This week’s blog will be a little different than the usual. Instead of me taking the lead, I let you guys ask questions about my volunteer trip abroad. In December of 2019, I went on a 1 week medical mission trip to Costa Rica. I graduated that same month and that was my graduation gift to myself. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and it made me realize how much I love volunteering and why I want to be in medicine. I could sit here and write 10 pages on my experience and why I think everyone should do an international volunteer trip at least once in their life. Instead, I’ll answer questions you guys have about my trip.
Here are answers to the top asked questions about my trip:
1. What organization did you use?
I volunteered with International Volunteer HQ. I researched different organizations for a couple of weeks, and decided that IVHQ was the one for me because it was affordable and I felt safe traveling with them. I joined their facebook group and asked questions to current and past volunteers about their experiences and how they liked it. Every person I asked said their trip was very safe, the organization was reliable and their experience was life changing. IVHQ also had the most destinations available in comparison to other organizations. Their projects aren’t all medical, this means that if you want to volunteer in a different area or let your talents shine, you can.
Aside from Medical and Health, some of their other projects include:
• Wildlife and Animal Care
• Construction and Renovation
• Environment and Conservation Arts and Music
• NGO Support
• Refugee Support
• Women’s Empowerment
• Community Development
• Elderly Care
• Special Needs Care
They have volunteer opportunities in:
• Africa (Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Victoria Falls, Zambia)
• Middle East (Jordan)
• Asia (Bali, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam)
• North America (Mexico, United States)
• Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala)
• Caribbean (Belize, Jamaica, Puerto Rico)
• South America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru)
• Europe (Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain)
• Pacific (Australia, Fiji, New Zealand)
2. How much did it cost?
Every project and destination will have a different cost. The cost depends on where you go, what project you are doing, how long you will be staying and whether you will want to do other “touristy” activities before you leave. The Costa Rica medical trip I went on was only $445 for 1 week. The rest of the cost covered flights, a background check, transportation and other small fees like lunch and snacks. The program was very independent. We were volunteering through their local organization called Maximo Nivel and aside from being dropped off at our host family’s house, we had to get around on our own.This meant taking the bus to and from work and doing anything else while we were there. In total, I spent about $1,300 for everything. The most costly were the flights because I booked them last minute and couldn’t find any deals ($600 for round trip, ouch!). I didn’t have to pay for breakfast or dinner because my host mom cooked for me and of course, I stayed at her home for free. I only had to pay for lunch and transportation. Tourism was an option, but the cost of my trip would’ve increased and I would’ve had to extend the trip to accommodate the extra activities. Considering I was there to primarily volunteer, I didn’t worry too much about the extras. I wanted to volunteer and live like a Tica for a week. I rode the bus, ate Gallo Pinto, and practiced my Spanish. Depending on how much money you have to spare, you can add different excursions and activities to your trip to mix tourism and volunteering. It’s entirely up to you!
3. Were you allowed to do “hands-on patient” work?
Yes and no. I was required to submit proof that I was a pre-pa, pre-medical or pre-dental student. I also had to submit proof that I had some sort of experience in the medical field. Not every volunteer needs to do that though. Depending on how many science classes you’ve taken and your major, you don’t have to provide proof of Certification or health care experience. Since I was just starting my pre-requisites, I submitted proof that I was a Certified Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (CEFDA) and had 2 years of experience. I worked in a nursing home and was able to shadow the nurses, doctors, nurse practitioners and physical therapists. I was also able to feed the patients, transport them, help change their clothes and participate in fun activities. Aside from patient care, I helped with laundry and cleaning. My house-buddy was in nursing school at the time and she volunteered with me at the same nursing home. She was allowed to do a little more than I was, so it really depends on your experience and how much you know. Everyone was very supportive and trusting. They let you get as much hands-on as you want, you just had to take the initiative.
4. Were translators provided?
No! Translators were not provided and we had to get by on our own. This was intimidating at first but I am so thankful for it. I practiced my Spanish the entire week and came back home speaking Spanish 10x better than before I left. A lot of my friends there had google translate open and used it to communicate. I spoke the most Spanish out of our group, so most of the time, I was translating for them. Costa Ricans are very welcoming and had no problem trying to communicate with us. Don’t be shy if you don’t speak Spanish or the language spoken in the country you volunteer at. Embrace the experience and communicate through compassion. A smile is understood universally, so is a hug, a handshake, a pat on the back. Use hand gestures and body language to communicate. If you want to practice and learn the language, they did offer Spanish classes for students who were interested. The classes were divided into different levels and ranged from $125 to $390 a week depending on whether the class was private and the size of the group. So if you are intimated by the language barrier, that is always an option. A little costly, but, an option.
5. Did you volunteer the entire time or were there other activities?
I mostly volunteered, but there were options to do a lot of other activities. Some volunteers were planning on staying for weeks or months, so they traveled during the weekend to different tourist spots. I was only there for 1 week, so I wanted to spend 95% of my time volunteering. Various activities and excursions were offered through the organization and they were affordable. Some volunteers decided to explore on their own and utilized Uber or public transportation to site-see on their own. Unless you are with a group, I wouldn’t recommend that because it’s not as safe as having a guide. I volunteered the entire week and on my last day went to La Paz Waterfalls with friends I made on the trip. It was a lot of fun and since there was a big enough group, we were able to split the fare making the excursion fairly inexpensive. If you have more than a week to spare, you can chose different volunteering and tourism options. Some volunteers will work for 1 week and travel for the other or will travel on weekends and work the full 2 weeks. It all depends on how much money you want to spend and how much time you to have to spare.
6. Did you pay for everything alone?
Almost. I had $200 in donations from family and friends to help fund my trip. The rest was paid 100% by me. If you are concerned about how you will afford the trip, try fundraising. You can use Go Fund Me or sell baked goods to raise the money. I didn’t sell any goods to fund my trip because I didn’t have the time. I was working and finishing up my Bachelor’s, so I decided to bite the bullet and gift myself the opportunity. From my personal research, IVHQ seemed to be one of the most affordable organizations to travel with. There are also church and school organizations that participate in international volunteer trips. If you don’t have the money to spare for IVHQ, you can always seek opportunities at your University and church.
7. Did you feel safe throughout the trip?
Yes. Costa Rica is a very safe country. Did you know they don’t have a military? Since I was traveling alone, safety played a big role in me picking Costa Rica as my destination. Of course, I took extra precautions because there are bad people everywhere. I did not travel with any expensive jewelry, kept my phone put away, and didn’t go anywhere alone. Like I said, we traveled around the city by ourselves and utilized public transportation because it was cheaper than Uber. Not once did I feel unsafe. I always had a friend with me and maintained full awareness of my surroundings. Unfortunately, I can only speak for Costa Rica. Check out the IVHQ Facebook page and ask around. There are volunteers in that group from all over the world and they can give you more insight on the safety of their destination.
8. Did you learn anything important that you’d like to share?
Oh, absolutely! First, I learned that I am 100% meant to be in medicine. Costa Rica was beautiful and traveling was fun, but my favorite part was being in the nursing home and working with patients. I loved spending time with the residents, getting to know them, and being hands on. When the week was over, I didn’t want to come home. I wanted to stay and work more. It really showed me how much I love what I do and how much compassion good quality health care requires. It takes more than being clinically sound to be a good physician or any provider of care. It takes patience, compassion, understanding, and love for your neighbor. This is one of the reasons I think everyone should volunteer abroad in a health care setting. You will know right then and there if you are seeking medicine because you love it or not.