North Texas volunteers see personal rewards

 

GUATEMALA CITY — Instead of heading to the beaches of Mexico or the capitals of Europe this summer, thousands of Americans are going abroad to reap the rewards of compassion.

“I heard from everyone how life-changing it is, and I wanted to see for myself,” said Shelley Foran, 15, as a busload of young people from Park Cities Baptist Church bounced across the rutted road leading to a gritty Guatemalan home for abandoned and delinquent boys.

More than 50,000 American volunteers work in foreign countries every year, helping others and learning about themselves. Half go with faith-based groups; many go on their vacations. While not all the experiences are life-changing, international service can reward volunteers, the people they help and the ailing image of the United States.

 

 

Dallas mother and empty-nester Betty Sanders, 58, went to Guatemala City for three months to work with disabled orphans and elderly women abandoned by their families.

“I’m old enough to know that I wasn’t going to change the world, but I did feel like before I left there was going to be some contribution I’d made,” she said. “I’ve had a very good life. I have a wonderful family, a truly wonderful daughter and great friends. I’ve been very, very fortunate throughout my life. I just wanted to do something to give back.”

Dallas Jesuit School graduate Nathan Castillo was a bilingual teaching assistant in San Antonio when he joined the Peace Corps last year and found himself supervising primary school sanitation projects in Guatemala’s western highlands.

“The kids were sick so often they couldn’t go to school,” Mr. Castillo, 25, said. “Now it’s a whole different dynamic. There’s an ambiance of hope and happiness.”

Interest in volunteer vacations has spawned more than 60 travel agencies arranging opportunities for Americans to work in poor overseas communities. Kimberly Haley-Coleman runs Globe Aware in Dallas, sending customers to Cambodia, Peru, Cuba and nine other countries.

JIM LANDERS / Staff

JIM LANDERS / Staff

Park Cities Baptist Church volunteers Brenna Burns, Laurel Folmar and Meredith Leach sing with boys at the San Gabriel y Elisa Martinez Home for Boys in Guatemala.

“You live at high altitude, sleep in uncomfortable beds, take cold showers,” Ms. Haley-Coleman said, describing the experiences of volunteers in Peru. “The locals get adobe stoves [built by the volunteers] that clear the smoke from their homes. But the volunteers get more out of it.”

They have to pay for the experience. The Park Cities young people, with their families and their church, paid about $1,800 apiece to spend a week with orphans in Guatemala. Globe Aware charges about $1,000 for room, meals and work projects, and customers have to pay airfare as well. Cross-Cultural Solutions, the group that Ms. Sanders chose for her trip to Guatemala, charges about $2,000 for a two-week package and $250 a week after that.

Such charges are tax-deductible as charitable contributions.

In need of attention

Ms. Foran and her church group went to see Guatemalan boys in need of some gentle attention. The government-run San Gabriel y Elisa Martinez Home for Boys houses 80 kids ages 9 to 18. Among them are mentally challenged 9-year-olds who were abandoned on the streets, a 13-year-old severely abused boy with only a couple of teeth who disarmed and shot at a police officer, and a 17-year-old loner who made a pact with the devil and used to cut himself with a knife.

The boys live in three dorms and are locked in every night at 6 p.m. A 15-foot-tall green cinderblock wall surrounds the campus.

“It is a misnomer to call it an orphanage, but it’s a better word than children’s warehouse,” said Jeff Byrd, associate pastor of Park Cities Baptist.

The Guatemalan boys surrounded the church group when they arrived, and there was much hugging and handshaking. Next came songs of faith, and the boys joined in. Three of the Park Cities girls read from Genesis. The Guatemalan boys were split into groups. Two groups studied Bible passages, while the others played kickball. Then they traded places.

“It was a lot more than I expected, a lot more kids with special needs. It’s fun, though,” said Jeff Perkins, 16, who will be a sophomore this fall at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas.

Focus on teens

Buckner International, a Dallas-based, Christian service organization with orphanages in several countries, coordinates the visits. Buckner arranges visits by more than 500 volunteers a year to both its own Guatemalan orphanages and those of the government. Many of the volunteers are from North Texas and belong to church groups that come every year. They’re concentrating at the moment on older teens who hope to make the transition out of the homes and into society.

“Some of the girls at 15 have only a second-grade education, and they won’t be able to do much unless we strengthen their life skills,” said Leslie Chace, director of Buckner International’s Latin American work. “Dallas Baptist University comes to teach some skills to these kids.”

Plunging into Guatemala’s poor neighborhoods and bleak institutions takes verve and courage. Volunteers with Cross-Cultural Solutions work at a clinic where gun-toting gang members chased a wounded rival into the emergency room. Other volunteers spend mornings with disabled children confined to wheelchairs — in some cases because their muscles atrophied when no one ever taught them to walk. The volunteers also try to cheer old women who have lost their memories.

They teach a smattering of English to disturbed children raised in a squalid neighborhood surrounding a massive landfill that has swallowed trash pickers alive and feeds flocks of vultures. “It’s not a traditional education,” said Eva Morales, director of the Casita Amarilla School for Abused Children and Women. “Our students come for the support they get from the teachers, not for the curriculum.”

‘Extraordinary’ rewards

Working in these places changed Ms. Sanders.

“The rewards were extraordinary. They all evolved from simple human-to-human contact and interaction,” she said. “I came back feeling like I had made small contributions to lots of different lives along the way.”

Addison financial strategist Steve Miller was invited to Guatemala in 1981, in the midst of a 35-year civil war, to see about investments. He came back determined to bring dentists and doctors to beaten-down villagers. About 120 teams have since visited under the auspices of HELPS International, performing surgeries, dental work and other care valued at more than $100 million, Mr. Miller said.

“We get a lot of young people [as volunteers] who are looking for purpose in their life,” Mr. Miller said. “We’ve all been told if we own the Lexus or the Mercedes we are going to be happy, and of course that’s not the way it works. The people who go down and get involved in a mission, it revolutionizes their life.”

Some in Washington, D.C., also want to help. President Bush has asked Congress to double the size of the Peace Corps from 7,700 to 15,000 volunteers willing to spend 27 months abroad. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., have introduced legislation that would fund 10,000 Global Service Fellowships for volunteers willing to spend six months overseas.

Republicans and Democrats alike are reaching back to the idealism of President John F. Kennedy to urge Americans to volunteer for peaceful international service.

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, charged by Mr. Bush with improving American public diplomacy, praises volunteers for “a diplomacy of deeds rather than words.”

When the Peace Corps was formed in 1961, Mr. Kennedy hoped to send 100,000 volunteers abroad each year so that, after 10 years, a million Americans would have the experience and knowledge to form a constituency for foreign affairs.

The Peace Corps never numbered more than 20,000 volunteers in the field. But today’s efforts from faith-based organizations, individual volunteers working with travel agencies, compan ies that sponsor volunteer work among their employees and other nongovernmental groups are swelling the numbers of Americans abroad.

Many of these groups, guided by Mr. Kennedy’s vision, have joined a coalition aiming to boost the number of volunteers working overseas to 100,000 by 2010.

“What if they had built the Peace Corps up to those numbers?” asked Steve Rosenthal, founder of Cross-Cultural Solutions and head of the Building Bridges Coalition that is working to double the number of international volunteers. “By 9/11, we would have had more than 3 million people in the United States who had been volunteers abroad, many in Muslim countries, people who learned to speak Arabic. … The opportunity lost is massive.

“We’ve got a spiraling-down global image, and the anti-American sentiment out there is really important,” he said. “The international volunteer is one of the single greatest things we can do about it.”

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vacationing like Brangelina

Volunteers with the group Globe Aware are digging a trench to lay a water pipe in Costa Rica.Sarah McCall / Globe Aware

As the industry grapples with how to make money without compromising the results of the volunteer work, one thing is clear: more and more private citizens are ready to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand. “I was just so sick of just donating a gift at the end of the year,” says Yates of his decision to spend a week volunteering in Costa Rica. “I worked my butt off.”Getting in touch with your inner Angelina Jolie is easier than it used to be. The so-called voluntourism industry, which sends travelers around the globe for a mix of volunteer work and sightseeing, is generating almost as much praise and criticism as the goodwill ambassador herself. Are volunteer vacations–which have become so mainstream that CheapTickets recently started letting online customers book volunteer activities along with their vacations–merely overpriced guilt trips with an impact as fleeting as the feel-good factor? Or do they offer individuals a real chance to change the world, one summer jaunt at a time?

Voluntourism trips are shorter, more entertaining versions of the kind of international work long sponsored by the likes of church missions and the Peace Corps. During trips that can be as short as a day and usually don’t last longer than three weeks, work–which is often physically intensive–is punctuated by excursions to each destination’s artistic, historical or recreational highlights. Ambassadors for Children volunteers, for example, who range from teenagers to retirees, pay $2,025 for 11 days in South Africa (airfare and lodging included), spending about a week with children infected with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Plus, they get a daylong safari as well as a tour of the Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela for 18 years. In Thailand, Globe Aware charges $1,090, not including airfare, for a week split between teaching English to impoverished schoolchildren and visiting floating markets or trekking through temple ruins. These kinds of blended experiences are key to the multifaceted cultural education that tour operators are aiming for. “You don’t walk away from the destination only with this snapshot in your mind of ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s this wretched, horrid poverty,'” says Voluntourism.org founder David Clemmons. “You see there are other sides.”One big draw for tourists is the camaraderie. “You’re meeting kindred spirits,” says Adam Yates, 25, an advertising sales executive in Los Angeles, who in June went horseback riding and hiking in a national park during his Globe Aware trip to clear trails and teach English in Costa Rica. And companies are eager to tap into the growing number of itinerant Samaritans like Yates. With leading market-research firm Euromonitor International touting this niche’s growth potential, particularly among single travelers, Voluntourism.org’s newsletter now boasts nearly 1,900 trade subscribers, up from a mere 30 in March 2005. Lonely Planet published its first volunteer-travel guidebook in June–which was good timing, considering that a recent Travelocity poll found that almost twice as many vacationers (11%) planned to volunteer this year as in 2006.As Earthwatch and other industry veterans well know, make-a-difference sojourns often attract repeat customers. “It’s lifechanging,” says Barbara Jenkel, 68, of her 2005 caravan with Relief Riders International through India’s Rajasthan Desert. On the 15-day trip, which included a night in a 257-year-old fort, the retiree from Chappaqua, N.Y., helped set up medical camps and distribute books to schools and goats to poor families. She found the experience so inspiring that she’s going back in October. Volunteer vacations also channel tourism dollars to places that aren’t usually featured in glossy travel brochures and don’t have the infrastructure to support three-star, let alone four- or five-star, hotels. For scenic places desperately in need of economic development, “this kind of tourism is an easier sell,” says Kristin Lamoureux, director of the International Institute for Tourism Studies at George Washington University.But some critics say transient volunteering is more suited to making participants feel like do-gooders than to doing good. “If you’re going to work with children in an orphanage, [how will they] understand what you’re trying to do when you don’t speak their language and you don’t stay long enough to form a relationship?” asks Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, an industry watchdog based in the U.K. “What does it mean to the child?”Sally Brown, founder of Ambassadors for Children, counters that every bit helps. “If a kid can be held for a couple of days,” she says, “you’re able to make a small difference.” Other tour operators stress that voluntourism really does have lasting impact because, despite rapid turnover among individual volunteers, trip organizers develop long-term relationships with community partners. On one of her first group trips to El Salvador in 2001, explains Nancy Rivard, who founded Airline Ambassadors to expand on relief work she began as a flight attendant for American Airlines, volunteers helped 150 families acquire land and rebuild homes devastated by earthquakes. They were scheduled to open a vocational-training center near those homes during the last week of July and stock it with sewing machines carried to hilly El Salvador in volunteers’ suitcases. “We’re creating a way to empower local people,” Rivard says.Sarah McCall, a Peace Corps veteran who since March has led six Globe Aware trips in Costa Rica and Peru, recalls how her groups constructed mud-and-brick stoves for 24 Peruvian families in San Pedro de Casta to save fuel and keep harmful smoke out of adobe homes. The project was the brainchild of municipal officials. “We never go in and say that we had this idea, and we want to do this,” McCall explains. Instead, she and other leaders check in with the locals to see what the community needs, then dispatch volunteers to do the legwork. Voluntourism supporters are quick to point out indirect benefits too. “Americans don’t have the best reputation in the world right now,” says Doug Cutchins, director of social commitment at Grinnell College and co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others. “For Americans to get out and represent a different side of America … I think that has a tremendously positive benefit.”

But critics like Barnett warn that ill-prepared or poorly directed volunteers can produce more harm than good. Voluntourists have gone to her complaining about groups that repeated projects already finished by earlier crews or did work considered at odds with the local people’s desires. With new companies entering a sector that is still largely unregulated, tour operators sometimes take advantage of even the best-intentioned volunteers, Barnett explains. “It’s a new form of colonialism, really,” she says. “The market is geared toward profit rather than the needs of the communities.” Tourism Concern is developing a code of ethical conduct for the international volunteering sector and is gathering information from volunteers, tour companies and the communities they work in. Barnett plans to begin auditing U.K. firms but knows of no such initiatives in the U.S.

As the industry grapples with how to make money without compromising the results of the volunteer work, one thing is clear: more and more private citizens are ready to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand. “I was just so sick of just donating a gift at the end of the year,” says Yates of his decision to spend a week volunteering in Costa Rica. “I worked my butt off.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helpful Holidays


Helpful Holidays

With summer in full swing, leisure travel is high on the to-do list, but some vacationers are doing good while they get away.

by Glenn R. Swift | July 2007

 

In the 1990s, organizations like Earthwatch offering “volunteer vacations” added a new dimension to the charity-based travel that began in the 1960s with organizations like the Peace Corps. A number of establishments took notice and began offering their own tailored itineraries combining travel with volunteer service. But things changed after September 11.

“Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, there was a realization upon the part of many Americans that we were not isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, a whole new generation of ‘hands-on helpers’ quickly emerged,” says Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive committee member of the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), an alliance of non-profit, non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer and internship exchanges based in North Bergen, New Jersey. She also acknowledged that interest in volunteer vacationing increased markedly following the devastating tsunami in December of 2004 and the catastrophic Kashmir earthquake ten months later, adding, “This type of activity reflects not only a different outlook toward the world, but a changing attitude about travel.”Says Jeanne Brown, a Long Beach resident who has participated in four trips with Global Volunteers, a not-for-profit organization based in St. Paul, “It’s time to give back. We all have too much.” Brown has worked on the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana, and also traveled to Minnesota and to Beards Fork, West Virginia, deep in Appalachia, where she and others on her trip helped a coal-mining community build and repair homes.

“It’s a test of yourself—to see who you can get along with, and what really bothers you, and what’s really important,” Brown says.

Trip Roster           

“Traveling for good” is most definitely a growing trend. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 55 million Americans have traveled to other countries on vacations that included some form of volunteering. The growing desire to “give back” is also reflected in a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study, which reported that nearly 30 percent of those 16 and older participated in some kind of community service project last year.

So what exactly is a volunteer vacation? There is no simple definition. Some volunteers work in remote mountain villages after traveling for miles by horseback, while others teach local children how to read and write English in the morning, before retiring to five-star oceanfront hotels on a tranquil Caribbean island. Despite this wide variation in activities, the goal is the same. “This type of travel is designed for people who want to become directly involved in the communities they visit so they can make a positive impact, not just act as observers,” Haley-Coleman says.

“I’ve always had this desire to be a foreign missionary,” says Nancy Murphy of West Hempstead. “I’ve always had this interest in traveling to far-off places. When you’re just a tourist you’re just looking but when you do this sort of thing, you become immersed in the community for a while, and it becomes like being part of the local scene. It’s very sustaining,” she says. “I guess I was looking for a little adventure,” Jeanne Brown laughs as she describes her experiences painting the reservation’s juvenile detention center and a “never-ending fence.” Brown’s work in Appalachia was more than adventurous; it was labor-intensive and included home repair, planting, spackling and painting, along with some daycare there and interaction with younger kids.

The U.S. government has also teamed with a number of organizations worldwide to expand opportunities for Americans to serve overseas. The campaign is led by Colin Powell and is part of an effort originated by the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington D.C., to develop a new global approach to enhance security and promote national interests, while improving our standing in the world. “The idea is to promote ‘soft power’ instead of ‘hard power’ throughout the world,” says Haley-Coleman, who also serves as executive director of Globe Aware, a Dallas-based non-profit organization currently offering volunteer vacations in a number of underdeveloped locales.

A study released in April of last year by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a public policy research arm of the United States Congress, vividly illustrates the exorbitant cost of having to rely upon military muscle alone to protect U.S. national interests. The study calculated that it costs an average of $361,000 annually to put a soldier, Marine, airman or sailor in Iraq or in the region. Needless to say, the soft-power approach of fostering goodwill by sending volunteer travelers abroad is significantly less expensive.

Here are some of the major players working hard to help foster that goodwill:         

So if you’re looking for a way to help make the world a better place the next time you travel, maybe an “adventure in service” is just what you’re looking for.

Among the major players working hard to help foster that goodwill:         

Globe Aware        

This group offers volunteer vacations in Peru, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cuba, Nepal, Brazil, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. One-week trips focus upon cultural awareness and sustainability, and are often compared to a “mini Peace Corps.” Globe Aware is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity and all program costs, including the cost of airfare, are tax-deductible. No special skills or ability to speak a foreign language are needed. “Our trips are primarily designed for working professionals who can’t afford to take three weeks or more off at one time,” says Haley-Coleman. Costs vary depending upon the country visited and range from just over $1,000 to around $1,400 (exclusive of airfare).

Could You Be a Volunteer Vacationer?

The Answers to These Questions Will Help You Decide

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a good candidate, most operators will tell you that there are so many options available that’s it’s more a question of finding the right program, one tailored to your skills and interests. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  1. What kind of conditions am I willing to live in?
  2. How long am I willing to give?
  3. What skills do I have to offer?
  4. How much can I afford?

Remember, the greatest need isn’t always the safest. There are war-torn countries in Africa desperate for help, but they’re not necessarily open to outsiders. Take the time to evaluate all your options. Here are some basic questions that you need to ask your tour operator when choosing which itinerary is best for you.

  • Are the host organizations faith-based or secular?
  • What is the level of interaction that you will have with local residents?
  • How much guidance and supervision will I receive?
  • What type of physical labor/strenuous activity is involved?
  • Is there a backup plan in case of an emergency?
    (If you’re staying in a secluded mountain village in the Andes, you need to know what happens if you break your leg.)
  • What exactly is included in the price?
  • Do you offer travel insurance?
  • How much free time will there be and what types of sightseeing options are there?
  • What types of immunizations are required?
  • What is the climate?
  • How safe is the locale?
  • What percentage of the trip is tax- deductible?


CBS Radio Interview

Press Releases and News



Michael Dixon and Louis Thiele

KTAR 92.3 FM syndicated across CBS radio stations across USA

 

A very special kind of vacation is gaining in popularity as more people look for ways to give back to society. VOLUNTOURISM is a way to spend time help others while visiting another culture and making new “Life Friends”. Kimberly Haley Coleman – Founder and Executive Director of –Globe Aware Adventures in Service. She explains how this program works around the world including the fact that much of your vacation expense will be tax deductible. 

This Radio Interview may be posted online at a later stage.