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Volunteer Tips Part One: Flexibility & Openness

At HVO, our volunteers are agents of change. They build local capacity by providing health care professionals in resource-scarce countries with knowledge and skills to address the needs of their communities. The mission that HVO volunteers undertake is demanding – they serve as teacher, peer, mentor, friend and ambassador during their short-term volunteer service.

The length of their trip and ambitious goals demand that volunteers properly prepare for their assignment to ensure success. They work with project directors and on-site staff to understand the educational needs of the site and develop their lessons and lectures.SEA Fellow with Local Proivders

In addition to their professional preparations, volunteers who want to succeed while abroad should spend time mentally preparing themselves. By taking time to consider what the assignment will demand, volunteers will be better prepared for those challenges. There are also a number of personal traits that volunteers can cultivate to ensure success. Research and experience has identified essential traits of the most successful volunteers: flexibility, openness, patience, innovation and integrity.

Here’s a look at the role of flexibility and openness when on an assignment for HVO.

Flexibility. When you volunteer in a resource-scarce country, you need to be well-organized and disciplined, but you must also maintain a flexible attitude and tolerate ambiguity. Limited resources and time, as well as unexpected events and challenges, can lead to changes to even the best-laid plans. You will only succeed by adapting to the circumstances you encounter.  HVO volunteers often report the importance of flexibility during their overseas experience:

“I found it a bit challenging in that I wanted to maximize the time that I had at each hospital. I went to Costa Rica with a fairly firm notion of what I should do to make the best use of my time. I had anticipated giving numerous formal presentations and adhering to a strict timetable (perhaps a reflection of the quite unyielding nature of schedules and agendas that seem to be customary in the Canadian healthcare system). What I quickly realized was that it was better to just be open to the experience and adapt to the needs of the staff as they arose. It meant that I had to be comfortable with spontaneity and know that I would leave with less tangible evidence of what I had accomplished than if I had done numerous presentations. In retrospect, I think it was somewhat inevitable to feel this way given that I was one of the first volunteers to visit the hospitals and it was not possible to know with certainty what to expect.”

-HVO volunteer to Costa Rica

“For any who have done medical mission activities, each knows that flexibility is a key component. One goes into each trip knowing that you need to expect the “unexpected.” One needs to have all the basics in place, as best possible. However, it always seems there will be added talks on different topics than you expect, added people with whom you need to communicate, or some side issues with which to deal, all of which can be done, so long as one is willing to do some extra work while there.”

-HVO volunteer to Ethiopia

“This experience has helped in my development as a professional. I feel forcing oneself to adapt to new environments and the new challenges is a daunting task but ultimately results in self-improvement … This was my first volunteer experience abroad, and I am already looking forward to the next opportunity.”

-HVO volunteer to St. Lucia

Physical Therapy Class, South AmericaOpenness is a quality and attitude that will serve you well as a volunteer. You are entering a new culture; be open to its possibilities and its wisdom. Come prepared, having done some research on the culture, medical practices, and traditions. Be sensitive to the different nuances in the culture; respecting and valuing diversity allows you to learn from your colleagues as well. By remaining open-minded, volunteers can appreciate what is culturally valuable, medically sound, and technologically feasible in order to build upon local knowledge rather than replace it. Many previous volunteers have found openness essential to a successful trip:

“Remember to be respectful, flexible and open-minded. We have as much to learn as we have to teach. When you are frustrated that things don’t seem to be done in the manner you think correct, take a deep breath and try to understand the whole picture. Try to find out what your hosts need.”

-HVO volunteer to Uganda

“It takes time to really learn and understand another culture.  It takes effort and the will to set aside preconceived ideas and be open to completely new thoughts and perspectives.  It’s important that one not view and judge another culture through one’s own values and experiences or the complexity and richness of the culture can be totally missed or misinterpreted.”

-HVO volunteer to Uganda

“If I could sum up my experiences and give advice to anyone volunteering with HVO, it would be the following: Come with an open mind in terms of people, culture, and medical treatments.  You will find yourself transformed and forever changed through the experience.”

-HVO volunteer to Peru

If you’d like to learn more about effective volunteer, review HVO’s article on Highly Effective Volunteers (or read more in part two and part three of this series). To begin the volunteer placement process, complete our volunteer application.


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