Volunteering with HelpX
At this point, Emmett and I have used the HelpX online network to find work in exchange for room & board three times in three different countries. Our first experience was four days in Southern Sweden, our second was for 2 & 1/2 weeks on an island in Denmark, and our most recent experience was on the West Coast of New Zealand for about five days.
I've really enjoyed having the opportunity to take a break in spending while also immersing myself further into the culture of wherever we're visiting. Being a part of the daily life of our helpX hosts and spending time with them and their families has been an incredibly insightful way to find out about local culture. Everyone we've met through the site was very open and interested in sharing recipes, language, and even political comparisons!
Deciding On a Host
It’s really key to make sure that your host(s) and their accommodation style fit your own needs and wants. For example, Emmett and I are both vegetarians and we always make sure to communicate that fact to our hosts and let them know that we could provide our own food if that was easier for them. Each of our hosts have been perfectly fine with our vegetarianism and cooked meals accordingly.
If you're checking out a host's profile and they don't have a lot of information on where you might stay or what sort of work you might do and for how long - definitely ask them before you go. It's more likely that you could have a negative experience somewhere if your expectations are not met. Also, how your host communicates with you through the site's messaging system can be telling of their personality. How they come across online is worth considering before agreeing to do a help exchange. Lastly, because it is a volunteer experience, you are always free to leave or not even go in the first place if you begin to feel uncomfortable in any way.
Though we've only had good experiences, there are bad people everywhere and I recognize that. One of the things that I appreciate most about helpX is that their website allows you to see reviews about your hosts written by past volunteers. I personally always make sure to pick hosts with at least two or three positive reviews. In the past, I have seen quite a few hosts with negative reviews. A good rule of thumb is to exercise caution and weigh all your options like you might in any other travelling experience.
Who Should Do It
I'd recommend helpx to anyone, honestly. There is such a variety of exchange opportunities from farm help (like we did), to childcare, to carpentry, to cleaning a hostel, to cooking... There is definitely something for everyone! Our hosts have told us that they've had volunteers of all ages from the young (there is a minimum membership age of 18) to the very old. We've also met families who have helpXed together, even with young children.
Work We've Done
There have been a few commonalities shared across all three of our helpX stays so far. We've done farm work like weeding and planting; been given our own room in our hosts' homes; we've eaten home-cooked meals and share responsibility for cooking; and our hosts have told us about the best places in the area to explore. The work itself is usually very diverse as well, changing from one day to the next.
In Sweden, one day we helped move sapling trees from one side of the property to another in a fine mist while chickens pecked underfoot. The next day we harvested seaweed from the rocky shores of the nearby Baltic Sea to spread on their garden. One of our duties was babysitting our host's precocious granddaughter on our last day there. That was probably the most fun because she was endlessly entertaining and taught us a lot of beginner Swedish words (at three, she was learning Swedish, Gaelic, and English at home).
In Denmark, we had quite a bit of variety but our mornings were always the same. Each day we’d have a leisurely breakfast. Then we’d lace up our boots, and Emmett and I would head to the sugar beet field across from the farm to collect beet greens to feed the dozen or so rabbits they kept in pens in the barn. I’d usually sneak an apple to each of the two Shetland ponies the rabbits shared a barn with. After rabbit-feeding, I’d collect an egg or two from the few hens they kept. From there, Emmett and I would do some sort of work on prepping the garden for the winter (we were there in early October). The first day, we harvested any vegetables that were still on the plants and then harvested seedheads as well to plant in the following Spring. The second day, we weeded a section of the garden and then covered said section in compost. This included shoveling manure, seaweed, and garden weeds in layers on top of one another. Over the next few days we continued this venture, clearing one section of the garden at a time. There were also quite a few days where we had random projects like cooking side dishes for a meal of 15 people or harvesting grapes from a neighbor’s grape vine. And that’s just what Emmett and I did while we were there; some of the other helpX volunteers did different projects such as building a greenhouse or digging a well.
On the West Coast of New Zealand, we stayed at a small permaculture homestead where we did a range of things from helping with meals, weeding the garden, and creating a terraced herb garden on a hillside. There was also one day where we were "hired out" to a single mother friend of our host to help wash her car and generally clean the house. We also spent a lot of time talking with our host about permaculture since that's an interest we all shared. She also sort of used Emmett and I as a sounding board for planning additions to her extensive gardens and mini-orchard.
All in all, I'd highly recommend HelpX to anyone. Even if you decide to volunteer through other channels, you should do it. I genuinely think there is no better way to get to know a place than to stay with locals. What better way to do that than that to give back to them while they share their lives with you?