Volunteer Abroad: Lessons from Panamà

Hi there,

Happy Hump Day!

If you’re anything like me, you might want to volunteer abroad for a number of reasons; maybe you enjoy working with people or you’re passionate about providing care, education, and resources. However, doing these effectively requires some deliberation.

It’s not enough to go into a community, hand people clothes, food and water and leave. It never will be. That’s not to say these things shouldn’t be done, in fact, they are often essential, but the effects are often fleeting.

Depending on what kind of service you choose to deliver as a volunteer abroad, you may end up working counterproductively without knowing it. So how do you help that? Ask yourself questions. These questions apply whether you’re trying to start your own volunteer project abroad or choose an organization to work with.

1. What is the project’s goal? It should be ethical, measurable and relevant to the community.

2. Does it have the potential for positive long-term effects? If the answer here is no, back to the drawing board. 

3. Are you doing more harm than good? Harm, in this case, is not only physical. How are you affecting emotions, culture, and values? 

In March, I volunteered in Panamá with an amazing group of current and future health professionals for one week. Yes, only one week.

Processed with VSCO with acg presetProcessed with VSCO with acg presetProcessed with VSCO with m5 preset

With permission from the community leaders, we conducted surveys and held a 3-day clinic to provide preventive and curative healthcare to as many people as possible. The community members were open, receptive, and willing to work with us on the project.

Processed with VSCO with s3 preset
The community clinic

Would I have liked it to be longer? Yes, but school obligations would not allow this. However, despite its brevity, the trip will have lasting implications thanks to collaborations with local health professionals that will ensure a continuation of the project.

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset
We collaborated with some nurses-in-training

In this case, the trip was 1 week, but it could be 4, 8, or 12. The benefit of longer trips is the opportunity to live with people and develop a deep understanding and appreciation of another way of life.

So whether you decide to embark on a short or long-term volunteer journey, these are some tips to make your efforts worthwhile.

Learn the language – By this I mean, learn the basics. Unless you have Wagner Moura’s dedication, then, by all means, learn the entire language. [If you catch this reference,  comment “Sí”]. Learning greetings and other simple phrases go a long way towards enriching your experience. In Panamá for example, non-Spanish-speaking students practiced basic words and phrases, as well as medical terms!

Google translate is your friend here. It works offline too.

VSCO Cam-1-11.jpg
Teaching First Aid

Open your mind – Drop your ethnocentric views at the airplane door and leave them there. Acknowledge that your culture and the one you’ll encounter might be different, and that’s okay. You do not want to approach or address people with a “my way of life is superior” mindset.

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset

“Ethnocentric”-evaluating other peoples and cultures according to the standards of one’s own culture.

Show respect – Work with people, not on them. Talk to + with them, not over them. Learn about, and respect cultural norms such as the way to dress, manner of greeting, and eating etiquette. Don’t waltz in like you own the place. Respect people in authority positions like community leaders, traditional leaders, teachers etc.

Research – A passion to serve people is great; but without knowledge of the most effective way to do so, your efforts will be futile. Take time to research countries and the organizations that work in them to see how needs are being addressed, what things money is going towards & how your skills can be applied.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
Kids are incredibly inquisitive

Start where you’re comfortable – While it’s best to spend a substantial amount of time in a country, you don’t have to dedicate 24 months to the Peace Corps to get the most value out of volunteer work. Start with 1-2 weeks, increase it from there (or don’t) but always make sure the effects of your work will be beneficial, do no harm, and be felt long after you’ve gone.


I’ve volunteered abroad twice so far and both times I have learned new + valuable things about myself and other people. Each time, I have come back home with a little part of me that’s different. The experiences helped me look at the world more critically, gave me lifelong friendships and opened my mind to a stream of possibilities I didn’t know existed. I do not regret a single moment.

Processed with VSCO with kk2 preset

  1. “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

Have any of you volunteered abroad? Who did you work with + what are some of your tips for effective volunteering? Leave me a comment to let me know.

As always, 

thank you for reading.

Thank you to my colleagues for the candid shots!

All other photos were shot + edited on iPhone 6s+

Same footprints, Different sands.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s