i'm shannon. a pediatric speech-language pathologist and founder of speechy musings!
If you’re a long time reader or follow me on Instagram, you might know that I just recently returned from a global volunteer trip to Ghana.
I love travel and was thrilled to have the opportunity to combine this love with my love for speech-language pathology. I traveled with Smiles for Speech, a global volunteer organization and the trip visited several sites including an ex-refugee camp, an ABA school, a psychiatric hospital, an inclusive school, and a pop-up community outreach clinic. The trip focused primarily on working with children with cerebral palsy, autism, and other complex communication needs. You can read the trip description here.
Prior to our trip, there was only a few SLPs in the entire country. One of the universities just graduated a class of future SLPs, however they had limited classes that were taught by SLPs and no opportunities for supervision or therapy practice. During our trip, we were paired with 1-3 students that we helped mentor, observe, and teach during our time. We partnered directly with the local university to do this, which was an important part of our trip.
Trips like this are best for experienced and confident clinicians, especially those who have familiarity and comfort with international travel. This is because you’re working with extremely vulnerable populations, many of which who have complex disabilities. You might be the first SLP they’ve interacted with.
This means you need to make sure you can provide competent, effective, research-based and culturally appropriate recommendations and ideas.
Trips like this are probably not best for people in their CFY, SLP assistants, or people who don’t have a specialty area that is specific and appropriate to the trip you’re looking into. Trips like this should never be used as practice or a trial run for certain therapy skills.
The most important thing when choosing an organization is to make sure you’ll be providing sustainable treatment and therapy. I’d recommend not investing in an organization that simply provides therapy and goes home. This isn’t the most effective use or your time or money and often contributes to the community seeing “outsiders” as the only ones who can help their child. Instead, focus on sustainable ideas like training local SLPS, schools, or families. Teach long-term things they can do to increase speech/language skills and functional communication skills. It helped me to think about my role as more of a coach than as an SLP providing direct therapy.
You should also focus on finding a trip that is specific to a clinical strength you possess. For example, on my trip, we visited centers that primarily specialized in students with autism or those with complex communication needs. This is my favorite area of practice and even then, I read a ton of research and textbooks prior to the trip to give my skills a refresh. I have a lot of comfort working with high needs children so I felt I could really contribute to this trip.
Next, consider the language spoken where you’re traveling. Make sure you can effectively communicate in that language. If you can’t, make sure that a qualified interpreter will be traveling with you. The national language of Ghana is English and English is widely spoken. We still had a translator to make sure everyone could fully understand us.
At the bottom of this post, I’ll include a couple of links to global volunteer organizations. Please note that I cannot speak fully to the experience they offer and cannot recommend anything. Please do your research prior to signing up for any!
The days are extremely long and busy. You’ll need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I cannot say enough times that you’ll need to be somewhat comfortable and experienced with international travel. Things like time change, jet lag, and new foods can ruin the experience if you’re not prepared. You’ll have to be very flexible and culturally competent regarding the specific location you’re going to.
For a day by day summary of my trip, click here to read my trip summary and see more pictures from my time in Ghana.
Again, because of the complexity involved in matching qualified SLPs to specific trips and my lack of experience with organizations other than Smiles for Speech, I cannot make any recommendations but want to give you some ideas of international volunteer organizations to give you a place to start. There are MANY out there so do your research! You could also consider traveling and working directly with a local organization instead of going with a larger SLP group.
In Ghana, we worked with MultiKids Africa and Autism Compassion Africa, both organizations I can recommend that you could try to reach out to if you were interested in their work directly.
If you’re looking specifically for organizations where you could travel as part of a large group, check out:
Smiles for Speech
The cost of your trip will likely vary significantly depending on location. (Ghana is much more expensive to travel to than a location like Jamaica, for example). Price also varies by length of time you plan to be there, and the organization you travel through.
For my trip, we paid a trip fee that covered all meals, transportation, lodging, flights, necessary vaccinations/medications, and travel insurance. The trip fee for the specific trip I went on was just under $2000. While there, I spent pretty freely on drinks, food, souvenirs, laundry, and other experiences. In total, I spent under $400 total for all additional, optional costs.
Obviously you should be prepared for the international travel. Beyond that, I would encourage you to do a ton of research on local culture and on programs that have been successful in the country you’ll be traveling to.
For example, if you click here, here, or here, you can read some of the research I read about training and about children with disabilities in Ghana that I read prior to my trip. This research helped inform me on best practice for these types of trips.
I also read several critical takes on volunteerism abroad so that I could be truly informed on some of the missteps involving trips like this including white saviorism, unsustainable approaches, and culturally insensitive therapy. If you ever take a similar trip, I’d highly recommend researching these topics.
Hope that helps to give you more information on becoming a global volunteer as an SLP! It was truly a life changing experience that reminded me of the true impact SLPs have on children, families, and communities.
Again, if you want more information on my trip specifically including tons of pictures and a day by day summary, click here.
If you’ve traveled abroad as an SLP, PLEASE leave a comment below and share your experiences! It was incredibly hard to find information on these types of opportunities prior to my trip and I would love to know of more organizations doing these types of trips well.
Thanks for reading!
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I completed my CFY in Uganda through an organization called Hope Speaks. They accept long term and short term volunteers! Such an amazing organization.
I can’t believe I didn’t include them! Adding them now. Thank you!!
Thanks for writing such a balanced and informative article, Shannon. It was a pleasure to meet and work with you and the Smiles for Speech team. Our students were so inspired and we cannot express enough our appreciation for your all help and support.
It was really nice and inspiring meeting you and the entire team. I am really blessed to have a copy of your book AAC Training Guide which has made AAC implementation very easy to follow.This will help improve my clinical practice as a newly qualified SLP. Thank you Shannon.
Thank you for sharing your experiences!
This is awesome! Thank you for sharing! I went to Malawi, Africa for 3 weeks this summer – there is only 1 SLP in the entire country.
Hi from Australia! I have been on two very rewarding volunteering trips before. My first one was with an organisation called Equal Health to India. It was great to be on the allied health team amongst a team of other medical, dental and optical professionals, delivering direct services. I wanted to try something different for my second volunteering trip and wanted to focus more on capacity building and went to Vietnam with Trinh Foundation Australia as a clinical educator. It was much more rewarding to upskill the speech pathology students there. Their speech therapy course is only a few years’ old too.
Hello! I am an undergraduate student studying to become an SLP. I had never thought about traveling as a possibility within the field! I love how you talked about making sure the kind of services and volunteer work you are doing are sustainable. This means your work as a volunteer is so much more valuable, and you can help more people than just those you have the time to work with. Awesome blog post, I feel much more aware of the importance of volunteer work within the field!
8 Comments on Everything You Need to Know From a Global Volunteer
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