If you want to help out following a disaster overseas, or if you're in need of a constructive year out, volunteering opportunities are open to all. Kirsten Downer reports

Are you stuck in a rut and looking for a change? Fed up of seeing hungry, impoverished faces on your TV screen and want to do something to help? Perhaps you've considered volunteering overseas but ruled it out because you thought you were too old, couldn't commit enough time, or have a family. If so, think again.

"Over the past five years it has become far safer - and more professionally acceptable - to take up a job volunteering overseas," says David Stitt, managing director of Gap Year for Grown Ups, a company catering for volunteers in their late 20s and upwards. "Whereas 10 years ago intrepid souls took financial and personal risks in volunteering abroad, now several organisations exist to make the experience secure and well-organised."

Nowadays, universities and businesses encourage overseas volunteering among students and employees. Entire families can volunteer abroad and agencies are recruiting more disabled and retired people. A thriving "humanitarian tourism" industry has sprung up; thousands of UK citizens will do some form of overseas volunteering this year, many propelled by last December's catastrophic tsunami, the high-profile Live8/Make Poverty History campaign, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the US, and the earthquake which has left more than 73,000 people dead and millions of people without homes in Pakistan as winter closes in.

Earlier this year many people, frustrated at being rejected by development charities simply flew out to Sri Lanka to help out on the spot. They, together with the huge influx of bona fide aid workers formed such a large number of volunteers that locals called it the "second tsunami".

Some volunteering jobs are easier to find than others, explains Kevin Cusack of volunteer advice agency World Service Enquiry, which produces listings of overseas paid and volunteering opportunities: "If you can speak English, it's not too hard to land a job overseas teaching, even without a qualification, and those who enjoy working with children should be able to find childcare work."

Whether your interest is rainforests or women's rights, you can find a volunteer placement to suit you. But be warned: unless you have relevant skills or existing overseas development experience, it's going to cost. Just how much depends on location and length of placement, but budget for somewhere between £1,500 and £6,000.

Having to pay to volunteer may sound paradoxical, but it's the best way to ensure you get a placement that benefits the local community while matching your interests and skills, explains Cusack. You can also negotiate the time you want to commit to a project - many placements can fit into a holiday or even a weekend.

Finding somewhere that catered for her teenage sons attracted psychotherapist Jeri Russell, 50, to a two-week placement in Peru last summer, arranged through the non-profit agency Cross-Cultural Solutions. "Doing it through an agency with established links in the region made me feel safer. My two sons were playing soccer and helping out with the boys at the nearby orphanage while I worked elsewhere. My kids got to meet some wonderful role models and learned that you don't have to have loads of possessions to be happy," she says.

Anyone considering volunteering overseas needs to think about his or her motivations and discomfort threshold, says Cusack, who gets irritated by people who don't think the committment through. "Can you speak the language? Do you really care about the cause or are you just sick of the climate over here? Can you cope without having chocolate or your Costa coffee everyday?"

For those prepared to make a serious commitment, a fixed contract working overseas for a development or humanitarian charity such as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Goal could be ideal. Such "voluntary" positions are not strictly volunteering, as they usually attract a very low allowance (for example, £80 per month in Ethiopia for VSO), and accommodation and flights will be paid for. Although these are highly demanding positions, volunteers testify to increased self-confidence, an improved CV and a more positive outlook.

James Savage, 34, describes how his confidence grew after a Columbian placement with Peace Brigades International, a human rights organisation that sends volunteer observers to accompany human rights defenders at risk. "It gives such a sense of uplift to get active directly where social injustice is happening and see a positive impact on someone's life, no matter how small scale. I found that I could hold my own with powerful and able people, and am now far more confident in my ability to influence."

Placements can last from six months to two years. Shorter-term contracts are increasing; VSO will offer one to three month placements from next year. Its business partnerships scheme allows IT and other professionals to take six- to 12-month sabbaticals. It's not just nurses, doctors, engineers and logisticians who are in demand abroad - accountants, project managers and mental health professionals are sought-after, as are those with experience in human resources and administration. Increasingly there are openings in journalism and media work.

Keep an open mind about whether you have skills that will be useful abroad, advises Rishi Ramrakha of RedR, an overseas recruitment charity which runs courses on becoming a relief worker. "A lot of people don't realise they have transferable skills. You might be a hairdresser, but if you're used to running financial spreadsheets doing the monthly accounts, then you'd be able to do that out in the field," he says.

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Disabled people are under-represented in the voluntary sector. But that is changing, says Kirsten Downer

It isn't just international causes that are experiencing an increase in volunteers. UK-based community projects have been doing well too - volunteering charity TimeBank reports an increase in queries following the tsunami and London bombings and an "amazing response" to the Make Poverty History campaign.

"More and more people are finding out that giving time to your community can improve your health, social life, employability and confidence," says Moira Swinbank, chief executive of TimeBank. "There are literally thousands of opportunities - so whatever your passion or goal, there's bound to be something available to suit you."

In an attempt to get more under-represented groups volunteering, the Government and a consortium of volunteering groups designated 2005 the Year of the Volunteer. Interested parties can enter their postcode and interests on the website (www.yearofthevolunteer.org) and get a list of opportunities in their area - so far at least 120,000 people have done so. Mentoring, online volunteering and positions offering a flexible time commitment are popular options.

Barriers still exist for disabled people wanting to volunteer, however. Research published by Scope recently on what it calls "disablism" in volunteering shows that many organisations are not doing enough to make their premises or services accessible, put off by fears over cost and complexity.

Not only does volunteering help break down the isolation that many disabled people face, it can often become a stepping stone to paid employment, as wheelchair user Benson Obeten, 44, hopes. Volunteering as a receptionist and benefits adviser for a disability welfare charity has restored his confidence: "Despite having two law degrees I had been unable to find employment and was sitting at home all day bored and depressed before volunteering. Now I'm happy because I feel like a useful member of society again and I hope it will help me get paid work in the future, perhaps in the field of family or immigration law," he says.

Disabled volunteers need not stick to disability-focused organisations. The National Trust has one of the UK's highest rates of disabled volunteers - 11 per cent of its volunteer workforce - and in the long term this has helped save the organisation money, according to Heather Smith, whose role it is to help the Trust respond to incoming Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) legislation. "Collectively, volunteering is worth £16.3m per year to the Trust. Disabled volunteers are part of this, but they also contribute by bringing in new ideas and advising on simple changes that we can make to improve accessibility, now compulsory under the DDA," she says. Disabled volunteers do a range of jobs for the charity - stewarding, tour-guiding, gardening and informal auditing of properties.

Denis Charles, who became blind three-and-a-half years ago, volunteers once a week as room steward for the Trust in a property in Nottinghamshire, looking after some of the 35,000 visitors annually, answering questions on history and helping out with interactive games for children.

"It may have taken me a little longer to learn, but I do my job just as well as anyone else, and I'd like to think I have an insight into making visitors, especially older visitors, more comfortable," he says. "My blindness has enveloped me in a dense fog which can mean I spend a lot of time alone, in my mind. Doing this gets me out of the fog, and I've found it so satisfying to help others that I'm now also volunteering at my local tourist office," he says.

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Hilary Colston, 49, is an occupational therapist specialising in mental health. She was on a long-term placement in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka when last December's tsunami hit.

"I finally decided to volunteer overseas after my mother died. I was attracted by curiosity, the sense of adventure and the possibility of being able to make a difference.

I set up two mental health rehab programmes working with individuals and their families to improve the mental health and life skills of people with severe mental health problems. Mental illness is a huge taboo in Sri Lanka. In terms of attitudes it's like going back 100 years in Britain."

Hilary cautions against inflexible or high expectations of an overseas development role. "Job descriptions can change. For a month after the tsunami I worked 14-hour days, driving people to refugee camps inland and delivering food. None of our clients died but Batticaloa was one of the worst-struck districts. Interestingly, some of our severely mentally ill patients' health actually improved immediately after the tsunami. They knew there was a national emergency and they were very proud to contribute to the relief process."

Despite the long hours, demanding work, and the initial local hostility she faced, Hilary relished the challenge. "You get tremendous freedom to exercise your ideas and start something from nothing," she says. "I got to do a lot more hands-on work and we did see some dramatic changes - partly because there were so few resources there before."