Like many foreigners here I grew up in a culture where volunteer work was just a regular part of life. It’s a great way to meet new people, give something back to the community and feel that you have made a lasting difference to the world. It can also boost your resume and provide an opportunity to gain valuable experience in a new field of work. Over the years I’ve been involved in many projects, including first aid provision and campaigns for both women’s and animal rights, yet when I came to Korea I struggled to find any similar opportunities.
So many people told me that Korean culture isn’t into anything remotely philanthropic that I reluctantly let the idea drift. In the years since I have discovered that there is in fact a thriving volunteer network here, it’s just not as large or as obvious as it as at home. So, whether you have a history of volunteering or are new to the concept you’ll be happy to hear there are many organisations in South Korea who welcome foreigners on board.
Isn’t It Illegal for Foreigners to Volunteer in Korea?
It’s time to bust this urban myth. These days volunteer work is totally legal and legitimate, although there are some restrictions on the type of activity you can undertake if you are a working visa holder.
- Obviously you cannot accept any payment for your volunteer activities, although genuine travel expenses and a small stipend for meals (if applicable) are allowed.
- Volunteer work should not interfere with the business interests of your employer. Again this is common sense. Tutoring a student at your hagwon for free would be just cause for dismissal, but teaching in an orphanage is totally fine.
- Your volunteering interests shouldn’t make you under perform in your regular job. Again this seems fair enough. It’s not professional to fall asleep at your desk because you were out rounding up stray dogs until 3am. (Yeah, I know that snoozing in the staff room is entirely acceptable behaviour for Korean public schools teachers!)
What Kind of Volunteer Work is Available?
Opportunities vary depending on your location, the time you have available and to a lesser extent on your Korean language ability. In general the most popular volunteer options for foreigners include working with rescue animals, under privileged, abandoned or orphaned kids, the elderly or disabled, vulnerable women, the homeless, or on civil rights & political projects.
How Can I Find Out What is Available in My Area?
Churches can be a good place to start, as they may run outreach programmes targeting the local community. Otherwise you can either contact a national organisation and ask about local or remote volunteer opportunities – fund raising can be done anywhere – or check your current city’s website. Most have a section for foreigners to access.
To get you started here are a few links to groups, websites and useful articles with lots more information.
- One example of a city’s website http://www.gwangjuguide.or.kr/2010/04/volunteering-opportunities/
- Seoul Global Center: On Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SeoulGlobalCenter Or via the web http://global.seoul.go.kr/
- Women’s rights http://www.hotline.or.kr/
- Focus on feeding the homeless, teaching, animal care https://www.facebook.com/groups/volunteerforplur
- Civil rights http://amnesty.or.kr/english/
- English lessons for the disadvantaged http://alwayshope.or.kr/main_eng.php
- http://cocobusan.wordpress.com/category/volunteer/ Lots of orphanage information in Busan
- http://www.koreahow.com/2011/04/1208/ Courtney Tait’s excellent article covers volunteer opportunities with refugees, the homeless, the House of Sharing, teaching the needy and animal care.
I have a lot of good memories from my volunteer work over the years, and some of the best are from my time here in Korea. There’s something amazing and humbling about washing dishes that have served food to people who know real hunger when you have a regular salary and a warm place to sleep. Whatever field you feel drawn to offer your time, experience, or skills too I hope this article has helped you find an opportunity to do so.
Are you involved in volunteer work now? Why not share your experiences and any links to online resources here? If you have any questions about the topic covered I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can. As always, if you think this information could be useful to others do share on Facebook, Twitter or any other way you know how!
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