You’ve seen it in the movies and you’ve read about it online, but, like any good traveler, you recognize there is much more to be learned about the country famed for its big guns and even bigger appetites. In between the glamorous streets of New York City and the sun soaked beaches of Los Angeles lays a land in need of international volunteers much like many other nations around the world. If you are ready to experience the real America, then grab your passport, fill out that pesky immigration application, open your heart, and head to the land of opportunity to volunteer abroad.
Volunteer program in the United States cater to a number of different volunteers’ skills sets and interest areas. No matter what you bring to the table, here is a selection of some of the most popular places to volunteer abroad in the USA.
New York City. A suitable fit for those called to volunteer in urban environments with diverse populations. Volunteer programs in New York will provide volunteers with an intense (but important) look at social issues facing one of the most densely populated areas of the U.S. Volunteers should be prepared to complete volunteer work related to combatting homelessness and public housing cuts and helping immigrants struggling with poverty.
New Orleans. Even though a decade has passed since the infamous Hurricane Katrina struck, there remains a significant amount of work to be done. Volunteers are needed to help rebuild this low-lying, seaside town in many ways. Choose New Orleans for your volunteer program in the U.S. and experience a unique slice of American culture, feast on delicious beignets in the off-hours, and have a tangible impact on remedying a natural disaster of recent history.
Hawaii. The island breezes and strums of the ukulele will be the soundtrack to your volunteer program in Hawaii. Community service projects in Hawaii often include sea animal conservation and preservation of endemic marine life, as well as opportunities to promote sustainable tourism practices and help reduce homelessness.
Appalachia. Surprising to some, many of the poorest communities in the U.S. are actually located amidst the Appalachian Mountains in the American south. Due to the isolation of some communities, rural poverty, inadequate job opportunities, and limited infrastructure mean residents are often at a disadvantage. Those who choose to volunteer in the U.S. in this region will be able to work closely with local communities to utilize their resources most effectively and create better lives for their children.
Alaska. A fantastic destination for volunteers with a big heart for people and the mountains. Unfortunately many indigenous people in Alaska’s wilderness struggle with alcoholism, homelessness, and a general loss of culture. Volunteers can help to humanize these marginalized individuals and join the fight to support native people in regaining and asserting their rights.
Volunteering in the United States
Whether you prefer to work by the sea or the mountains, with a rural population, indigenous people, migrant workers, or minorities, or want to experience the city life versus the forest, you’re in luck. Those who volunteer in the U.S. rarely face a “lack of opportunities.”
Environment & Conservation. The diverse geography (and its maintenance) is a hot topic among Americans today. Get your hands dirty (literally) as you contribute to wider efforts to preserve and protect the US’ oceans, forests, rivers, and critters. Popular destinations include Hawaii, California, and the Gulf. Urban farming and sustainability projects likewise abound as many continue to discern geopolitical questions surrounding the well-being of water, land and people.
Construction. Communities across the U.S. have been subjected to natural disasters, most frequently wildfires, flooding, and tornados. These once tight-knit neighborhoods often struggle to find enough financial resources and assistance to renovate damaged homes, and sometimes rebuild cities from the ground up. Handy individuals will find ample opportunities to volunteer on construction projects in both urban and rural communities. Even those who don’t have previous experience in home building or construction can find construction volunteer opportunities in United States.
Urban Projects. The U.S. has no shortage of industrial towns and sprawling urban areas. Volunteers who feel fulfilled from an afternoon of working alongside people in need will find plenty of city-based projects to satisfy their interests. Whether your heart lies in youth programs, soup kitchens for the homeless, creating community activities, or working with battered women, there’s a project with your name on it in the U.S. somewhere!
Volunteer placements in the U.S. typically last around four weeks and are offered in the spring and summer; however, longer and shorter stays are widely available too. Volunteers are encouraged to have a working understanding of English before becoming a volunteer in the U.S. Spanish speakers are also encouraged, as there is a need for translators in areas with large populations of Mexican immigrants.
Costs & Affordability
Generally speaking, volunteering in the U.S. will cost more than a stint of volunteer work in a developing country. However, what the U.S. lacks in affordability it more than makes up for in quality.
Volunteer projects in the US are well known for being organized and effective; there’s too much work to be done for slacking! Volunteers will therefore be afforded the opportunity to have a real and meaningful impact in local communities. Volunteer programs in the U.S., likewise, appropriately combine work and play, leaving participants satisfied on both fronts.
Keep in mind that bargaining is not the norm and price tags don’t often include tax when volunteering in the U.S.
Accommodation & Visas
Those who decide to volunteer in the U.S. can usually choose from a multitude of living environments. Many opt to live with American families to develop a more authentic picture of what daily life in the U.S. is like. Other volunteers choose to stay in apartments or dormitories, depending on their project type and location. More far-flung volunteer opportunities in the U.S. may give volunteers the chance to stay in cabins or camp for the duration of their program, and those helping with disaster relief may live amidst devastated communities in very simple housing.
All individuals that want to participate in volunteer programs in the U.S. must obtain a B1 or B2 visitor visa from a U.S. embassy in their home country. Entrants on the B1 Visitor for Business visa may not earn money or sell items during their stay in the U.S., and must prove that they are participating in a program that is focused on assisting the poor or needy. The application fee for this type of visa is around $130 at minimum and may vary based on your nationality.
Applicants from a small number of countries may opt to apply for the Volunteer Visa Waiver program, which allows for a smoother immigration process upon arrival. Find out more details about the visa requirements that apply to you by visiting a U.S embassy in your home country.
Benefits & Challenges
Anyone who decides to volunteer abroad in the U.S. should know it is not a top destination for those on a tiny budget. While there are ways to subsidize the costs of your trip (think travel grants, sponsorships, or limiting your souvenir shopping!), the upfront costs of volunteer programs in the U.S. often put desired participants off. It is important to look at the added financial investment as an invitation to become more emotionally and intellectually invested in the cause you are contributing to, and as an energizer to creatively fundraise to finance your trip.
The U.S. is a country not easily explained. Without personal experience from sea to shining sea, outsiders are left with an often one-dimensional (and overly generalized) understanding of the stars and stripes. Cultivate an opinion for the “tossed salad” versus “melting pot” debate, memorize some pop culture references to drop mid-conversation, roll up your sleeves, and volunteer in the United States using the betterment of others as your guiding compass.