Volunteer opportunities abound in the USA, and they can be a great way to break up a long trip. They can also provide truly memorable experiences: you'll get to interact with people, society and the land in ways you never would by just passing through.
Casual, drop-in volunteer opportunities are plentiful in big cities, where you can socialize with locals while helping out nonprofit organizations. Check weekly alternative newspapers for calendar listings, or browse the free classified ads online at Craigslist (www.craigslist.org). The public website Serve.gov and private websites Idealist.org and VolunteerMatch (www.volunteermatch.org) offer free searchable databases of short- and long-term volunteer opportunities nationwide.
More formal volunteer programs, especially those designed for international travelers, typically charge a hefty fee of $250 to $1000, depending on the length of the program and what amenities are included (eg housing, meals). None cover the costs of travel to the USA.
Recommended volunteer organizations:
Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org) Focuses on building affordable housing for those in need.
Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) 'Volunteer vacations' restore wilderness areas and maintain trails, including in national parks and nature preserves.
Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org) Grassroots, multiweek volunteer projects emphasize manual labor and international exchange.
Wilderness Volunteers (www.wildernessvolunteers.org) Weeklong trips helping maintain national-park lands and outdoor recreation areas.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA (www.wwoofusa.org) Represents more than 2000 organic farms in all 50 states that host volunteer workers in exchange for meals and accommodations, with opportunities for both short- and long-term stays.
If you are a foreigner in the USA with a standard non-immigrant visitor's visa, you are expressly forbidden to partake in paid work and will be deported if you're caught working illegally. Employers are required to establish the bona fides of their employees or face fines, making it much tougher than it once was for a foreigner to get work.
To work legally, foreigners need to apply for a work visa before leaving home. A J-1 visa, for exchange visitors, is issued to young people (age limits vary) for study, student vacation employment, work in summer camps and short-term traineeships with a specific employer. One organization that can help arrange international student exchanges, work placements and J-1 visas is International Exchange Programs (IEP), which operates in Australia (www.iep.com.au) and New Zealand (www.iep.co.nz).
For nonstudent jobs, temporary or permanent, you need to be sponsored by a US employer, who will have to arrange an H-category visa. These are not easy to obtain, since the employer has to prove that no US citizen or permanent resident is available to do the job.
Seasonal work is possible in national parks and at tourist attractions and ski resorts. Contact park concessionaire businesses, local chambers of commerce and ski-resort management. Lonely Planet's Gap Year Book has more ideas on how best to combine work and travel.
Au Pair in America (www.aupairinamerica.com) Find a job as an au pair in the USA.
Camp America (www.campamerica.co.uk) Offers opportunities to work in a youth summer camp.
Council on International Educational Exchange (www.ciee.org) CIEE helps international visitors find USA-based jobs through its four work-exchange programs (Work & Travel USA, Internship USA, Professional Career Training USA and Camp Exchange USA).
InterExchange (www.interexchange.org) Camp, au pair and other work-exchange programs.
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