property near an Israeli settlement,” said Goundeiah. “He had fenced around and up above his land to avoid rocks being thrown by some neighboring settler children. The fencing wasn’t adequate, and we were dodging rocks.”
On the second day of the project, the volunteers were at another farm when a settler in his twenties came along, stared at them for a few moments, and then left.
“He returned with soldiers,” said Goundeiah. “He had accused the Palestinian leaders and our foreign volunteers of trying to kill him… They wrote down all of our passport numbers. The Palestinian [land-owner] had to show his title to prove our right to plant.
“We could finally get back to work, but had lost about three hours. We planted some more trees and finished for the day. Overnight, the trees were uprooted.”
Goundeiah was glad that the project allowed her to understand the conflict. “My eyes were opened to things outside my safe and happy life in America,” she said.
However, her favorite part of both projects was meeting the other volunteers. “I have made friends from South Korea, England, France, Slovakia, Belgium, Italy, Palestine, Hong Kong, and Jordan,” she said. “They have been lasting friendships.”
For Goundeiah, volunteering abroad was a truly life-changing experience. After the project in Palestine, she stayed to volunteer in the host organization’s office.
“I was in between jobs and was not pressed to return to the states,” she said. She became good friends with the project leader during the work camp, and was able to live with his family while volunteering.
Goundeiah later found a job as a nanny for an American family in Jerusalem, where she remained for a year and a half. During her time there, she traveled to Amman, Jordan, where she met her future husband. She is now happily married and living in Jordan, where she just began a new job as a kindergarten teacher at the Modern American School in Amman.
Want to Volunteer?
VFP is a good choice for those looking for a meaningful travel experience. Most projects are two to three weeks long, though VFP does offer some medium-length (1-6 months) and long-term placements (6 months-1 year). English is the spoken language in the majority of the work camps.
The basic placement fee is $300 for a 2-3 week project, much cheaper than the fees for other similar organizations. The fee includes food, very basic accommodations, and work materials. Volunteers must arrange and pay for their own transportation to and from the project location.
For projects in developing countries, there may be an additional fee of $300-$500, depending on the host organization. VFP offers a $50 refund in most situations where volunteers need to pay an extra fee.
For more information, or to browse the project directory, visit www.vfp.org.
Jessica Courtney is an editorial assistant at GoNomad. She recently graduated from UMass Amherst with a double degree in dance and communication studies, and is headed to France to teach English in the fall.
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