what volunteer or charity programs should I look into
February 16, 2010 11:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm 21 years old. No college degree, no money, no recent references, no job and few feasible prospects for one. I want to try something new - make a fresh start. How can I do it?

I've been fighting depression for a long time. One of the biggest contributors to my malaise is a sense of stasis and stagnation. I am sick of living with my folks, feeling unproductive, wishing I could find something that really interested me. I am reasonably intelligent, but when I was growing up I felt that my parents' acceptance was conditional -- it depended on obedience and reticence and excellent academic performance. As a result, I don't know how to learn and practice and enjoy a subject for its own sake (or for my sake!). I have a casual 'armchair interest' in lots of topics, but I'm frightened of actually selecting one to major in and then being stuck in that field for the rest of my life. We also might not have the money to pay for the rest of my bachelor's degree, but right now I consider that a secondary concern to WANTING a bachelor's degree -- if I wanted one badly enough, I think I could find a way to get it.

So I can't convince myself to seriously pursue an education in my current frame of mind. (Right now I am taking one class at a local college. My interest in it is lukewarm.) My last job ended eighteen months ago, and aside from learning to tolerate a job I disliked, it provided nothing but a paycheck and the same sense of stagnation that I've felt before and since.

Is there anything else can I turn to? I would love to do something along the lines of Peace Corps, but that seems to require a bachelor's. Americorps isn't quite as stringent, but they still have a pretty low acceptance rate (I've heard it's about 25% on average). I looked into teaching English in foreign countries, but that seems to have even more requirements than Peace Corps. (Is there a formalized, universal standard or requirement for teaching a given subject, or does it depend on where you look?) I am considering the armed forces, but only as a last resort. It's maddening, because I have a feeling there are lots of places in the world that could use a helping hand, even an unskilled one. But charitable organizations have reputations to protect, so, understandably, they practice their compassion with caveats -- with regulations and prerequisites on the supply side. Are there programs out there that combine the inclusivity of the armed forces with the helping-people-not-killing-them mentality of the organizations I've mentioned? I just want to feel that I'm changing something for the better, in my own life and in someone else's. Getting away from home would be nice too. Thanks for any advice you might have. Email: dmhbv9@gmail.com

(Yes, I have a shrink. He recommended that I try volunteering as a way of getting out of my own head. I live in Washington DC. If you know of any good local volunteer organizations, go ahead and say so.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of volunteering opportunities in developing countries don't require degrees. Many of them do charge for the opportunity to volunteer, but there are others that don't, if you can get there on your own. I checked this out a couple of years ago for Nicaragua, found several that even provided a shared room and board. Is there any country that really appeals to you? Do you have money and passport to get there and a small amount of savings? Do you speak any other languages?

As the mother of three grown kids and an academic I feel strongly that college is often wasted on the young, that many of them need to get out into the world first, discover their real talents and interests, and then consider going to college, if necessary.
posted by mareli at 12:04 PM on February 16, 2010

Most large urban areas have an overarching volunteer clearinghouse where all the smaller agencies can post their current opportunities. I would suggest finding out where the relevant one for you is in Washington is and popping down there and have a look over their boards/books for something that strikes a chord in you. Just don't expect to welcomed as the Golden Boy right off the bat. As with most jobs, a volunteer job may require you to start small and parlay your experience into bigger opportunities as you go along...
posted by fairmettle at 12:06 PM on February 16, 2010

OneBrick is a great way to get out of the house and get volunteering now. You can probably find an event this weekend. There's no commitment, so there's very little anxiety about it. And the social aspect makes for great networking opportunities. If you find an organization you like through OneBrick, you can always ask the Non-profit organizer if you could become a more dedicated volunteer.
posted by sarahnade at 12:22 PM on February 16, 2010

Have you ruled out the military as an option. If you do not want to be deployed to the middle east, how about the coast guard. Both of these options will put your path in control of others, but teach you the responsibility to make your own path once you get out in 4 years.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 12:28 PM on February 16, 2010

I have a feeling there are lots of places in the world that could use a helping hand, even an unskilled one.

This is not true. What the world is crying out for is people with skills. Water sanitation engineers, logisticians, medics, civil engineers.
posted by dmt at 12:40 PM on February 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Go join the Coast Guard. Go rescue people for a living.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:47 PM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

And don't feel too fearful about getting stuck in something for life. We are all supposed to have three or four careers now. I'm some sort of example--failed a bachelor of science at the age of 18 40 years ago, now I'm a lawyer and a consultant legislative counsel--and I didn't start studying law till I was 30. Just find something that interests you and give it a go, and if you get sick of it try something else. Remember that half of success in life is just showing up.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:49 PM on February 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

You can get a job in almost every major city canvassing for non profits and issue advocacy groups. Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI) and the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) are just about everywhere.
posted by Glibpaxman at 12:54 PM on February 16, 2010

you don't have to have an interest in anything really, to get an undergrad- in terms of your fears of your undergrad degree locking you into doing any one thing for the rest of your life. In fact, after an undergrad degree you'll be lucky if you want to do something using that degree and are able to find something relevant. just as a reality check on this fear of yours- its unfounded. your undergrad degree can be in something you're somewhat interested in, and while studying this topic you'll learn a lot of other skills that will be useful anywhere- time management, writing, blah blah blah

a lot of teaching english programs don't have stringent requirements just keep looking, some just require you to be a native speaker. not sure about which ones, but this is my understanding about a lot of schools in turkey, where i'm currently living. (i'm sure some schools have high requirements just mean that not all here)
posted by saraindc at 1:00 PM on February 16, 2010

I have a casual 'armchair interest' in lots of topics, but I'm frightened of actually selecting one to major in and then being stuck in that field for the rest of my life.

this is your depression talking and making you irrational about moving forward. let me reassure you: most people i know aren't working in the fields they have degrees in! i have a creative writing undergrad degree, went on to new media grad school and mostly build websites; our very own mathowie has two degrees in geology if i remember correctly. at least half my friends that went to law school and passed the bar are no longer practicing lawyers. you are allowed to change the course of your life at any time if it isn't fulfilling your needs!

We also might not have the money to pay for the rest of my bachelor's degree, but right now I consider that a secondary concern to WANTING a bachelor's degree -- if I wanted one badly enough, I think I could find a way to get it.

you can go to a state school and not pay very much, or take out student loans. you don't have to pay cash upfront to get an education. please, get a degree! having one opens many many doors, and not even necessarily the ones you expect them too. many companies don't give a damn what you majored in, they just want to know you had the stick-to-it-iveness to have made it through school.
posted by lia at 1:23 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Coast Guard!
posted by jgirl at 1:24 PM on February 16, 2010

I think your biggest priority should be to leave home. Once you get out, it will be amazing to realize in how many little ways that environment was affecting you. This won't necessarily cure your depression, so continue seeing your shrink (or a different one).

I concur with lia about looking at state schools. You can also look at what need-based and merit-based scholarships are available in private schools and try to apply for some of them. College is a wonderful place to grow intellectually and to find what you are interested in. It will also offer you a lot of opportunities to make new friends and expand your social circle.

Obviously, this is a major decision, so think about it and do your research, but IMO, gaining independence and starting to take care of yourself is the best thing you can do at this stage.
posted by albatross84 at 2:22 PM on February 16, 2010

The Coast Guard is not a US-only option - any military service carries the possibility of deployment overseas, including to conflict zones. Coast Guard members are in Iraq right now. If that's not something you want to sign up for, look elsewhere.
posted by expialidocious at 2:40 PM on February 16, 2010

I'm sorry you're stuck; I've been where you are, more or less, and it's hard.

albatross84 is right, I think. Volunteering and getting out of the house are not bad ideas, but your very best opportunity to make a radical, sustained change in your life is to move out. It's very easy, when you don't really have to answer to anyone, to trap yourself in this nebulous zone of talking vaguely about future plans, volunteering, why you don't want to get stuck in one major, etc. But none of this is what you really feel, in your soul; it's just your depression and stasis talking to itself.

This is the dragon of your life. What does Rilke say? "How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses?" he writes. "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once brave and beautiful." So you must be bold. No half-measures will suffice.

Make a change—a radical change, one that demands something of you. As someone who has gotten stuck in bogs just like yours from time to time, I've found that it is only when I have to be accountable to other people—bosses, fellow employees, professors, friends—that I am at my most brave and dynamic.

Like albatross84, I think your best option is probably college. Look at a state school. Make completing applications your project. Get the ball rolling, and stop consuming yourself with problems that don't actually exist yet, like getting stuck in one major or paying for it or whatever. Those problems are not real—they're just words you're using to talk yourself out of this change; they are non-life; ignore them. If difficult questions appear later on, you will deal with them then. But the problem facing you now is a lack of motion, and by bringing all your soul and vigor to bear on it, it will change.

That's not where you are now, I know, but you can get there. I mean it.
posted by cirripede at 3:22 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there anything else can I turn to?

Did you notice a lot of your post is about DOING (stuff) and being (un)PRODUCTIVE?

Have you given much thought to trades, the type of thing you go to a technical/vocational school for instead of a 4-year school? Electrical work, carpentry, mechanics, plumbing? These are hands-on, productive careers with more-than-livable wages.

How does it help other people, are you asking? Well, frankly, anyone who fixes anything of mine that's broken is deeply, deeply appreciated. Older tradespeople need apprentices. And most obviously, there are DEFINITELY volunteer organizations that specialize in this kind of work (e.g. Habitat for Humanity) and would be great for learning more about what you are interested in, or refining your skills as you learn.
posted by whatzit at 3:27 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a casual 'armchair interest' in lots of topics, but I'm frightened of actually selecting one to major in and then being stuck in that field for the rest of my life.

Anecdata: I have been called upon to speak at conferences, write articles, hired as a consultant and cited in newspapers as "an expert in ___________" for many many years now.

At various times, that blank has been filled in by at least six different disciplines. I don't have a college degree in any one of those fields, though.

My point is that the "stuck for the rest of your life" is not really a worry in the information economy. Just do good work, whatever you do.
posted by rokusan at 5:25 PM on February 16, 2010

Consider Job Corps. It's got the funding now, and you're still within the age range. They'll support you financially and help you get training and a career.

I personally have spent some time volunteering with the local health department, which was awesome. I was interested in statistics, and I got the opportunity to learn SAS coding, write reports, work on academic papers etc.

Anyway, consider looking into local government services which help people, and asking to volunteer.
posted by gryftir at 10:00 PM on February 16, 2010

When I was a 20-year-old college dropout, I spent a year abroad that totally changed my life. I spent 6 months in London by getting a work visa through BUNAC. I worked the same types of crappy jobs I would have if I had been at home (waiting tables, etc.), but I was in LONDON - and that made all the difference. Then I went backpacking with some of the people I met in London, then I landed in Israel and spent a while working on a moshav (like a kibbutz, but you get paid). I highly recommend this type of experience - it will make you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything (at least that's what it did for me). Transitions Abroad has a lot of great information for places all over the world.
posted by acridrabbit at 4:45 PM on February 17, 2010

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