A Guide to Overseas Volunteering 

Local organizations do everything from providing health programs in Tanzania to building schools in Ecuador.

Before contacting an international volunteer organization, it's a good idea to first do some homework to see what you could be getting into. Most, if not all, agencies have well-maintained Web sites brimming with useful information that can help you get a feel for the specific goals, guidelines, and requirements of the program before you apply. Surf the Web before you call, fax, or write, and you'll be better prepared to ask questions.

When you find an agency's Web site, look for the following: a general overview or mission statement that lays out the specific reason for going overseas and the program's goals; a listing of both current and past programs (it's helpful to know what the organization has done previously, and how much experience it has working abroad); detailed contact information (including phone, fax, e-mail, and mailing address); and a page or two with background information on the group's sponsor or parent organization. Photos and/or diaries of past campaigns also can give you some idea of what you'll actually be doing, if and when you are accepted into a program.

There is much variation among the Bay Area's numerous volunteer organizations. Some have one main mission they apply to different countries around the world, such as Peace Brigades International, which offers "unarmed protective accompaniment to individuals, organizations, and communities threatened with political violence and human-rights violations." Past PBI field programs have visited the Balkans, Haiti, and Sri Lanka; current projects include Colombia, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Mexico.

Other agencies are more wide-ranging, such as Global Routes, whose Web site sings the praises of "experiential learning" through foreign exchange, college-level internships, and volunteer teaching positions ranging from teaching English in Asia to building schools in Ecuador to volunteer work in Thailand. In contrast, the Global Service Corps, part of San Francisco's Earth Island Institute, is somewhat more narrowly defined. It offers health and education-oriented service-learning programs in Thailand and Tanzania which require a commitment of anywhere from two weeks to a year. Another Bay Area-based group, the Middle East Children's Alliance, specializes in human-rights programs aimed at protecting the rights of children in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. The Venceremos Brigade, on the other hand, is an educational work program that concentrates all its attention on the tiny island of Cuba, where it has sent more than eight thousand US students since 1969. If none of these organizations or the others mentioned on this page float your boat, you can always try the Peace Corps, which has programs in just about every nook and cranny of the world (1-800-424-8580, PeaceCorps.gov).

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