16 Life-Changing Volunteer Abroad Programs

    Article by Jana Jansen van Vuuren

    Jana Jansen van Vuuren

    Posted: March 2, 2022

    What are you looking for in a vacation? To get away and recharge? Or are you searching for inspiration? Volunteer abroad programs offer both in abundance. 

    Trips that make the biggest impact in our lives are those that allow us to become immersed in another culture and be part of meaningful work. 

    With GVI, cultural immersion is a key part of our volunteer abroad programs – making our travel opportunities a great way to broaden your perspective and worldview. These experiences are truly transformative, can add to your understanding of the world, and even change the course of your future.

    It’s no coincidence that many of our volunteers describe their time abroad as life-changing, why many choose to join another program, and some even choose to work with us. 

    As a participant, you’ll get to connect with people around the world and make an impact that will last into the future. 

    So, if you’re looking to make the year ahead unlike any other, this list of 16 of the most meaningful volunteer abroad programs is a great place to start planning.



    Volunteer programs with animals

    The opportunity to contribute towards the conservation of wildlife while travelling abroad can introduce you to a world of creatures you may never have seen before, and give you a new appreciation for animals great and small. 

    1) Assist in reintegrating Thai elephants into their natural habitat



    What exactly is it about elephants that hold us in awe? Is it because they’re so nimble despite their substantial size? Is it the sensitivity they show when interacting with each other? Maybe it’s the sense of intelligence that seems to twinkle in their eyes?

    Working with elephants can be of great benefit to volunteers, elephants, and local communities. Thai society has long considered elephants a symbol of strength and prestige, with their keepers traditionally held in high esteem. 

    For over a decade, GVI has been operating in Huay Pakoot village near Chiang Mai. On this volunteer program elephants relieved from the tourism industry are reintegrated back into their natural habitat in the hills of Chiang Mai. As a volunteer on this program, you’ll help track the elephant’s progress.

    While ethical interaction with elephants is a highlight of this program, many volunteer testimonials say being part of the local village life was an insightful experience. 

    2) Get involved in dolphin and whale conservation in the Canary Islands



    Watching dolphins dip in and out of the ocean, or whales blowing water from their blowholes might take you to your happy place. But, these cetaceans (marine mammals) don’t live carefree lives, and they could benefit from additional marine conservation efforts.

    By taking part in ocean surveys, and assisting with beach cleanups and marine conservation awareness activities, you can play a meaningful role in protecting marine life around the Canary Islands. And when you travel to Tenerife Island – one of eight islands belonging to the archipelago – you can do just that. 

    Working alongside experts in the field, as well as local and international marine conservation organisations, this volunteer vacation can be life-changing in more ways than one. 

    Not only will you have the opportunity to explore the coast of a volcanic island, you’ll also gain valuable skills and experience that can kickstart your journey towards becoming a marine biologist. 

    Further reading: Volunteer in Spain’s Canary Islands: travel to Tenerife.

    Wildlife volunteer programs

    Getting involved in volunteer work with animals offers the perfect mix of excitement, ethical interaction, and the chance to view a variety of species. 

    3) Safeguard a jaguar stronghold in Costa Rica



    The elusive jaguar has captured the imagination of civilizations throughout the ages. Sadly, the demand for their pelts has led to their population being hunted to near extinction. 

    The jaguars’ need for large roaming territories meant that as farmland expanded into their habitat, they began to prey on the livestock of farmers. This created a tense relationship between jaguars and farmers, and resulted in them being hunted even more. 

    Costa Rica, a country known for its progressive conservation efforts, has become a refuge for the jaguar population. GVI works with various organisations in Tortuguero National Park, in an effort to protect jaguars, and has done so for more than a decade. 

    As a volunteer on this project, you’ll collect data on jaguar numbers and movements – in an effort to determine what makes the population successful, and how these conservation efforts can be maintained and replicated in other locations. 

    Your days will involve walking along a protected beach area (incidentally the only habitat where sea turtles and jaguars are known to interact) looking for signs of jaguar activity, as well as setting up and monitoring camera traps throughout the park. 

    4) Contribute to cheetah conservation efforts in South Africa



    Conservation researchers have warned that the world may be underestimating the challenges faced by cheetah populations. As the world’s fastest land animal, there’s so much more we can learn about this spotted wild cat and its importance in the ecosystem it’s part of.

    GVI staff and volunteers in Karongwe Private Game Reserve, close to South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, work on a range of conservation projects that add to the well-being of the global cheetah population. One of these projects involves collecting data on the feeding habits of cheetahs in the park. 

    The park is a predator-dense area, which means there’s a lot of competition for cheetahs from other, stronger and more resilient predators like lions and leopards. While their smaller size and leaner muscles make them well-suited for speed, cheetahs aren’t the strongest of the hunters in the savannah. Lions, leopards, hyenas and other large predators can easily overpower cheetahs – eating their food or encroaching on their territory.

    Understanding how cheetahs survive in this type of environment allows researchers to advise other parks looking to grow their cheetah populations. Volunteers on this program have the opportunity to play a role in safeguarding Southern Africa’s cheetahs and their habitat.

    Further reading: How to start a career in wildlife conservation.

    5) Assist baby sea turtles on their first journey into the sea in Greece



    Endangered wildlife might not immediately spring to mind when someone mentions a Mediterranean beach. But part of the Mediterranean shoreline is in fact key to the survival of endangered sea turtles. 

    Most of these streamlined swimmers take over 20 years to reach maturity and when they do, mothers travel to their preferred beach spots to lay their eggs. 

    At these nesting grounds on the beach, turtle eggs are at risk of being discovered by land predators and mother turtles are exposed to poachers – who sell their meat, skin and shells. Once hatched, baby sea turtles don’t have it any easier, since they’re the target of predators like seagulls and sharks. Adult sea turtles are also at risk of accidentally getting trapped in large fishing nets. 

    During this volunteer program, you’ll live at our base in Giannitsochori, in the Peloponnese region of Greece. In the evenings, you’ll walk the shore to measure and tag mother sea turtles during nesting. In the mornings, you’ll look for nests dug overnight and put structures in place to safeguard them from flooding and predators. 

    While volunteers on this project are usually most excited about guiding hatchlings down to the water, many people also find being in the presence of mother sea turtles a deeply meaningful experience.

    Environmental volunteer programs

    One way to learn more about the country you’re visiting is to immerse yourself in its natural settings – and then make a positive contribution in these spaces. Here are some projects that can help you make this a reality. 

    6) Work to preserve Thailand’s coastline



    Continuing with the theme of coastal conservation, let’s talk about our team’s work in Thailand’s Phang Nga province. GVI staff and volunteers work to conserve the flora and fauna of this Asian ecosystem from the impacts of the country’s fast-growing tourism and fishing sectors. 

    The overdevelopment of beaches disrupts wind patterns along the shore, which affects the distribution of sand, resulting in the gradual erosion of beaches and coastal mangrove forests. 

    Another challenge in the area is the discarded fishing gear that floats around the ocean as marine animals can become entangled in objects like fishing nets.

    In Phang Nga, our conservation activities look at addressing some of the biggest challenges facing the wildlife in the area. To increase turtle populations, new hatchlings are raised in nurseries until they are strong enough to be released into the ocean. 

    As a participant on a volunteer expedition to Phang Nga, you’ll work at a turtle nursery and assist local community members in setting up initiatives that minimise the negative impact that human activities have on the environment. 

    7) Assist with conservation of an island ecosystem in the Seychelles



    Islands are home to many species found nowhere else in the world – such as the coco de mer palm and the black parrot of the islands in the Seychelles archipelago. 

    These species rely on the natural resources available on the island for survival, and as a result, are more vulnerable to threats from invasive alien species. These plants and animals are an important source of genetic biodiversity. Island settings provide secluded environments where birds and marine life can rest, nest, and nurse their young. 

    On a volunteer program in the Seychelles, you’ll assist with maintaining important island ecosystems on Curieuse Island. The entire island and its surrounding waters are a protected national park. As a volunteer with GVI, you’ll be part of the only research team on Curieuse Island. Habitat restoration, as well as coco de mer, mangrove and giant Aldabra tortoise research, are included in the programs. 

    Between October and February, you’ll also get to collect data during the annual sicklefin lemon shark and sea turtle nursing seasons. While you can expect to be blown away by the beauty of this island, you may be most surprised to learn about its ecological significance.

    8) Safeguard the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System in Mexico



    Ever heard of coral bleaching? Coral bleaching is caused by rising global atmospheric temperatures, where hotspots of ocean water fatally overheat coral reefs. These events are the topic of Netflix’s popular film, Chasing Coral

    Corals function as nursing grounds for fish, which means they are key to maintaining healthy fish populations. They also protect the coast from the effects of tropical storms. 

    Projects focused on plastic pollution, invasive species and unsustainable fishing methods all add to the well-being of corals by reducing the impact that these factors have on oceans. 

    You can be part of history by working to monitor the effects of coral bleaching on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System in Mexico. These colourful stretches of coral in the Caribbean Sea make up the world’s second-largest reef after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. 

    As a marine conservation volunteer on this program, you’ll be stationed at our base in Puerto Morelos on the coastline of Mexico. Your everyday work will include gathering data about the health of the reef, and removing plastic littering the coastal waters.

    Further reading: Five coral reef facts to know before volunteering in marine conservation.

    Volunteer community development programs

    Community development involves a variety of projects aimed at adding to the health and well-being, education, and equality of people around the world. In some countries, the need for better infrastructure tops the list. 

    9) Keep building on Nepal’s recovery from the 2015 earthquake



    Although it has been years since a devastating earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, rebuilding efforts are still in progress. Many families lost their homes, children lost their places of learning, and sites of cultural and spiritual significance were completely destroyed. You can assist with rebuilding and repairing homes and schools in the city of Pokhara

    You’ll also learn about Nepalese Hinduism in a unique way, by repairing local temples. In this way, you’ll be able to play a role in Nepal’s history within a short space of time.

    Further Reading: The Top 6 Reasons To Volunteer in Nepal

    10) Add to the foundations of community development in Fiji

    Fiji’s Dawasamu island is the perfect setting for you to see how development challenges present in an island nation.

    The waters surrounding the island make it a marine biodiversity hotspot and a sanctuary for sea lovers from across the world. But, they also make sourcing materials and putting up structures a trying task for the island’s community.

    Island resources are much more limited when compared to mainland locations because there’s less space to grow, mine or produce everything that’s needed. And, because they’re encircled by the sea, island nations are the most vulnerable to adverse weather conditions that whip up ocean storms, as well as the rising sea levels resulting from global warming.

    On a volunteer program in Fiji, you’ll work alongside community members to set up greenhouses and water infrastructure. 

    Volunteer programs in Asia

    With its myriad cultural influences, and vast opportunities to take part in sustainable development, Asia is a continent where participants can experience a variety of volunteer programs. 

    11) Assist with teaching novice Buddhist monks in Laos


    What are you looking for in a volunteer abroad program? Sweeping mountain vistas peppered with palm trees? An opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture different to your own? Proximity to serene natural spaces? If that sounds like a fit, then a volunteer program in Laos is the perfect choice. 

    Since 2009, GVI has been partnering with temple schools in Luang Prabang. Volunteers assist local teachers in delivering English, mathematics and computer skills classes for young novice monks. 

    Some of the monks don’t commit to a full monastic life once they come of age, but rather join the country’s growing tourism sector. By joining this program, you’ll be supporting their future employment opportunities.

    12) Promote gender equality in Cambodia



    There are many groups, both governmental and private, working towards gender equality in Cambodia. GVI participants play a role in supporting these organisations: to achieve their goals and amplify their impact. 

    Our volunteer projects aim to provide women with better access to education, alternative incomes, employment opportunities and public health. 

    One of the biggest challenges affecting gender equality worldwide is the lack of women’s access to opportunities and involvement in society when compared to men. 

    Participate in the global empowerment of women by working with Cambodia’s local communities and organisations in the city of Siem Reap. And as you do so, make the most of every opportunity to learn about local communities such as the Khmer people.

    Further reading: Nine of the best things to do in Cambodia 

    Volunteer vacations in Africa

    Experience the diversity of the African continent first-hand in projects focused on what matters most in different African communities.

    13) Coach sports in Cape Town



    In South Africa, as in many other countries around the world, teachers and parents in underserved communities are under a lot of pressure. Educators are faced with overcrowded classrooms and insufficient resources, while parents often work long hours to support their households. 

    You can contribute to one of these communities in Cape Town by assisting with sports lessons both during and after school hours. Inspire a lifelong interest in sports, promote the value of exercise, and provide students with much-needed social engagement and encouragement.

    Further reading: What are the different types of volunteer opportunities?

    14) Support Ghanaian women through self-empowerment programs



    Women in Ghana have been gaining more economic, social and political power, especially in the past few years. But, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that this trend continues. 

    According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one of the main catalysts for change is education. On GVI’s women’s empowerment program near Accra, you’ll be part of the movement towards quality education for all.

    Get involved in organising and presenting workshops on professional development, alternative income, preventive healthcare, and English language. While interacting with the women in the local community you’ll pick up on their languages and beliefs, and learn about a culture different to your own.

    Volunteer abroad programs in Latin America

    Go from low-lying seascapes to high-altitude mountain communities when you volunteer in Latin America, while contributing to UN SDG 4: Quality Education and UN SDG 5: Gender Equality

    15) Assist with children’s access to education in Peru



    In any country, an unequal distribution of school resources means that many children from underserved communities don’t receive equal educational opportunities. 

    In the Peruvian town of Oxapampa, you can join community partners and assist with education work in the area. As with all GVI programs, initiatives in Peru are set according to areas the community has identified as needing support. 

    You could get involved in supporting local educators in the classroom with English lessons or assist with facilitating skills development sessions for local entrepreneurs

    Further reading: Eight of the best festivals and celebrations in Peru.

    16) Join a women’s empowerment program in Costa Rica


    Women make up almost half of the global population. Yet, according to the UN, women account for only 23,7% of national party members worldwide and make up only 13% of agricultural landholders. These stats go to show that there’s lots to be done to boost gender equality globally. 

    Access to programs like GVI’s women’s empowerment program can contribute to the UN SDG 5: Gender Equality. By joining our program in Costa Rica, you’ll work with women in the town of Cimarrones where you can assist with running community development workshops, leadership training, or activities that solve issues identified in previous workshops. 

    Don’t be surprised if you start living the pura vida way (which means “pure life” in Spanish): focusing on taking things as they come, enjoying life’s simple pleasures, and making the contentment of yourself, your family and the community you’re volunteering in, a priority. 

    No matter where you decide to travel to, or which program you choose to take part in, GVI’s volunteering programs offer some of the best opportunities for meaningful life experiences. 

    Choose a GVI volunteer program that speaks to your passions, goals, and travel aspirations – and be prepared for one of the most meaningful experiences of your life.

    We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19. 

    Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.