VOLUNTEERING GONE WAAAYYY WRONG and 10 TIPS TO AVOID BAD VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCES
Recently I had very bad WWOOF volunteering experiences at WWOOF host farm, Kanalu Kennels, near Tallahassee, Florida. I found out when I arrived that they expected me to work 10-12 hours/day, 6 days/week for room and board. That was quite different from what they’d posted on their farm’s WWOOF page: 5 hours/day, 5 days/week. When I arrived, there was already one young French girl WWOOFing. She told me she had been working 60-70 hours/ week for a month at that point.
While there, I got sick from chemicals I sprayed on squash plants. The farm hosts denied and ignored my illness. My food was rationed and I was banned one night from dinner because they’d decided I’d already eaten enough that day! Needless to say, I got out off that farm as quickly as possible. I felt very lucky that I had money to pay for a bus ticket as well as a place to escape to.
What if I’d been an overseas volunteer, flying in from another country and didn’t speak much English, like the young French WWOOF volunteer who was there? What about a volunteer arriving with no extra funds, no back up plan, no place to go?
My dreadful experience and the thought of other potential volunteer ‘victims’ has lead me to write this post. I’d like to give some tips and advice about how to avoid a similar fate. In hindsight, despite the huge inaccuracy of the farm’s WWOOF page in regard to work hours and other specifics, I still could have avoided going to that farm if I had asked a lot more in-depth questions beforehand and if I had not ignored several red flags, including my gut instinct. I’d like to share my insights.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of this experience, let me explain a bit about WWOOF and my background with WWOOF volunteering. WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an international organization with branches in many countries around the world. Their aim is to bring together volunteers and hosts: organic farms, small businesses such as B-n-B’s and Eco resorts, and private families with organic gardens. WWOOF clearly supports the organic movement and sound environmental practices. WWOOF’s general volunteer concept is ‘One-half day of volunteer help is traded for food and accommodation, with no money exchanged’. Hosts get help and volunteers get a place to live and learn. Sounds fair to me!
Way back before I began my world travels in 1998, I researched dozens of volunteer organizations around the world. Unfortunately, I discovered that most of them require ‘volunteers’ to pay large fees to participate and to pay for their own room and board in addition to volunteering their time. I opted out of those schemes. But I did discover WWOOF, which I promptly joined before setting off on my world trip.
I’ve had many fantastic WWOOF experiences in Australia at WWOOF hosts such as Sanctuary Retreat Eco Resort in Mission Beach, a second private B n B and garden in Kuranda, and a private home near Cairns. Every place I WWOOFed in Australia, I was asked to work 4-5 hours/ day, 5 or 6 days/ week. The remaining time was my own to do as I pleased. At the Eco Resort, I had set hours, starting at 7 am. By noon I was finished and had the whole afternoon and evening ahead of me. At other places, hours were more flexible. In fact, I was simply trusted to put in my agreed upon hours whenever I wanted throughout the day. Sanctuary Retreat provided a separate WWOOFers’ kitchen with fully stocked fridge and kitchen utensils, appliances, etc. Volunteers simply went to eat whenever they wanted. Other WWOOF hosts took me into their lives as a family member to make myself at home.
All my volunteer experiences were very enjoyable. I had the satisfaction of helping out and ‘earning my keep’ with my gardening, cooking and baking skills, On top of that, the hosts involved me in the community by inviting me to parties and events, telling me about little-known local places, taking me hiking, and so on. I discovered that WWOOF volunteering was a fantastic way to really get to know an area more thoroughly than I would as a mere traveler. I was looking forward to more WWOOF experiences down the road.
This year I joined WWOOF USA. WWOOF USA states throughout their website, ‘One-half day of volunteer help is traded for food and accommodation, with no money exchanged’. They further specify, ‘We say that you should work up to 6 hours a day, 5 and 1/2 days a week’.
Coming from the WWOOF USA website and my previous WWOOF experiences, I was absolutely shocked at the situation I stepped into at Kanalu Kennels. First of all, I was shocked that they expected me to work 60-70 hours/ week just for room and board. Mr. Carey, the owner, told me that during their 3 years of hosting 10-18-30 volunteers (the numbers kept changing), all the volunteers had worked those hours. None of them had complained. Apparently, I was the first volunteer who had protested. I was the first to point out Mr. Carey’s own statement on his Kanalu WWOOF page: 5 hours/day, 5 days/week. Apparently, I was also the first one to point out the WWOOF USA guidelines for work hours. Needless to say, they were as equally astounded at my attitude as I was at theirs.
I was further surprised at their meal situation. After my prior WWOOF experiences of open kitchens to volunteers, I was astounded to be told that I had to ask permission before eating and to be told what I could or couldn’t eat. In addition, while I was there we did not eat any of their own farm grown vegetables. We did consume a lot of powdered lemonade mix, canned tuna and canned chicken sandwiches.
During the week that I was at Kanalu, the Carey’s prepared a nice breakfast around 8 am, had a light lunch of a tuna fish sandwich around noon, and sometimes prepared dinner around 8-9 pm.
I was there 5 nights. In that time, they made dinner 3 nights. Of those 3 dinners, I ate only one, on the night I arrived. I didn’t eat the second dinner they prepared because I was sick from chemicals I had sprayed on crops that day. I skipped dinner and went to bed early. The 3rd dinner I didn’t eat because Mr. Carey banned me from the meal. He said I had already eaten enough that day and I was not allowed to eat dinner! As a matter of fact, I had been eating my own food that I’d taken with me.
Whenever I wanted to eat beyond their 3 set meal times, they seemed to get very upset. I was especially surprised at their attitude because I’d previously told Mr. Carey in a phone conversation before I went to Kanalu that I had a fast metabolism and needed to eat about every 4 hours. On the phone he’d told me that was ok and that I could simply prepare my extra meals the night before.
However, the most alarming incident was the fact that I got sick from chemicals they asked me to spray on their crops. I’m not sure what the chemicals were because I’m not too familiar with farming chemicals and procedures. I do know that it was a mix of 3 chemicals, including bleach, a ‘choro..’ something, and something like ‘peretherin’. I was spraying the mixture on squash plants to fight Downy mildew. The squash leaves have little needles which can irritate the skin.
I sprayed for 3.5 hours in 100F heat in Florida under bright sunny skies. The Careys did not suggest I cover my skin or offer other safety precautions. They did not give me a face mask. My arms, face and legs were bare.
By noon I was not feeling very well. I went inside to eat. My arms were both covered in red rash from wrists to elbows and were burning. I washed them in cold water, put on moisturizer and then an anti- inflammatory cream. I drank a lot of water and electrolytes. I continued feeling worse. I took 2 anti-histamines, which I luckily had with me. I continued feeling sick with symptoms including diarrhea, overall malaise, slight tightness in the chest, and lack of concentration.
Twice that day I told both Mr. and Mrs. Carey that I felt sick and seemed to have an allergic reaction to either the chemicals or squash plants. They told me it had nothing to do with either plants or chemicals. They didn’t seem to notice the fact that my arms had a bright red rash and were burning.They seemed unconcerned with my condition.
I continued feeling sick all day. I finally skipped dinner and went to bed early. I also slept all night in air conditioning, which is amazing for me. As anyone who knows me will attest, I never use a/c. I hate it and avoid it as much as possible.
There were a few more incidents during my 4 days/5 nights at Kanalu Kennels, but the expected work hours, food situation, and illness from chemicals are the my main concerns.
After leaving the farm, I naturally contacted the WWOOF USA office to report my experience at Kanalu Kennels. I’ve exchanged several emails with the Program Director, Mr. Ryan “Leo” Goldsmith. In addition, since every WWOOF host’s page has a volunteers’ comment section at the bottom of the page, I also submitted my comments on the Kanalu Kennel WWOOF page. My comments were received and reviewed by WWOOF USA and have been banned from being posted, on the grounds that they are ‘not acceptable’. Essentially, I’m not allowed to post my frank review, although I am allowed to submit revised comments, to be again reviewed by WWOOF USA. In regard to my getting sick from chemicals at Kanalu, the Program Director simply commented, “ I have asked him (Kanalu Kennels) to include in his host profile that he occasionally uses mildew control which some people may be sensitive to.” That was it. I have since checked the Kanalu WWOOF page and it makes no mention of their use of mildew sprays.
I’ve asked Mr. Goldsmith for an interview. I have several questions about WWOOF USA’s stance on volunteers’ work hours, farms’ responsibilities regarding work hours and the volunteer workers’ use of chemicals. He has declined an interview.
In any event, following is my assessment of what went wrong, what I lost, what I gained and how I could have avoided the situation altogether. I encourage you to learn from my mistakes, to avoid a similar fate, and to ensure that you’ll always have great volunteering experiences.
What went wrong?
1. In my opinion, the main problem was that what the farm stated on its WWOOF farm page about expected work hours was grossly inaccurate in regard to what they actually expected of me as a volunteer. If they had accurately stated what they really expected (10-12 hour days, 6 days/week) I never would have applied to the farm in the first place.
2. Despite that, I still could easily have avoided going there in the first place simply by asking comprehensive, direct and specific questions, paying attention to red flags and listening to my own gut instinct.
3. In addition, once I got there, I could have avoided getting sick from using chemicals simply by protecting myself from what they asked me to do.
There were several red flags I simply ignored, including:
1. The farm’s location near Tallahassee, Florida, part of America’s Bible Belt. The area is generally known by Americans as a strongly conservative, often extremely religious stronghold and an area where there have been various scandals involving child abuse and labor abuse. Only Americans would know this. Unfortunately, volunteers from other countries wouldn’t be privy to this red flag. But I’m American and I knew it.
Of course, just because a farm is located in that area does not automatically mean it fits this stereotype! But it’s certainly something to consider and check into. In my case, I simply trusted that WWOOF farmers would be different.
2. The farm did not request a phone interview beforehand. Nor did they have an application form for potential volunteers. They did not make any attempt to get to know more about me or find out who I am. Other farms I’d applied to at the same time had a somewhat extensive application and gave me a phone ‘interview’. They called me to get to know me and clarify all expectations.
3. The farm accepted my application very quickly, no questions asked.
4. Since they did not offer to call me, I called them about 3 weeks beforehand in order to get to know them a bit and discuss details. During the phone conversation with Mr. Carey, it became apparent that they were working much longer hours than they’d posted on their WWOOF page. I told Mr. Carey that I was prepared to work 4-6 hours/day, along the lines of what he’d posted on his page. He said that would be fine. However, the simple fact that the posted work hours and the actual work hours were so different should have been a clear red flag. Hello? Alarm bells!
1. After I arrived, Mr. Carey and I soon realized that we had a lot of misunderstandings during that phone conversation. Although I had asked questions about work hours and told him about my eating habits, I did not get specific enough. We both walked out of the conversation thinking we were in agreement, when in fact, we had very different ideas and assumptions about what was said.
2. It also became apparent to me over the few days I was there that Mrs. Carey had not been informed about my eating habits, about what was actually stated on their own WWOOF page, or about the phone conversation in which we’d discussed work hours. She had no clue that I’d told Mr. Carey I needed to eat every 4 hours or that we’d agreed that I wasn’t working their usual sun to sun hours. Consequently, she was surprised, confused and angry at my position.
What I lost:
* One week of my usual happy life.
* One week behind schedule on publishing my books.
* Over $200 in bus and food fees.
* A day of health.
What I gained:
* A step back from the final editing of my books. The end result was more thoroughly edited books.
* Great lessons on how to avoid getting into bad volunteering or house-sitting situations as I continue my world travels. It’s certainly better to have learned these lesson in a place I could easily get away from and have personal support.
* The chance to help other potential volunteers avoid getting into bad situations themselves.
* Finally, I learned very distinctly why the US Labor Laws were created as well as why we still need them.
Lessons Learned- How to Avoid Getting into a Bad Volunteering Position:
1. Dont’ assume that what’s written on a host’s WWOOF page is accurate. Ask specific questions about everything written on their page.
I believed what the WWOOF host had written on their WWOOF page farm description. I tend to trust what people have written and say about themselves. I wish we could safely be so trusting. Unfortunately, as I just found out, what someone has written may not be accurate. It could be outdated or even intentionally misleading. Double check just to be sure.
Ask the hosts, either by phone or email, every specific point that’s written on their page. Preferably, get it in writing. Just ask directly, ie. “It says on your WWOOF page that you expect 5 hours/ day, 5 days/ week of work from volunteers. Is that still accurate?”
Ask specific questions about work hours, accommodation, bathing, food and meal procedures, specific work tasks, farming procedures and techniques, free time and anything else you’re concerned about.
2. If you find out that what they’ve written on their page is not accurate, that’s a red flag. That farm would become suspect in my books.
In my initial phone conversation with the host, he laid out the 10-12 hour/day schedule for me. That should have been a clear alarm bell to me. I should have bowed out right then and there. Alternately, I should have gotten down to very specifically what they wanted me to do. Ie: “So, exactly how many hours/ day and per week do you expect me to work?” Again, try to get it in writing.
3. If a volunteer host does not express any interest in talking with you beforehand by phone, getting to know you first, gather any information from you, or have you fill out some kind of application form, that’s a red flag. It shows they’re willing to accept anyone. Maybe they’re desperate for help?
4. If anyone asks you to use chemicals, don’t agree until you’ve first read the chemical labels and warnings and/or researched it online. Make sure you believe it’s safe before you use it. You have to protect yourself. Nobody can force you to do work you think is dangerous in any way, especially as a volunteer.
When the farmer asked me to spray chemicals on plants for Downy mildew, once again, I was trusting and went along with it. I am aware that chemicals alone vs. chemicals mixed together may have totally different consequences, and I did stop to ask Mr. Carey if he was sure it was ok. But then I just took his word for it when he said, ‘yes’.
5. Don’t use chemicals without protecting your skin and face! If the farmer doesn’t request or insist that you use protection, there’s another red flag. I’m certainly not saying people intentionally poison workers. They may be uninformed about the chemicals’ warnings and dangers. Perhaps they’ve used it themselves with no ill effects, which does not mean you will have the same reaction. Perhaps they’re just careless with themselves, and as an extension, with other people as well.
6. If possible, have a back-up plan. I realize this might be difficult if you’re traveling overseas and you’ve made a commitment to volunteer for a month or few months at a place. Ideally, you don’t need another plan for those few months. But if possible, have a back-up plan. Minimally, know where you can get transportation out, when and how much it costs to leave if you need to. Try to have funds to leave if possible. In addition, check about where you could stay, if necessary, nearby, at least until you can go somewhere else. You could always check on Couch Surfing, Tripping, other nearby WWOOF farms, as well as hostels and hotels.
7. Leave the farm’s contact information with someone- family, friends, acquaintances. Give the hosts’ names, phone number and address. Have someone call soon after your arrival so the farm knows you’re connected with concerned people. I gave Kanalu’s contact information to my brother and mother. I called my brother soon after I’d arrived. The Carey’s knew I had relatives nearby.
8. Make sure the host’s spouse and/or other members of the farm are informed about your agreements and discussions with your host. It’s pretty common for family members to not communicate well. People get busy, forget, or just aren’t good communicators.
9. Dont’ ignore red flags! Address them! With specific direct questions, preferably in writing.
10. Don’t ignore your gut instinct! If you’re going ‘uh oh’ inside, then there’s probably a good reason for that feeling. Again, address your concerns directly. Alternately, decide not to go. You haven’t signed a binding contract!
I hope this advice will help you secure mutually enjoyable volunteering experiences as you travel the world. I know I will certainly take my own advice from now on and learn from the mistakes I made this time while applying for volunteer jobs. Thank you for reading. Happy trails! For another perspective on my experience:
Nancy Sathre-Vogel of FamilyOnBikes has written an article about my experience at Kanalu Kennels for the Washington Times Communities. Nancy contacted both Kanalu Kennels and WWOOF USA to get the perspectives of all parties. It’s a well-done, balanced, and interesting article, which I encourage you to read.
Meanwhile, leave some comments:
What are your opinions and perspectives on my case?
What do you think is a fair exchange of volunteer labor for room and board?
Do you think it’s fair to ask volunteers to work 10-12 hours/day, 6 day/week in exchange for room and board?
Would you work that much for just room and board?
Do you think it makes a difference in volunteer’s work expectations if the volunteer organization is a commercial or non-profit?
Do you have any additional tips to potential volunteers to help ensure they have a good experience?
What WWOOF experiences have you had?
If you’re interested in volunteering around the world, whether WWOOF ing or other volunteer opps, check out my friend Shannon O’Donnells great guidebook. It will really help you find the best volunteer gigs for you:
The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook by Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift
In Shannon’s own words, “The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook guides new and veteran travelers through the challenges of finding, vetting, and choosing their ideal volunteer experience. The book’s practical advice is interwoven with first-person narrative, stories from a wide range of volunteers, beautiful photography, and expert interviews to help interested volunteers find meaningful ways to give back to communities all over the world-through volunteering, but also through social enterprises and supporting sustainable tourism practices.”
Click here for print book Click for Kindle version