Bored and listless with life, I decided to type the words ‘volunteering’ and ‘elephants’ into Google. I clicked on the first link which happened to be in Thailand. Later that night, I paid for my flights and deposit. Impulsive? Yes. Worthwhile? Hugely.
Here are the 10 most important lessons that I gleaned from the experience and why I would recommend anyone to embark on a similar adventure.
1. I learned that I’m stronger than I expected.
Emotionally, mentally, and physically, I found out what I was made of. The decision to volunteer was a massive leap into the unknown and it ran the gamut from overwhelming, surreal, transformative, gruelling and incredible. I unearthed stores of independence, resilience, courage and hard work. Long days, oppressive heat, intense physical labour, sleepless nights and culture shocks are an intoxicating mix.
2. I learned to be comfortable alone.
People are often uncomfortable around those who dine alone or go to watch a movie alone. Although I bonded immensely with my fellow volunteers, the experience taught me how to be alright doing something just for me.
3. I realised I need to give myself time.
When you leave your comfort zone, your instinctive urge is to run back to it. I did not enjoy my first day of volunteering. My second was only marginally better. The phrase that floated into my brain was ‘quit or commit.’ I decided to commit. Looking back I realise that if I’d quit at the first sign of trouble, I would never have all of the memories, experiences, and pictures I treasure today.
4. I don’t need much.
Inexperienced at launching myself into the big, wide world for long durations, I packed a suitcase that could have served as a life dingy for survivors of the Titanic. I tended to wear the same clothes on repeat, barely used a hairbrush, didn’t use a hairdryer once and probably wore the same socks more times than recommended.
5. Nature is an amazing alarm clock.
I always woke up before my alarm to the calls of gibbons, the trumpeting of elephants, and the howling of territorial dogs. This was preferable to hitting snooze for the 5th time.
6. Very different people can unite for a cause.
Volunteering attracts a widely, varied mix of people. All countries, cultures, creeds, and colours can connect when they are fuelled by the single minded desire to help.
7. White is…not your colour.
Good for brides…not so great for volunteers. White clothes will turn dirty if you insist on wearing them to clean bear enclosures, go swimming, and cutting down banana trees.
8. Something will guide you to where you’re meant to go.
My desire to volunteer was a bolt from the blue. What emerged was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
9. Caring for animals is a 24-7 job.
My post working with elephants was demanding. Volunteers and staff cared tirelessly for the animals. The vets in particular devoted uncountable hours.
10. JUST DO IT!
The best lesson I learned, which has stood me in good stead for life in general, is to just do something: no procrastination, no doubts, and no regrets. Volunteering is one of the best things you can ever do. Trust me.
by Kayleigh Parker
Kayleigh volunteered with WFFT for 6 weeks in 2013. The volunteer fee was €1395.