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Volunteering while traveling (responsibly!)

In this post, I go over how to give back while traveling and how to volunteer responsibly, as well as what to look out for when you do choose to volunteer.

I know I have a finite amount of time on this earth and I want to spend as much time as possible creating love and serving others.

So when I went to Paris this summer I sought out an opportunity to volunteer. Back home, I’m an avid volunteer. I try to spend a couple days a month volunteering with different organizations across Portland. Some of my favorites are the Oregon Food Bank and the Columbia Slough Watershed.

When I came to Paris, I wanted to continue that habit, and honestly, I do it for very selfish reasons...

  • First, volunteering has the profound ability to help fight depression. Any time I’ve felt lost or full of anxiety, a day of volunteering has made me feel so much better. (If you’re experiencing something like this, I highly recommend trying out volunteering!)

  • Second, going to volunteer events is a great way to meet new people that usually have the same values and interests as you

  • And third, volunteering gives you a chance to think about your privilege and an opportunity to be extra grateful

  • And of course, there is no unselfish good deed, volunteering just makes you feel good about yourself!

So I sought out an organization in Paris that I could help and one where my lack of French wasn’t going to prohibit me. That’s when I found Serve the City Paris (STC).

According to the international website, “Serve the City is a global movement of volunteers showing kindness in personal ways to people in need. We partner with homeless shelters, refugee centers, orphanages, and other associations, offering help and support.”

In Paris specifically, the organization meets three times a week to distribute food to people experiencing homelessness. They work with a local cafe chain around the city to collect sandwiches, yogurt, salads, and other items from the day or so before.

I met Nikki while volunteering and she became a really good friend while we were both in Paris!

The volunteers join at a meeting point on the Seine and break into small groups depending on how many people are there that day. Every group is assigned a walking route and the teams head out for an hour or so to distribute the food to people staying along these routes.

Now let’s take a beat and talk about saviorism.

There are a lot of issues with NGOs going into communities and ‘fixing’ problems that they deem are in need of fixing. A lot of the time this happens when white people that hold power “liberate” or “rescue” BIPOC folks. Even if the nonprofit has the best intentions, there are a lot of ways that nonprofits can mess things up more for communities and leave them worse off. I highly recommend watching this video from Jingting Kang on international volunteering to get an idea of some of the harmful practices of volunteering.

In their TEDx talk, Jingting shares three things we can all learn in regards to volunteering:

  • Service is not a transaction

  • Service does not mean saving the world

  • Service requires respect

In the case of Serve the City, I was hyperaware of how this organization could potentially fall into the harmful practices of saviorism. And I’m happy to report that for the most part, I was impressed with how they functioned. Let me explain why…

Service is not a transaction:

The routes that Serve the City take are the same every time. Because of this, the volunteers get to know the people who are staying along these routes. And in the volunteer orientation for STC you’re told that you take your time when handing out food:

  • Make eye contact with folks

  • Learn their names

  • Ask them how they are

  • Ask if they are in need of anything specific

I saw this play out firsthand and there were several folks along the routes that would chat with us for several minutes before we continued on. A lot of volunteers learned what food people liked, and even how many sugars they take in their coffee.

While these conversations were a great way to practice French (and for them to practice English!), they also put the humanity back humanitarian work. I really respected the fact that we were trained like this.

And as I mentioned before, we almost always asked if the person needed something other than food. Sometimes people needed clothing, bedding, and other items. STC has a large group chat and any requests would go into the chat. During the next volunteer day, if we didn’t have the item, someone would update the person and let them know we were still working on getting it for them.

Consistency was key here, and the volunteers and the organization were showing that they could be depended on.

Service does not mean saving the world:

Something I appreciated about STC was that it was obvious that the organization didn’t think it was necessarily saving the world. But it does have a program in place to inspire young people to get into the mindset of using their work to change the world. Their SAVE Program (Service, Action, Values, and Empowerment) gives students from around the world the opportunity to come and volunteer in Paris while also working on a project they define.

I met two people working on projects that were very inspiring. One of them was a photography project by Alayna Yap which documented the stories and photos of folks experiencing houselessness in Paris. The other project was by a person named Theo and involved printing out information and resources for refugees. Theo had helpful information from the French government for underaged refugees and was directing them where to go to seek help. He handed this out during the routes and asked folks if they knew anyone underaged that they could share it with.

As you can see, the STC interns were on their own journey to use their skills to help change the world, and they don’t get wrapped up in the idea that distributing sandwiches will change the world.

Service requires respect:

As Jingting talks about in her video, a lot of the time volunteers don’t respect or take the time to understand the different cultures they serve. At STC I was honestly surprised when we made sandwiches and labeled them with the type of meat that was inside. We did this because there is a large Muslim population on the routes and they can’t eat pork because of their religious beliefs.

In addition, we always asked the people we came across what food they wanted. We usually had large bags of food and let them pick and choose which items they took. We respected both their dietary restrictions, but also just their discretion. There was no judgment if a person just wanted a cup of coffee, or didn’t want anything at all.

Finding your volunteer organization

Overall, I was impressed with the work that Serve The City Paris did, and I only participated in the food distribution. They also have language exchanges to help folks learn English, as well as other yearly campaigns, like their call to distribute 100 tents and sleeping bags this winter.

Do I think the organization is perfect? Probably not. But what is important is that when you do volunteer work you look for organizations that value the principles that Jingting talks about in her video. And that you also consider your own intentions and why you want to do the work. While volunteering can feel really good (as I mentioned at the top of this post), you should never do it for the wrong reasons. And always refrain from posting pics of who you are serving on social media!

I hope you consider taking some time to serve others and find a cause that you’re really passionate about.

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