A voluntourist speaks out: a first-hand account of helping in the wake of disaster

Courtesy Alistair Bremnath
All Hands volunteer Katie Taibi from Bel Air, MD. and local volunteers Ramone Thermidor and Jacquerson Paul plant greenery around the posts of a memorial enclosure for the victims of the Haiti earthquake. See more pictures.

It's national volunteer week! In commemoration we opened up our blog to Q&A; with voluntourist and travel writer, Terry Ward, who shares the inspiration for her journey to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, plus advice on how others can follow in her footsteps.

Q: Is voluntourism more like volunteering or tourism?

As a constantly wired travel writer, I hear the terms 'voluntourism' and 'volunteer vacation' everywhere these days. But after two weeks volunteering in Haiti in January with a Boston-based NGO called All Hands Volunteers, I can say that my volunteer experience was more about sweat and hard work than a vacation or traditional tourism.

Q: Was there time for fun?

Did I drink beers at night in Haitian street bars with some amazing people? Yes. Did I lounge on a beach on my Sundays off and eat lobster plucked straight from the blue Caribbean Sea? Yes. I also slung buckets of concrete for seven hours a day, lived in a tent and bathed with a bucket of cold water behind a blue plastic tarp for a curtain. Those days in Haiti were some of the hardest-working—and most fulfilling—of my life. And just what I signed on for. I only wished I could stick around longer to do more.

Q: What inspired you to volunteer?

Disasters, like the one still unfolding in Japan, have a tendency to linger in the conscience a long time—even for those of us not personally unaffected, and even when they happen far from home. The fact that Haiti was just a two-hour flight from where I live in Florida made the 2010 Earthquake there all the more shocking. In the months that followed, I knew I wanted to help in a way other than signing a check. I found All Hands through a Google search. Their ethos--along the lines of 'find your own way here and work your butt off and we'll cover your living expenses'—appealed to me. I bought a plane ticket to Port-au-Prince, met my taxi at the airport and made the 1.5-hour trek to the group's base in Léogâne—the epicenter of the Earthquake and a place where, like much of Haiti, rubble still towers in the streets.

Q: What are the costs for volunteering?

You pay your way there, and then food and lodging are covered.

Q: Where did you stay?

For two weeks, I lived in a tent that I'd brought along and pitched on the roof of the All Hands base (some volunteers chose to sleep on air mattresses in bunks on the base's open-air ground floor, instead).

Q: What were your work hours like?

Our work hours were from 7:30AM until 11:30AM, when we'd return to the base for a simple lunch of rice, beans and salad or spaghetti, then 1:30PM to 4:30PM. Heavy into school building (so many were destroyed during the quake), All Hands views education as a way to empower the community. And during my stay in Léogâne, my volunteer duties included helping pour a foundation for a new school as well as reading to kids in an orphanage and nailing pickets to a fence that the organization was asked to build as a memorial around a mass grave site where 2,000 bodies were buried after the quake.

Q: Would you do it again?

The experience has been hard to put into words to my friends and family. Using Facebook to stay connected with the Haitians, Americans, Europeans and other people I met in Léogâne has helped me stay bonded to the experience and updated with how things progress there. I left Haiti with a strong desire to return. There's so much to be done, and I've seen firsthand that every bit helps.

Q: I want to do something similar. How do I get started?

To learn about volunteer opportunities in Haiti and Japan with All Hands Volunteers, visit www.hands.org. Also, All Hands is just one link in a long chain. Recently, the organization announced Project Tohoku its tsunami response effort in Japan. The idea of pitching in somewhere so far away, and so tragically devastated, is already incubating in my mind. It won't be a vacation if I go. It will be something more. That much I learned in Haiti.

More resources for volunteers:

Grass Roots United is another organization in Haiti offering volunteering opportunities (you pay your way there and per diem living costs).

Volunteer Match allows you to plug in U.S. cities or your particular area of interest (ie. environment, mentoring) and see what opportunities exist for volunteering there.

Projects Abroad focuses on short-term placements for students and professionals (two weeks, usually), with volunteers in 27 developing countries around the world. Fees for participating can be quite expensive.

—Terry Ward

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