The positive feedback loop – how volunteering abroad can inspire active citizenship at home
Recently, I was at a talk in Dublin by Dr Matt Baillie Smith on ‘Thinking Differently about International Volunteering’, which considered the longer term impact of volunteering abroad, something which can often be neglected by the media. One point that resonated with me was the idea of volunteering abroad acting as a catalyst to engaging people in community work at home.
For me, interning with an NGO in Thailand presented many challenges which lead me to develop new skills, experiences and perspectives which influenced me upon returning to Ireland. Not only did it teach me new skills, but the experience showed me the potential we all have for making a difference locally by getting involved with grassroots organizations, whatever our level of expertise and experience. Having that chance to get involved with an organization whose cause I cared about and was invested in but in a capacity I had little experience in was a great learning opportunity. The satisfaction I got from working at and contributing to events I thought I would have little to contribute showed me the potential we all have to contribute as well as learn, and encouraged me to get more involved at home in roles I’d previously dismissed due to fear of not knowing enough or having enough experience. In short, the challenge of delving into projects abroad can give you the extra skills, experience and confidence to become more involved locally upon your return.
While the experiences we have abroad can enkindle a sense of global citizenship in us, it can be daunting to know where to start in order to pursue those interests and put those skills we learned while abroad to good use.
However, there are many ways for returned volunteers to get more involved back home, although sometimes it can seem difficult to know where to start. I have found that one way to begin is by first considering the area or theme you are interested in, and then looking at the different types of activities that focus on that area. For example, during my time in Thailand, we focused a lot on HIV prevention and LGBT health. This was an area I really enjoyed and was keen to get more involved with back home. In terms of types of activities, there is both a bigger picture advocacy side with social media and campaigns, and a smaller picture aspect that deals with making a lasting impact on smaller numbers, through education, counselling, workshop delivery and other services.
In terms of finding organizations that match your interests, I have found that is can be useful to consider previous organizations you’ve worked with, as well as new ones. For example, before arriving in Thailand I took training at HIV Ireland which I really enjoyed. It was then an easy decision to look for and attend more training sessions with this organization when I returned home. Similarly, having participated actively in the UCD LGBTQ+ society prior to going abroad, I was keen to become more involved in the society’s work on sexual health upon returning home. Consequently, I helped organized workshops on sexual health and HIV for our members, as well as link in with HIV Ireland to provide free condoms and sexual health booklets for our members. It was very rewarding to link in with both groups, and demonstrated to me the benefits of returning to and strengthening your work with your base organization after volunteering abroad.
Additionally, it can be good to try out new groups and organizations to get involved with. In terms of branching out to other groups, there are so many fantastic volunteer organizations in Ireland. One way to get involved is to search online for groups doing great work in the area you are interested in, and then contact one of those to see what opportunities there are for you to get involved. For me, ShoutOut is an organization I really admired in the field of LGBT health and wellbeing. Recent reports have demonstrated the increased levels of depression and poor mental health among LGBT teens in our country, which can often relate to bullying and intolerance in secondary school and in other facets of our society. The aim of ShoutOut is to deliver workshops in schools throughout the country with the aim of eliminating homophobia and transphobia at second level. Although I was nervous about delivering my first workshop, I received plenty of training from the charity and was supported through my first couple of workshops by a more experienced volunteer. Being involved with ShoutOut has been one of the best decisions I’ve made, both in terms of the satisfaction of making a small difference to a small group of people (which collectively adds up to something much bigger) and the social aspect of meeting other like minded people.
There are many other organizations in Ireland that do great work with the LGBTQ+ community such as the LGBT switchboard, Belongto (www.http://belongto.org/) and the GMHS. Similarly, whatever area of the sustainable development goals or volunteering you are interested in, there is usually something for everyone and the skills and experiences you gained from volunteering abroad can be put to great use, while you can gain even more ideas and perspectives on global citizenship at home and abroad.
If you are still unconvinced of the merits of putting your new skills and experiences to good use in your community, there are national awards that can give you that extra incentive to get involved. Foremost among these is the Global Citizen Award. This award recognizes the way returned volunteers can become active citizens in their local communities. The requirement for forty hours volunteering for the gold award is a great way to get people involved with organizations back home, and demonstrate your commitment to the motto of think global, act local. Further to this, the Gaisce Award also offers you the challenge of volunteering, as well as taking up a new skill and showing commitment to a sport. Whatever your motives, the benefits you’ll get from delving into a new project at home are plentiful, and you are bound to gain new perspectives as well as learn new skills in a fun and engaging environment.
In sum, the challenges and rewards of volunteering abroad are useful not only in offering new skills and experiences, but also in catalyzing a sense of active citizenship. This can be practiced at home through involvement with organizations that deal with similar themes and causes, while you continue to draw from add to your pool of experiences to the benefit of your community.
Name: Cormac Everard
Award: Gold Award