By Erin Copeland
Traveling to another country can be one of the most breathtaking and amazing experiences in someone’s life. Being able to visit and witness a new culture first hand is an exciting event that many people try to complete at some point in their lives. Even more impactful than visiting a new country for leisure is being able to volunteer to give aid to its people. Some third world countries need this help because they are malnourished, suffering from disease, or can’t afford education. Through volunteering, these people are submerged into the communities of their travel destinations, learning more about these peoples’ ways of life than by just being a tourist.
United Planet, a non-profit organization with its headquarters in Boston, is created to give people this chance to volunteer and to gain knowledge and experience through traveling to another country. This organization is designed to help volunteers experience a new culture, and for the people of these countries to receive support from these volunteers.
United Planet is a charity that was founded seven years ago with the mission to promote cross-cultural relations. From there, it became an organization that sends about 400 volunteers each year to 15 different countries around the world to give aid to people who need it. These volunteers live with hosts of the country they visit to gain the full experience. Katherine Osgood, the Director of International Programs, said, “The best experience is living with the host family because it immerses them in the country they’re in.” Along with cohabitating with the native families, volunteers spend their time in orphanages, schools, and hospitals. The volunteers also can promote environmental conservation in their chosen country, build houses, teach English, and assist with HIV/AIDS awareness.
These volunteers can choose to partake in a short term program which is between one and 12 weeks, or they can participate a long term program from six months, to one year. Often, the volunteers who decide to become part of the long term program have already participated in the short term program and want to extend their stay in a foreign country. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 can volunteer through United Planet, and teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18 who want to volunteer without a parent or guardian’s permission can only travel to a few countries: Romania, Peru, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Anyone younger than 16 must go with a parent or guardian to volunteer.
A short term volunteer can choose to volunteer in Cambodia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Japan, Jordan, Nepal, Peru, Romania, Tanzania, Tibet, and Turkey. Osgood states that “The short term program is a great way to get a taste of what volunteering and traveling is like.” The price to volunteer for the short term program starts at $1,295 and it includes training and preparation, food and lodging in the country, airport transportation, emergency medical insurance, and on-going supervision by United Planet staff.
Aside from lengths of time, the programs differ in that another organization is involved in the long term. United Planet is a member of The International Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE) which is an organization that takes in United Planet’s volunteers from the United States and Canada and sends them to their desired country. The ICYE also has their own rules and regulations regarding age and when people can volunteer. Those who choose to participate in the long term program can choose from over thirty countries to travel to. The August 2009 and January 2010 price to go six months abroad is $5,965 and $8,965 for a year abroad. This includes everything listed in the short term fees, plus language training and in-country orientation.
Of course, traveling to a foreign country you’ve never been to can make you wonder if it’s safe to stay in. Because of this, United Planet has constant supervision and staff monitoring safety in each country to make sure nothing can happen. Also, the program could be suspended in specific countries if the staff thought it was necessary to protect the volunteers. United Planet did suspend the Tibet program for about four weeks at the beginning of last year due to the protest at the time of the Olympic Games. Therefore, no matter what country the volunteer is staying in, he or she is always protected.
United Planet is clearly an international organization, but it also has domestic programs right here in Boston. One of them is the Cultural Awareness Program (CAP) which set up opportunities for people to go into local community centers or schools and put on a presentation about their own culture or about the culture of a country they’ve been to. Many times, the volunteers who go abroad for United Planet will come back and share their experiences with a CAP. The other program is called the Ambassador Club which is set up at schools and universities in Boston. It is a club for people who want to promote cultural awareness within their school. Boston University is one of the universities that foster an Ambassador Club along with some on the west coast.
United Planet is a great organization to become involved in, whether it’s in Boston, or internationally. It is a way to reach out and help countries who need it and also learn more about the world and the cultures we aren’t familiar with. Whether participating in the short term or long term program, volunteers can still experience the feeling of being able to help stabilize someone else’s life. More attention should be drawn to United Planet and the great programs they offer.