Volunteering overlander sounds like a German word for a regiment of mountain fire fighters. Actually it is what we have become for a couple of weeks in Panama City, doing a photography project with some kids from Casa Esperanza; an experience as positive and rewarding as any that we’ve had in two years on the road. How did this all come about? Read on…
Volunteering as you travel is a well-known form of tourism, from back-packers looking for a more wholesome experience than hanging around the beach to gap-year youths and career-break thirty-somethings. And we always wanted to incorporate a humanitarian angle to our voyage around the world. It wasn’t always so easy to organize anything, though – visa time restrictions, lack of communication and lack of funds always conspired against us doing anything more constructive than hanging out with the local kids, helping out at a farm or clearing the litter from a particularly beautiful park-up. Sure, there is a lot to be said for spontaneous volunteering – though, it kind of boils down to just being nice: We ransacked the internet in search of an opportunity to do good. And we came up with the Muskoka Foundation.
The Muskoka Foundation specializes in putting together overlanders with non-governmental organizations and communities around the planet. The concept is fairly simple: Most people traveling with their own vehicle are independent – they don’t need feeding, housing or picking up at the bus terminal. Generally overlanders carry some kit around with them, e.g. computers, cameras, or they have the space to accumulate stuff like pens and paper. Also, overlanders are very intelligent with innate skills ready for the changing demands of volunteering in an unfamiliar environment. Well, I can say that overlanders have a passion for the planet and its people – the willingness to share our world and to explore everyone else’s. For all those reasons, we are a uniquely positioned group of traveler-tourists, ready to join the fight against global injustice.
Once you get in contact with the Muskoka Foundation you will soon find yourself communicating with one of their regional coordinators on Skype. I wouldn’t say the conversation was an interview, as such; more a way of getting to know each other, to establish your overland route and timetable and an opportunity for Muskoka to understand your volunteering ambitions. Alternatively you could come at that with an idea: Muskoka are linked with many organizations around the world already but they are on the lookout for more – if you come across an organization that looks like it could benefit from volunteering overlanders passing by then Muskoka would be very interested in learning more about them. But they are more than just a volunteering dating agency, however, and even though the Muskoka staff are overlanders themselves they are virtually with you all the way.
Soon after expressing interest to volunteer and confirmation that we’d soon be available in Panama City, we were put in contact with their partner, Casa Esperanza, an organization that campaigns against, and mitigates the effects of, child labor. We were due to start a photography project – 10 hours of tuition with a small group of kids over the course of two weeks – with an extension into website building skills for the more able of them. As an established partner, Muskoka Foundation had already sent a bunch of brand new digital cameras to Casa Esperanza, and we were going to be the first volunteers to use them. This is the strength of Muskoka – every step of the way they had the assets to insure the project would be successful and for the few weeks before we began, we looked at all the example workshop presentations and lesson plans that they had and began to get our heads around the task ahead.
If you’re overlanding around the world, then, and want to contribute to the social development of the communities that you’re visiting, you would do well to contact the Muskoka Foundation. They are not a large organization but they are ambitious – they are maybe more open to ideas and suggestions that a more established volunteering organization might be. There is no signing on fee; there is no daily charge while you’re working and there is no obligation to commit yourself for weeks and weeks. The Muskoka Foundation was an idea born on the road by people just like you; living in a truck and wondering how they could do good wherever they go.