I am thinking about going to South America this October for about 6 months, to do some volunteering, and getting immersed in a culture far from my own. I have been doing a lot of research and am getting a lot of mixed reviews about various organizations. If anyone has any experience with international volunteering and would be able to share the organization they used and the experience they had, or if anyone knows of any reputable and reliable organizations that they could recommend, i would really appreciate it. Also, I'm looking into volunteering with youth and/or children.
Voluntourism is big, big business Julia and no doubt that is why you are finding lots of mixed reviews. Many organizations are simply profit making companies catering to naïve young people looking to 'wash elephants' for a week etc. Some are far worse in that they not only are just about making profits, they'll go to despicable lengths to make those profits. In some countries, poor people RENT out their kids to 'orphanages' and 'volunteers' then pay to 'help' those 'orphans'.
Determining which 'volunteer' organizations therefore are real vs. profit making companies becomes very important if you want to do real volunteering vs. 'make myself feel good' voluntourism. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to doing your own homework. I have seen many posts in forums be former 'volunteers' praising organizations that were clearly profit making companies providing a product that did little if anything to help the local people the 'volunteers' thought they were helping. In other words, you can't even trust the reviews you read. Naïve travellers may THINK they are doing good when in fact they are not.
Here is one article on the subject that I think is particularly good.
Whenever someone tells me personally that they want to go and 'volunteer' somewhere I always ask them one question. What skill/profession/etc. do you have that qualifies you to be useful? Just being willing to volunteer is not enough. If you are a doctor prepared to go to a third world country to work in a clinic for 6 months, that is indeed valuable. But if all you have is a strong back and a winning smile, that's not worth anything at all.
Do some reading here: https://www.google.ca/search?q=voluntourism&ie=&oe=#q=voluntourism+benefit+or+harm
Why not just give the money you would spend on this trip to a reputable charity? Why not volunteer at home through a local church program to help the poor, indigent, elderly or children? Why not start a breakfast club at a local school for kids who come to school without having had a proper breakfast? If someone wants to volunteer to help others, there is no need to go elsewhere to do it.
I know of NO country where there are not people who need help. This idea of the western tourist going somewhere to help third world people is just such an arrogant and ignorant thing in my opinion. There are the equivalent of third world poor etc. right in our own countries. Who's coming from another country to help them?