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May 9, 2013 / the speech monster

Want to volunteer? Where to start and what to anticipate.

8639120823_cb954aae13_cSo many people have told me after hearing about my experience volunteering abroad that they’ve “thought about volunteering” at some point or other but just never got a chance to follow it up. Some people don’t know where to start. Some people think it will cost them a lot financially. Many are afraid that language barriers will impede them from making positive contributions or that their skills are lacking.

I thought I’d write this next post on where to start and what to look out for if you’re one of these people who has “thought about” volunteering at some point.

1) Pick a country or volunteer organization.

– Most places desperate for volunteers are developing countries. Will you be willing to go there? Many of these countries are also cool places to visit. For instance, Africa, India, South America, the Pacific Islands, and China.

– There are many volunteer organizations that help people find their way to these countries to help. As I’ve only been to China to volunteer, I thought I’d pass on a list of places in China that people might like to check out for volunteer opportunities:

  • Olivia’s Place – volunteer and work. Contact Joanna Ren who is the coordinator. Even though they’re based in Shanghai (and Beijing), they do sometimes pro bono (PB) stuff outside Shanghai.
  • Go to China – volunteer only. I was very keen on going with them as well, but didn’t. They seem to have trips in various parts of China.
  • Love without Boundaries – has a healing home for children with cleft lip and palate. They sometimes look for SLPs to help.
  • Operation Smile – a worldwide organization that provides free cleft lip and palate repair surgeries. They have missions to China (and other parts of the world).
  • Private orphanages/healing homes – there are tons of them all around China. People who are interested could perhaps contact them directly to see if there are volunteer opportunities. However, if you have never volunteered before, I would recommend you go with someone who has, or do it as part of a volunteer organization or mission group. I’ll explain why later.

2) Get an idea of the population you might be working with and do some pre-departure continuing ed/reading!

  • Professional Skills: Even thought volunteers are going out of their own free will, and giving up time and money to help another out, I strongly believe that we still need to provide quality service. I knew that I was going to spend most of my time at a healing home for orphans with cleft lip and palate. However, my only experience with the cleft lip and palate population was through reading textbook case studies and watching videos…almost half a decade before when I was still in grad school. I knew I had to skill myself up a little bit more, and so contacted my local Children’s Hospital speech path department and they very kindly allowed me to observe a few clinical sessions involving patients with cleft lip and palate.
  • Environmental Differences: I had also never worked with orphans or been in an orphanage. Before leaving, I read up on orphanages and blogs of people’s experiences volunteering at these places to give me an idea of the environment I would be mostly in.
  • Linguistic Differences: Although I speak Mandarin, I haven’t had much opportunity to practice it in Australia (although I do see a client who speaks Mandarin). So, I spent time listening to Mandarin songs and tried to speak a lot more in Mandarin to my toddler son and my parents when we Skyped, to get my brain more attuned to the language again.
  • Cultural Differences: As I’m ethnically Chinese, and have been around enough mainland Chinese people, there weren’t too many cultural differences that I wasn’t already aware of. However, my husband, who is American and not Chinese (and had never been to China), well and truly experienced culture shock! If you’re going to a place to volunteer, it would certainly be helpful to talk to someone native to that country about their cultural practices (especially in health and disability). It would also be useful to reflect on your own prejudices about the country/people/culture there, as you need to know how to work with the locals there. I remember reading a great book as part of my bilingual SLP program in grad school, called “The spirit catches you and you fall down” about a little Hmong girl in the US whose parents/community were very resistant to western medicine; how cultural miscommunication occurred because of preconceived stereotypes of “the other.”

ASHA might also have CE courses about multicultural differences/linguistic differences. If anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear about them and include them here.
3) Do the financial sums. Get your travel documents and accommodation ready EARLY!

  • Also, check for visa requirements. US and Australian citizens need a visa to travel to China. I’m sure other countries will have similar requirements, so make sure you check carefully.
  • Yes, volunteering can be costly. For us it was. However, there may be ways you can raise funds to “sponsor” your trip. You might also like to start saving up for volunteer trips. It is financially costly, but the intangible rewards and experience will make it all worth it. You will also get a chance to visit a new city, how exciting! I will also add that in my case, I also felt that it was my calling and a “duty” I needed to fulfill.

4) Find out of the place(s) you are going to need donations:

  • Sometimes these places could use some of your old test materials or therapy toys/games. Ask your contact if this is necessary.

5) Go with an open mind and with someone experienced

  • You are the expert in your field, but not in the place, organization, or culture. I realized very quickly that I could not do “therapy” in the way I knew. The people I could train were also limited in their education levels and abilities. You really need to be resourceful, and figure out how to best use people and resources to deliver optimum results for the child’s speech and language goals (and overall well being). For example, there were a few key people who weren’t able to be there during my stay. Therefore, we had to be creative about how we could train them, and used digital media to record language sessions. It was fun! But also not what I had envisioned.
  • Having not volunteered before, it was really useful to have my co-volunteer, Angela with me. She has gone on several volunteer trips in different homes, and immediately knew what questions to ask the organization, such as: what strategies do you already have? What do you want us to help you with? What resources do you have? Who are the people in the organization and what are their roles?

You might think that most organizations would already have these answers but they might not. Healing Homes was not used to having SLPs visiting, and therefore needed guidance to figure out how they could best use us.

6) Set realistic expectations

  • Until you are actually there, on the ground, and really understand the barriers involved, you will probably never really know what you can do for the organization/children/people. Sometimes the hurdles can seem defeating. Luckily, I had lots of experience working with families from low Socioeconomic status (SES) and have found myself time and time again having to revisit my goals and set realistic expectations. During my volunteer experience, I found myself having to do something similar because of reasons like: lack of time, resources, cultural barriers.

7) Go with the mindset of spreading LOVE

  • You might think I’m spewing hippie nonsense here. And yes, maybe there’s a bit of that,…but I’m serious. Sure, there were goals that I wished we were able to attain during my stay there. But these children just yearn for so much affection and attention that nothing beat the look on the kids’ faces when I was just spending time playing with them, cuddling them and, simply, showing them love. ^__^


Leave a Comment
  1. Tiffany / Jul 7 2013 5:31 pm

    Hello!! I am a fellow SLP and am very interested in volunteering in China as well! I stumbled upon your posts, and they have been incredibly helpful. Could I connect with you over email for more detailed questions??

    • the speech monster / Jul 9 2013 1:35 pm

      Tiffany, with pleasure! I’ll drop you an email!

    • the speech monster / Jul 11 2013 3:07 pm

      Hi Tiffany I tried emailing you to your Berkley address but somehow the email didn’t get through. You can email me at cherylyelien at gmail dot com. Looking forward to connecting with you!

  2. Karen / Jan 28 2014 3:41 pm

    Hi there,
    I will be traveling outside of the US in the Spring. I would love to chat with you more! Could I also connect with you via email?

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