Community minded military members and families have plenty of volunteer opportunities in the United States. But what about those who are assigned to overseas bases? There are many opportunities to volunteer at overseas bases and not just for local host-nation charities, non-profits, or similar groups.
Volunteering in another country can be as simple as showing up to help at events or fundraising activities. Or it can be as complex as joining the board of a group and becoming an influential member. How and when military people and their families do this depends greatly on the host country, possible language barriers, and other concerns. But the opportunities are definitely there.
Volunteering Overseas As a Military Member or Spouse: Some Basics
No matter what kind of group you wish to volunteer for, it’s best to do some basic research on the organization first. What is the reputation of the group among base employees, civilian contractors, and host country friends?
You may find that some highly visible agencies have worked hard to earn the trust of the local community. While other groups may be newer and without the history or accomplishments of others.
The newness of a volunteer opportunity shouldn’t be a warning sign. But if the group has somehow generated ill-will in the local area, definitely pay attention to this.
Volunteering in The Local Community for The First Time
If you are stationed overseas, it’s likely you have heard of the military’s “buddy system” for some parts of the world. Basically it’s a rule or guideline that requires military members to have a buddy or wingman when they venture off base.
This is an excellent rule to follow when you are participating in host nation activities of any kind. But especially situations like volunteering where you may find yourself in unfamiliar places with possible language barriers and other cross-cultural issues. These situations could prevent you from sensing when something is wrong (or when things are going well, for that matter) about your circumstances that may require you to leave or take extra precautions.
It’s not safe to assume that your volunteer group off-base will have someone fluent in English to act as an interpreter for you. Many countries that are well-known for teaching English in high school or being well-versed in other languages will still have areas where only the local language is spoken. You may find yourself in these areas as part of your volunteer work. You should prepare accordingly.
Take Classes in The Local Language
If you are working with an off-base group, it’s not just a sign of good faith that you try to learn the foreign language. It can also be an important skill to have when it comes time to making new contacts for more volunteer or professional work.
Learning the language is a good way to earn trust and make friends in the community. It’s also a good way to stay safe in situations where some might assume you are a “clueless tourist” and try to take advantage. You may or may not need to use your language skills in this way, but it never hurts to be prepared.
Will your volunteer activities require you to drive a motor vehicle in the host country? Do you have a local driver’s license and required insurance coverage? Many countries have insurance requirements similar to the United States. The Status of Forces Agreement the DoD has with the host nation may require you to honor such laws as a condition of your stay in the country as a military member or dependent.
Insurance requirements aside, do you fully understand the intricacies of driving in the host country? England, Japan, and other countries have highway systems where the driver’s seat is required to be on the opposite side of the American system.
This can be disorienting and confusing to Americans and others not used to driving on the opposite side. Take some time to get well acquainted with the unique driving conditions in your host nation.
Remember, some countries may have completely different philosophies toward driving. Does your host nation consider all motor vehicle operators to be professional drivers and regulate them accordingly? Some do. Will your host country require extensive reparations for car accidents and related problems? Some do. Know before you drive.
It is very important to research any new to you volunteer opportunity. You should be aware of common scams and problem areas associated with such work. For example, some volunteer groups may request a donation from all volunteers. Does this practice surprise you?
It does not automatically mean the group is a scam, but you should be able to ask where your money is going and specifically how it will be used. Organizations that evade your questions-especially in this area should be avoided.
One potential warning sign to pay attention to is an agency that requires you to pay for services or travel through a specific company. This includes assistance services for passports or visas. Another warning sign to pay attention to is any group that wants you to travel on a visa or passport as part of your volunteer work, but does not provide any information about navigating the local area, possible legal issues you may be faced with, etc.
Does your volunteer group ask you about your skills or abilities? Do they care or seem indifferent about specifics related to your contributions? Pay attention to any warning signs that indicate a need to rush you into a commitment or payment without the ability to ask questions, learn more about the history or scope of the group, etc.
Basically if you are being asked to hurry up with a decision or commitment without being given adequate time to think about the nature of that commitment, you should exercise extreme caution about proceeding.
Two Different Types of Volunteering Overseas
For military members and family, there are two basic volunteer opportunities. One is off-post in the local community, but the other is on-base with U.S. groups that support military communities overseas. If you are daunted by the prospect of having to learn a new language or don’t yet feel confident navigating the local area, on-base volunteering is just as important and needed as working with an off-base group.
Off-Base Volunteering Opportunities
Like America, many countries have nationally respected, well-established charities and volunteer groups. One of the best-known charities in Japan is called Akai Hane, also known to American service members as Red Feather.
Each year in Japan, a Red Feather campaign raises funds for a central charitable “community chest.” It supports the elderly, children, disaster victims, and others with financial need. Military bases all over Japan participate in Red Feather as they are permitted to do under military regulations.
Usually that means that service members and their families can volunteer and take part. But they cannot imply a formal endorsement by the Department of Defense by their activities (where no such endorsement is present).
Some countries may have charities or volunteer groups that are lower key. Places like Germany may have more opportunities at places such as animal shelters, residential care centers, etc. There may also be faith-based opportunities depending on the host country, local laws, etc.
Military members assigned in Germany will likely hear of annual collection drives-shoes, food, toys, and more gathered to help the less fortunate.
The base chapel may be the best point of contact for drives like these, but individual organizations on base may host their own fundraising or collections in cases like these. Military members and family members can always volunteer at the unit level in cases like these.
If you go looking on your own, you may find a variety of opportunities. But you may also do well to start your search by checking with the base Morale, Welfare, and Recreation offices, Family Support Center, or even the base chapel. They will let you know the opportunities to serve off base are well-known and supported by the on-base community.
On-Base Volunteering Opportunities
The kinds of volunteer needs for on-base work are endless. Bases that encourage military members to bring their families often need people to organize and staff seasonal events aimed at families. All military bases have cleanup and beautification projects. There are ways to make a more significant difference in your volunteer work by partnering with the local Family Advocacy office or suicide awareness program on base.
Military bases have plenty of third-party groups that need help, too. Did you know that many bases have an office of the Red Cross? Many bases may also have operations run by the USO. There are also local chapters of military charitable organizations such as the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society, and others.
These groups may solicit volunteer help, especially for special events and activities. In times when natural disaster strikes, you may find the greatest need for volunteers at these agencies around efforts to help the community recover and rebuild.
Seasonal Volunteering On-Base
Holiday time is difficult for service members stationed overseas, especially when separated from friends and loved ones. Military families have it better at overseas bases even though they may miss relatives and activities back home. They still have a sense of togetherness with the immediate family.
That’s why many military families volunteer to play host to single service members stationed with them overseas. This is work that can be done at the office level, among the associations of an entire military unit, group, or squadron, etc.
Bringing the single service members into the family’s home during the holidays can be a great morale boost for all involved. This kind of volunteering doesn’t sound like an earth-shaking commitment or a life-saving activity. But for those alone for the holidays, this can make an incredible difference. Don’t underestimate the power of your own DIY volunteer work in areas like this.
Unit-Level Volunteer Opportunities
What is one of the best-kept secrets about volunteering at an overseas military base? This is working on a charity drive or other efforts hosted by a military unit. This can be anything from a cleanup crew dedicated to beautifying a local area or a fundraising drive to help a local charity as a gift from that particular military unit.
These efforts are locally organized and coordinated. Often, these happen because military members have performance evaluations that include ratings on “whole person” activities like volunteerism. A busy military schedule can keep those in uniform from pitching in during their off-duty hours. The unit volunteer effort is the best way to stay involved without giving up important family time in between missions or military exercises.
A unit First Sergeant, Sergeant Major, or Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge may be the point of contact for organizing and coordinating the volunteer effort. You may find that units put out calls for extra help from spouses and family members.
You can also check the base official site, any base cable access channel or military broadcasting outlet to learn about such drives and their beneficiaries. More and more military units and on-base organizations also use social media including Facebook pages to coordinate and advertise their activities.
On-Base Organizations That Could Use Your Volunteer Help
Not all bases will have an extensive list of volunteer groups and programs. Some common agencies, organizations, and activities include the following:
Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society
Army Emergency Relief
Air Force Aid Society
Child Development Centers
AFN Broadcasting Detachments
Department of Defense Education Activity schools
Family Readiness Centers
Base-level suicide prevention programs
Seasonal or weekend shuttle bus/designated driver programs
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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