Not long ago, taking a gap year usually meant one thing: Lugging a backpack around on an Asian or European tour.
But now that gap years have grown in popularity, people are becoming more creative about how they spend their breaks.
I was lucky enough to take a gap year in 2017. I spent part of this time volunteering for a local organization in Dubai that distributes aid to foreign countries. Not only did I find this work personally rewarding—I know my efforts made a difference to people around the world!
If you’re looking for an opportunity to give back, consider volunteering as a part of your gap year.
With so many fields and destinations to choose from, the most daunting part can be figuring out where to start!
Why Should You Consider a Gap Year?
First of all, a gap year isn’t always going to be easy. In fact, volunteering on your gap year can be downright tiring.
You’ll probably be a long way from home, without many of the comforts you’ve grown used to. You’ll be working with people from a different culture, and in many cases, these people will be from disadvantaged or deprived communities—people who have grown up in a very different world than yours.
Work hours are typically long, and you’ll find yourself falling into bed at the end of a long day, absolutely exhausted. It begs the question… Why do people volunteer on their gap year?
Volunteering during your gap year is incredibly rewarding. To get the most out of your experience, you need to be realistic about what to expect.
You also need to think of the amazing skills you’ll gain from participating in a volunteer program—and the positive impact you’ll have on the people around you. Here are some of the main takeaways:
- Volunteering gives you the opportunity to experience a different way of life. Traveling may allow you to visit a country, but acting as a volunteer gives you the chance to truly experience another culture.
- You’ll develop interpersonal communication skills, and you’ll see how these skills help you when dealing with people of different cultures.
- Your problem solving skills will be finely honed. You’ll learn a great deal about resilience and tolerance.
- You’ll have a chance to fully immerse yourself into a new language while interacting with natives in real situations. To brush up on your language skills with fun video clips, try FluentU free for 15 days. FluentU takes real-world videos—like TV shows, movie trailers, news broadcasts and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences. The best part of learning with authentic videos? You also learn about the culture of the country you’re visiting! When you’re volunteering, understanding the culture is crucial to making a difference.
Most of all, you’ll be a positive influence on the people, animals or organizations that you assist. Giving back to the community is incredibly empowering, and you’ll always treasure the time you took to take part in a gap year volunteer program.
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Things to Do Before Your Volunteer Gap Year Begins
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and start the gap year process, there are a few general things you should consider.
Take Care of Your Health and Safety
Some volunteer programs operate out of exotic locations. As with any travel, you need to be aware of the risks involved.
- When researching for places to volunteer, make sure you pay attention to any outstanding travel advisories, as well as general information about safety in the region.
- Get the correct vaccinations before going. Some countries won’t even let you enter if you haven’t followed the appropriate vaccination schedule. And some vaccinations need to be arranged months in advance of your trip!
- Purchase travel insurance to cover the whole period of your trip. If you have any long-term medical issues, you’ll need to be confident that you can access sufficient healthcare in your gap year location.
Take Some Creature Comforts to Get Through the Year
Let’s face it… most volunteer programs don’t put you up in five-star hotels and serve you caviar every day. Facilities are likely to be basic but clean, meaning you might want to take a few extras along with you to make life more comfortable.
- If there’s sufficient electricity in your volunteering location, it’s a good idea to take along a Kindle or e-book reader that can be charged electronically. Depending on where you are, your cell phone might not work, so don’t count on it to keep you amused.
- If you have any favorite snack foods, it can be a good idea to take these along to nibble on.
- Your own pillow or sleeping bag can make all the difference for your comfort, along with your own towel.
Pack Well for Your Gap Year
Once you’ve picked a location, you’ll be able to develop a packing list. Obviously, your list will vary depending on where you’re going. However, there are certain items that should make it onto every gap year checklist!
- Pack comfortable, modest clothes that can be easily washed and dried. You won’t want to pack your fanciest outfits. If you’re heading to a hot climate, make sure you pick natural fabrics that breathe well.
- Bring toiletries, including toothpaste and soap. Try to pick eco-friendly options that won’t damage the natural environment.
- Female travelers should take feminine hygiene products along with them. These can be a little hard to track down in the jungle!
- If you have any special medications, ensure you take a copy of your prescription and enough medication to last you for the length of your trip.
Give Back While You Gap: How to Choose a Gap Year Volunteer Program
There are two main ways to choose a gap year volunteer program.
First, you can decide based on what field you want to go into. Do you love helping children? Or maybe you’d like to gain experience in the medical field. Or you care about endangered animals.
Second, you can start with a destination. Maybe there’s a part of the world you’ve always wanted to see!
Of course, both aspects are crucial to putting together your perfect gap year of volunteering.
What Do You Want to Do During Your Gap Year?
There are countless options for a gap year volunteer program. It can be hard to know where to start!
Think about your passions and how you can contribute. Maybe you have some special skills or experience that would come in handy, such as working with children or assisting with healthcare.
Considering what type of work you’ll enjoy will make a big difference, and doing so can help you get the most from your volunteer year.
The following are just a few of the options you have for a volunteer gap year. A little research will reveal a lot more!
Work with Children
Love kids? There are plenty of programs around the world that would be thrilled to take you on board for a volunteer gap year.
There are roles for people of all skill and experience levels working with children, as well as a multitude of different countries to visit. How does working in a kindergarten in tropical Jamaica with International Volunteer HQ sound? Or teaching English to children in Tanzania with African Impact?
There are plenty of program types to consider, with different levels of support built in. For example, volunteering with Trellis, you’ll receive two weeks of training and up to ten weeks of teaching time in Southeast Asia, complete with accommodation.
If you prefer a live-in role, you can volunteer as a support worker in a home for girls in Peru with Volunteers Peru. Wherever you want to go, rest assured that there are opportunities everywhere help children in need.
If you’re really looking for a different kind of gap year experience, why not volunteer with Mercy Ships? The ship offers healthcare services, and there are roles for people of all experience levels. And if you want to learn more about getting into the healthcare industry, it’s a great opportunity.
Ecuaexperience, on the other hand, is better suited to those with a little more medical experience—ideally, medical students. Situated in Ecuador, it’s one of the highest rated medical student volunteer abroad programs. You can gain hands-on experience and skills that will assist you in your career.
Who wouldn’t want the chance to spend time overseas looking after creatures great and small? Whether it’s caring for giant tortoises in the Galapagos with GoEco or kangaroos in Australia with Love Volunteers, there’s something for everyone. You can even work with lemurs in Madagascar!
When looking for an animal volunteering program overseas, however, it does pay to do your homework. Make sure you research the company you’re interested in to ensure it’s reputable and safe—not just a tourism operation in disguise!
This article from Volunteer Forever can help you identify some of the scams to look out for when booking a volunteer gap year program.
Deforestation is a major issue in many countries. Volunteering Solutions lets you contribute to reforestation efforts in Australia through programs lasting two weeks or more.
If you’d rather help with efforts to protect our seas, you can volunteer on a tropical island in Belize with GoEco to help recolonize marine environments to support future ecosystem growth.
Maybe you’re studying sustainability and would like to use some of your carefully honed research skills on your volunteer gap year. How about taking part in a rainforest research program in Malaysia with Ecoteer so you can help protect the habitat of monkeys and birds native to the area?
Where Do You Want to Go During Your Gap Year?
Of course, you need to think about where you want to go! There might be a country you’ve always wanted to visit or a culture that interests you.
Alternatively, maybe you’re a language whiz or learning a new language. Choose a place where you can practice your language skills!
The possibilities for gap year locations are endless. It’s crucial to think about what each destination can offer you—and, of course, what you can offer each destination!
Central or South America
There are plenty of opportunities throughout Central and South America for you to volunteer. This area of the world is cheap to visit, so you can travel in your free time if you’re feeling adventurous.
These countries offer an amazing opportunity for you to practice your Spanish or Portuguese language skills, as well as become part of an exciting and dynamic culture.
Whether it’s helping build an eco-resort in Costa Rica, increase access to education in Guatemala or tag turtles in El Salvador, there are plenty of options to help out.
If you’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand, you can volunteer to help clean up New Zealand’s waterways and learn a thing or two in the process!
Of course, visiting New Zealand is a bit more expensive than other popular volunteer destinations. But the country offers high comfort levels if you’re looking for a gentle introduction to volunteering. If you’ve never volunteered before, showering with a bucket of water outside a hut in Africa could be a little too intense!
On the other hand, you might like to get back to basics and have a true island experience. English language teachers and care volunteers are in hot demand in Samoa and Fiji.
If you’re a stickler for organization, you can even assist with setting up new libraries in the Cook Islands!
Asia is made up of countries with contrasting cultures, landscapes and opportunities, meaning there are many types of programs for volunteers to consider.
Most of these countries are cost effective, so you won’t have to spend megabucks to visit and volunteer. You could even travel to several different Asian countries to volunteer in various fields, because flights are relatively cheap.
You can care for animals in Indonesia, work on a women’s empowerment project in Thailand or feed giant pandas in China.
With so many communities in need, a volunteer gap year in Africa can really make a difference. Sure, it’s a long way to travel, but if you’re looking for an opportunity to truly challenge yourself, volunteering in Africa is a life-changing experience.
We’ve already discussed Mercy Ships, which sails the African Coast to provide healthcare to communities.
Or maybe you’d prefer to work on construction projects in Ghana, assist with great white shark tracking in South Africa or help with animal care programs all over Africa. And if you’re a qualified vet, even better!
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can bundle together several programs and create a trip that takes you all over the African continent.
Volunteering isn’t the cushiest way to spend your gap year. But it’s probably the most rewarding and life-changing option.
What’re you waiting for? Start narrowing down your gap year volunteer options!
An experienced writer, traveler and communications professional, Belinda Birchall splits her time between New Zealand and Dubai, with a lot of travel packed in between—visiting 20 countries in 2017/2018. In her spare time, she blogs at The 58th Floor and shares photos of her travels on Instagram.
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