Of the myriad reasons not to spend time volunteering overseas – money, age, career – perhaps the toughest is the people you’d leave behind. Can you really abandon your loved ones to make a difference on the other side of the planet? Perhaps not. So why not take them with you?
Katherine Tubb took up a year-long placement with Voluntary Service Overseas in Nepal in 1999, leaving her boyfriend studying agriculture back in the UK. “I went off very gung-ho, thinking I wouldn’t miss him,” she recalls, “but six weeks in, I thought, this is really silly.” She made a business case for him to join her, and he deferred his studies to help her environmental education project instead.
Tubb now runs her own placement agency, 2Way Development, and says 10-20% of the volunteers she places go as a couple. Where they join the same project, she aims to give them distinct areas of responsibility so they don’t become “too much of a unit” – one might have project management skills, for example, while the other takes a more hands-on social care role. In other cases only one half of the couple volunteers, while the other looks for work locally, or works remotely for a Western employer.
Similar options are open through VSO, the world’s largest independent volunteer-sending programme. “Going as a couple can be a benefit, since you’re often based in isolated rural areas,” says VSO’s Catherine Raynor. “But if you both want to volunteer, it does require greater flexibility and you might have to wait longer for the right placement to come up.”
Non-volunteer accompanying partners can still share accommodation and take part in pre-trip training for no charge. VSO placements usually last at least a year, but other agencies offer shorter-term options. There are many wildlife conservation projects where couples can collect data or help care for animals together; African Conservation Experience has a South African project, Tutuka, especially for volunteer families.
For couples with one to three months to spare, Mondo Challenge sends volunteers to work on development projects in nine countries, from Romania to Tanzania. Volunteers live in homestays, meaning couples feel part of local life but can have their own room. “It’s not just romantic couples either,” says CEO Arvind Malhotra. “We also get mothers and daughters, or pairs of friends.” Going as a couple can make financial sense too: 2Way Development offers a 50% discount on a second volunteer’s placement fee; MondoChallenge offers 30%.
Volunteer life as a couple has pros and cons, but one unexpected aspect can be the very togetherness it promotes. Allan and Annabel Westray volunteered as teachers at a school in Darjeeling, India with MondoChallenge and found themselves spending 24 hours a day together for the first time in their 27-year marriage.
“Be clear about why you want to take a break like this,” advises Allan, “and about why you want to do it together. In our faster-paced life in the UK, it’s not often that couples get to spend so much time together – this can present as much of a challenge as anything else!”
But if volunteering can make or break a relationship, it can create them too – many singles return as couples. “We get couples forming all the time,” says Catherine Raynor. “It takes a certain kind of person to volunteer, and like minds tend to come together…”
There are pluses and minuses of volunteering together
+ You get emotional support in an unfamiliar environment
+ You know each other’s working strengths and weaknesses
+ Being in a couple can help you integrate socially, especially if there are stigmas attached to lone women
- It can prevent integration into the host community: new friendships are less vital
- You can fuel each others’ negativity if things go wrong
- Wobbly relationships will be tested – possibly to destruction
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