Caravan of Migrants: Volunteer’s Heart, Assumptions, and Safety

Today’s news networks continue to feature information and debates about the large caravan of migrants slowly making their way to the U.S. border from the South (primarily from Honduras). Reasons for their plight include the continued risk of life-long poverty, corruption, and gang violence in their native land. While this topic might be uncomfortable to talk about, and at first glance does not seem to be related to the subject of traveling to volunteer, I believe there are 3 nuggets of truth traveling volunteers should think about that relate to this news event.

Volunteer’s Heart

Contrary to popular belief, Americans (traveling or at home) are not the only volunteers helping their fellow earth-dwellers. Volunteer nurses and doctors in Mexico, for example, have been selflessly exhausting their time and resources to assist families and individuals facing health crisis’ due to marching towards the USA. But. Hey (you might be thinking)! I’ve travelled to volunteer in Mexico to assist Mexican communities X, Y, and Z before. How is it they have resources, time, and energy to give to others when they need help themselves? After all, we took suitcases full of clothes, medical supplies and books to support them. While there might be all sorts of reasons why there are supplies and medical personnel available, the simple answer might be because these are generous-spirited Mexicans who have a volunteer’s heart!

Noted by last week’s guest blogger Nathanael Olsen, a GREAT volunteer has passion and enthusiasm, is good at communicating and interacting with others, and very flexible in terms of getting a job done. We can say inside a GREAT volunteer beats a volunteer’s heart! Medical volunteers in PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico, possibly needing outside assistance for their own families yet readily available to medically assist with migrant’s needs, are volunteering because of their passion to serve others, ability to interact with people regardless of who they are, and the flexibility to get a humanitarian crisis job addressed. You who travel to volunteer most likely already have a volunteer’s heart and this will contribute to a powerful transformative experience for you, the community you will serve in and the one you call home.


Who has had a bad case of assumptions? All (honest) hands go up! I know I have. I’ve assumed someone was talking negatively about me behind my back, I’ve assumed I knew what parenting was like before I had children, and sigh, I assumed the Arizona Cardinals (for those who don’t know, this is Phoenix’s football team) could not possibly play any worse now than they did last season. Well, I’ve used too much energy assuming and quite frankly have been very wrong multiple times. The problem with assumptions is you make generalisations about things or people that may not true because they are not based on actual facts. Referring back to the example of migrants from Honduras making their way to the USA. I can assume I understand why people would risk their lives to trek 1000 miles to a border that may not receive. I can assume I understand what a community is like because I researched them prior to traveling to volunteer. But us traveling volunteers cannot assume anymore. We must remember the danger of assumptions are closely related to a form of stereotyping – forming an “us” vs. “them” situation – which does not breath room for relationship-building and the pursuit of fact-finding to create an overall positive sense of wellbeing and social health.


Prior to going on any traveling to volunteer experience, there are safety considerations to mull over. Is it an area known for pickpocketing? Malaria? Venomous snakes that slither in the night? Do I have to think about “Plan B” if my volunteering experience becomes unsafe? Who will I turn to if representatives of my volunteer sending organisation is halfway across the world? This news story series got me thinking about are the scores of traveling volunteers who go to countries, such as Honduras, where many citizens of these countries want to leave because of safety concerns or violence. However, if these areas are so violent, why are volunteers traveling to neighbourhoods and border towns that might put them in harm’s way? Of course most wise (you would hope!) volunteer sending organisations will not be creating itineraries in areas deemed unsafe. As an alternative, maybe we should be thinking about the communities and countries that are facing difficult situations and consider another way to support these people groups without physically traveling there. Something to think about.

Be a GREAT volunteer! by Nathanael Olsen

While I have not personally travelled to volunteer, I have held many local volunteer positions in my life – from watering birds-of-prey to volunteering at various retail-like stores. Some seemed fascinating to do for fun because they were very unique volunteering opportunities, while others were strategic for the purposes of volunteering for an organisation in hopes to eventually get a paid job. Whatever the case may be, simply put, in order to be a great volunteer there are several characteristics a volunteer should have before they consider volunteering at home or abroad.

You have to have a high level of passion and enthusiasm for what you hope to accomplish as a volunteer. A person may take the time to volunteer at a zoo, for example, but may not necessarily engage with the animals or with visitors who want to have an incredible time. If the person shows up consistently, but once there tends to be more interested in looking at their phone, they may make the case they have been a reliable unpaid worker, however their passion is lacking which may not necessarily make them a great volunteer. Volunteers should also be good at communicating and interacting with other people and flexible in terms of shifts or what you are willing to do even if it is not something you may normally feel comfortable doing at the time.

I believe there are a lot of similarities between my volunteering experiences and volunteers who travel to volunteer outside their local community. Although I have not been to an exotic location to volunteer my time, I think all volunteers regardless of location should be able to effectively communicate with others and be flexible in terms of job requirements in-country as noted earlier. Being a flexible team player, for example, will probably encourage other community members and volunteers to do the same. At the end of it all, I think the biggest difference between being an average and great volunteer comes from the level of passion you have towards the organisation and the community cause. Volunteering, regardless of location, most likely will not only benefit the community and the organisation but yourself because of the efforts you took to gain knowledge through the volunteering experience and the satisfaction you’ll receive by taking the time out of your day (or weeks of vacation!) to help an organisation make a difference in the community.

Editor’s note: Nathanael has given back to the community through his volunteering efforts with: Samaritan’s Purse-Operation Christmas Child, Wild At Heart (Raptors Rescue), Musical Instrument Museum, Mayo Clinic Hospital, and numerous other non-profits in the Phoenix area. We thank him for his time and his selfless contributions to our society.

Help Wanted: Skilled Traveling Volunteers

Recently I had a conversation with an individual who did not understand what they could offer when considering a potential traveling volunteer opportunity. Was a great attitude enough? A “do whatever it takes” attitude that guides program organisers and volunteers through to the end of a short community project experience? Or should a pre-traveling volunteer think about the skills they have and look for an opportunity to use them? All great questions! However, when all is said and done, I believe traveling volunteers should be matched with traveling volunteer opportunities to feature skills they excel in. Here’s three primary reasons why…

Satisfied Volunteers. Traveling volunteers who bring their home-based skills to a community project (that needs them) tend to be more satisfied with the volunteering experience than those who are not skill-matched to a skills-needed project. Although there may be some discomfort associated with working in a foreign situation, a skills-matched project will likely produce a highly satisfied traveling volunteer. This is because the volunteer assisted a community project that needed their skills. Let’s look at a volunteer with painting skills for example. A skilled volunteer painter has the natural experience of being a painter regardless of what context they are in. This is different from that of an traveling volunteer who has never painted before and is expected to produce a stellar product for a foreign community project. Frustration and dissatisfaction with the volunteering experience for the inexperienced painters may occur because they may realise their contribution to the community was less than ideal.

Greater Impact. Highly skilled traveling volunteers, as noted above, tend to produce a stellar product in a community that needs a boost from a skill set under-available in their community. For example, the need for skilled medical volunteers. Many global South communities do not have enough trained medical personnel to manage preventative programs, conduct needed surgeries or to assist with community dental needs. Traveling medical and dental volunteer teams can leave a solid impact in a community that desperately needs health and wellness care.

Sustainable Program Development. Yes, the “S” word! So overused and so misunderstood. Sustainable (development) is much more than a”green thinking” type of development… it is, according to popular definition featured in the 1987 Brundtland Report, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 45). When traveling volunteers offer their skills to a community, they are not only impacting the current generation of community members, but future generations as well.

Understanding that we all have talents and skills, it is of utmost importance that traveling volunteers explore volunteering opportunities that best match their skills. Not only will they likely be more satisfied with the experience, but will also produce a sustainable impact for current and future community members. After all, isn’t this why people want to volunteer nationally or internationally? To be satisfied knowing the impact of the traveling volunteer’s project is sustainable. Something to think about!

Volunteer, tourist? Does the label really matter?

There is a debate in academia and within general public spaces about what volunteer tourism means. Is it a person who travels to volunteer outside their home community, or is it a traveler with a passion for volunteering?

According to a popular definition penned by Wearing (2001), volunteer tourism is “those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organised way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (p. 1). With respect to the word voluntourism, it may be understood to mean “the conscious, seemingly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – in that destination” (Alexander & Bakir, 2011). Simply said, there appears to be two components of volunteer tourism/voluntourism: the tourist/traveler, and the act of volunteering.

Many people who travel to volunteer feel offended to be called a volunteer tourist. To them, this label does not adequately describe their motivations to travel to volunteer of their time, energy and often large sums of money to make a difference in a far-from-home community. Others are not so bother by the label as their primary motivation is to travel and see other communities in the world by volunteering a few days in the midst of a vacation.

But one thing should be made clear. The community in which the traveling volunteers spend hours or possibly months in are made up of people just like you. They probably do not care what the visiting volunteers are called. What does matter are the attitudes traveling volunteers bring to the community, long term impacts of the project, and particularly the connections made between themselves and the traveling volunteer. Ultimately it is through the interactions between the traveling volunteer and individual community members that life transformations are made, creating a rippling effect long after the volunteer goes home.

Alexander, Z., & Bakir, A. (2011). Understanding voluntourism: A Glaserian grounded theory study. In A.M. Benson (Ed.), Volunteer Tourism: Theory Framework to Practical Applications (9–29). Abingdon: Routledge.

Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. New York: Cabi.