December 12, 2019

Volunteering Abroad – Is This On Your Must Do List?

I’d never worked so hard on a vacation before, but neither had I ever come home feeling so energized and inspired. In April I went to Nicaragua with a group of folks volunteering with Austin Samaritans.  You could call it a mission trip, but it was really about being of service to others.  I don’t consider myself a missionary; I just wanted to help out and learn about a new country.

The trip lasted a week and our days were an interesting mix of activities; playing with school kids who live in the local dump, teaching English, working at a safe place for women escaping prostitution, painting little casitas Pepto-Bismol pink, touring a feeding center for malnourished kids and visiting a woman’s cancer ward, to mention a few things.

The day at the dump, which is called, “La Chureca,” was surreal. Our vehicle followed trucks carrying in loads of garbage.  We drove past rows of shacks made out of black plastic tarps and corrugated metal. Over 1, 000 people eek out a living in the dump.  Off in the distance were mountains of garbage being packed down and covered with dirt.  On foot, we wound our way through narrow dirt alleys, accompanied by pigs, chickens and emaciated dogs. We visited a medical clinic in the dump.  It sounds so strange to say that, but there it was, a small, sparsely outfitted building where many of the residents were treated for the pervasive respiratory and skin ailments, as well as other conditions.

Just as out of place as the clinic was the elementary school.  Inside the school playground, kids were wearing blue and white uniforms, playing like all kids do.  Outside the school, other children roamed around the dump like wild urchins.  The school is privately funded and free, but many parents choose not to send their kids, and it seems, a lot of kids prefer to roam. Thirty minutes away from La Chureca, was our homebase for the week – Villa Esperanza.  This is an amazing home for at-risk girls who have been taken from the dump (with parental permission) in order to provide better opportunities through education and life skills training.

One evening at Villa Esperanza we were invited to a dance party with the girls who live there.  It was quite a lot of fun to dance with them and just be around giddy girl energy.  I’m embarrassed to say I would look at them and think, “they are just like any other kids their age” – as if somehow being born in a dump they should look or be different.  But they were just normal beautiful, irrepressible kids with hopes for their future like all of us.  It is the faces of all the children that I can’t forget and will call me back to Nicaragua.

Perhaps you are feeling called to travel abroad and do some service work.  Sometimes it is hard to just get the ball rolling and figure out where to go. If you are so inclined, a good place to start is to ask yourself some questions:

1. Do you prefer a mission trip or a secular volunteer trip?

2. Where would you like to go geographically?

3. Do you foresee wanting to return and have continuity with an on-going program?

4. Do you want to be able to use a second language such as Spanish?

5. Do you want to do medical or non-medical type work?

6. What is your budget and time frame?

7. Do you want to be able to bring children along?

I preferred to go someplace close to Texas, so I could go back on future trips and have continuity with projects I had become involved in. The cost of my trip for one week was $550 plus airfare. The $550 paid for my lodging, 3 meals a day and transportation.

What are some ways to find a mission or volunteer trip?

I found my trip by Goggling “Nicaragua, Volunteering and Austin.” Interesting, in the guidebook I had for Nicaragua, they had a section in each city devoted to volunteer opportunities that were available with contact information.  I had never seen this before in a guide book and thought it was a fantastic idea.

A plethora of options will come up if you Google “Physician Volunteer Opportunities. “

Here are some additional links that may be helpful:

Go Abroad

United Planet

Serve Your World

It seems like eons ago when I went to Africa as a medical student, and way too long before my next volunteer trip (to Nicaragua), but both of these experiences were life-changing for me and unforgettable. I will not wait so long to go again.  If volunteering abroad is something that you have been wanting to do, I hope this will be the year for you.


  1. Carla Oldenkamp says:

    Very inspiring post Heather. I count it an honor to call you my dear friend. You are one of the few that walk the walk and continues to be a positive influence in my life and in the life of others. God Bless You ~

  2. Thanks for this great article Heather. I run a volunteer linking service called Links for Change and we have numerous requests from our partner charities around the world for health professionals. There is a such a huge need for such skills in the developing world and it is important that this message is well heard by those who have the skills to help. Even a short period of volunteering can make a big difference to a community.

    We specifically focus on skilled placements that focus on sustainable help by ensuring that training and capacity building are key elements to all our opportunities so that volunteers can be confident that their work will have long-term benefit.

  3. Hi heather
    I’m curious . Would one be expected to meet the local medical liscence requirements , if one chooses to volunteer in clinical work abroad ?

    • Heather Fork says:

      Hello Tasha,

      Thank you for your inquiry. If you already have an active medical license from the United States, this is usually sufficient for doing volunteer clinical work abroad, but it is always best to check with the hosting program. If you do not have an active medical license, you would need to check what the requirements are for that specific country. Without a license, there are often ways to assist with clinical work and be helpful. Good luck and let me know if you need further information.

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