7 reasons to host volunteers

The internet seems to be full of it: how to travel on a budget, stories of people who left their job to go travelling, or why work exchange is the best way to travel. I thought I’d shed a light on the other side of it: why hosting volunteers to get things done?

1. It’s cheaper than paying somebody to do the work

This is why we got into it in the first place: we had so much work to do, so little time, and such a small budget. When we first put up our profile on Workaway, it almost sounded like a joke: who would want to come and camp in the middle of nowhere, and help us do hard work for no pay? Turns out… quite a few people.

However – in a way, our volunteers do get paid, just not with money. We provide them with accommodation and 3 meals a day, we take them with us to ferias and social gatherings, we drive them to rivers and hiking trails sometimes, and (what many volunteers find most interesting of all) we take them along in our adventure – they get to witness what it is to migrate to Spain, start a permaculture project and live off the grid. Most volunteers leave our place with newly acquired skills: from drywalling to tiling, from pruning almond trees to preserving olives, from building a chicken coop to making a solar shower.

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Jabba & Jinx are helping Marcella & Eric to build a terrace wall

2. It’s a way to travel without ever leaving your home

In the 10 months we’ve been doing this, we’ve hosted people from around the world: from New-Zealand to Canada, from Scandinavia to Malaysia. No African volunteers so far though; feel free to apply if you’re reading this 🙂

Most of our volunteers tell us all about where they’re from; they can paint a picture of daily life in upstate New York, Singapore or Dominican Republic – sometimes to the point that we really want to go there (see 7). Often, they’ve already been travelling for a while; we enjoyed hearing all about the adventures of our favourite Malaysian girl in a yak farm in Mongolia, our Scottish Whovian in Madrid, or how a German girl met her big love at a summer camp in Canada…

3. It’s a bit like an anthropological study

Most of our volunteers seem to be quite interested in the world – we can have lengthy conversations about educational systems, politics, ethical challenges, healthy food,… We notice how certain of our ideas and assumptions are very eurocentric – sometimes we’re baffled over other people’s everyday habits. What’s polite in one country is just weird for some; what one considers funny, is just plain rude for others. Communication is key; when asked about an unusual habit, people will gladly tell them wether it’s something they learned from their mother, something everything does in their homeland or they just do weird stuff sometimes. So far, all of our guests have proved very willing to adapt to the rules and habits of the house though.

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Yuan Ni’s memorable Malaysian meal

4. It’s a great way to learn something (like a language)

Until recently, we had 2 native Spanish speakers staying here – although we’d speak English with them most of the time, we did ask them for help with Spanish grammar, learned a few new expressions (that’s de puta madre!) and generally benefitted from hearing them speak Spanish all day long.

We’ve had a few volunteers whose previous volunteering experiences included teaching children a language (and babysitting them at the same time) – some volunteering websites are basically unofficial au pair sites. One couple told us about a host where their only task was to speak English; the family would cook for them, clean their rooms and show them around the city – all they had to do, was have conversations in English with them.

We read many profiles of volunteers who are looking for a new host; many of them list teaching language as one of their skills – one guy even offered to teach us ancient Japanese writing. There are many other things to learn from our volunteers: from cooking skills and traditional recipes (we often ask our volunteers to cook us their favourite meal) to basic woodworking – most volunteers don’t only put a stamp on our finca, they also leave their mark on our skillset.

5. It’s all on your own terms

As a host, you get to set the rules of engagement: you decide what kind of work needs to be done, the working hours (some volunteering websites set limits), what kind of accommodation and food your volunteers will get, how much interaction there could be with them. The basic information goes into your profile page and from then on, it’s a matter of wait and see if people would like to do what you’re asking them to do, in the conditions you’re offering.

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Sarah and Ciaran building our mobile chicken coop

It’s good to have somebody to help you out with what needs to be done, so you can focus on what’s important now

This is our main reason for hosting volunteers: we’re in the middle of finishing our house, setting up a bed & breakfast, starting a permaculture farm and have several projects we’d like to tackle in the next few months. There are tons of smaller tasks that take up a lot of time: grouting after the tiling (= filling up the joints between the tiles with special product) – mulching, watering and weeding after I have planted vegetables and fruit trees – or collect stones so Axel can build a wall with them. While we were preparing for a big party here, one volunteer took it upon herself to keep the household running: she would cook and clean while we were showing our guests around, running errants or set up the party site. Needless to say, she was a lifesaver.

It’s useful to prepare your own travels

That we decided to settle in Spain for now and have resigned ourselves to care for our farm instead of going on holiday, doesn’t mean we’re not planning to travel again, ever; we recently realised that if we decided to pack our suitcases again, there are so many places we’d like to go to already, and so many people we could visit on the way. Many volunteers have offered to show us around their home town, the baseball stadion they’ve been working at or the national park they’ve hiked in so many times. So many destinations, so little time…

Conclusion…

Interested? Check out www.workaway.info or www.helpx.net.

Of course there are downsides as well – you do get a total stranger to come and stay with you. Communication is important; the best advice we ever got was to sit down on the first night and talk about rules and expectations. What can they eat / drink / use any time, and what items need to be cleared with you first? What are the working hours and tasks? If you have children or pets, it’s also a good idea to discuss what they’re allowed (or not allowed) to do.

But most important… if you have decided to host volunteers (or you’re already doing it): enjoy. Be aware that every single one of them will leave a stamp on your life / your house / your property / your children (depending on what their task is!) – but you will also be able to touch their lives in so many ways.

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Astrid, Sigrid and Bex working in the forest garden (after it had been neglected for weeks)

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