The rise of volunteer tourism: Globe Aware featured in global edition of the New York Times

On Friday, September 17, 2010, Globe Aware was featured in the global edition of the New York Times. Below is the article, including an interview with Catherine McMillan, Globe Aware' s vice president of volunteer communications.

The rise of volunteer tourism: Travelers help out while having fun

In today' s interconnected world, being environmentally responsible has evolved from fringe advocacy to mainstream behavior. Many travelers are also more aware of helping those less fortunate than themselves.

One emerging trend is volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, as it is known. Altruistic visitors partake in such projects as helping in orphanages or schools, teaching English or doing repairs and working on community projects.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, voluntourism is taking shape as one of the fastest-growing markets in tourism today.

Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization based in Texas, organizes volunteer programs all over the world. " " Our mission is twofold ' to promote sustainability through volunteer work projects and to promote cultural understanding,' ' explains Catherine McMillan, Globe Aware' s vice president of volunteer communications. The organization specializes in connecting short-term volunteers with communities that have a variety of needs.

" " It isn' t just work,' ' she says. " " As we say here, " Have fun and help people.' ' ' This type of travel is very different from the normal tourist experience, adds McMillan. " " You get a much deeper, nuanced experience of the culture of the place you are visiting,' ' she points out. " " You create real relationships with the locals.' ' Volunteers experience both the beauties and the challenges that local people face, she adds. In Cambodia, for example, Globe Aware projects range from working with schools and Buddhist monasteries to building and distributing wheelchairs to land-mine victims.

One volunteer, who came to Globe Aware through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, had a condition in which he lost control of the movement in his legs. " " He had experimental surgery and regained mobility, but his wish was to help give the gift of mobility to others,' ' says McMillan. " " He went with his parents to Cambodia last year and built wheelchairs.' ' The 2010 Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference, held Sept. 8-10 in Portland, Oregon, featured Bruce Poon Tip as keynote speaker.

Poon Tip is the founder of Gap Adventures, an adventure travel company that promotes sustainable tourism. " " We love changing people' s lives through travel,' ' said Poon Tip, " " and ESTC is a perfect forum to help us advance that goal.' ' He explains that the company has proven through initiatives like its voluntourism projects that sustainability and travel needn' t be mutually exclusive.

Smart travel that respects local ecosystems, economies and communities not only provides a more exciting experience for travelers, but also is simply the right thing to do, says Poon Tip.

Hong Kong-based Kit Sinclair, an occupational therapist and ambassador for the World Federation of Occupational Therapists, frequently offers her expertise when she travels. " " When I visit a city, I often offer to provide lectures, meet with students, visit hospitals or clinics, and discuss with staff about their work and their patients,' ' says Sinclair, who has done this throughout China and other parts of Asia.

While visiting Chiang Mai in Thailand a few years ago, Sinclair had a memorable adventure, " " eating a local dish of worms/larvae at a roadside restaurant, heading into the hills for the most fantastic massage at a local hot springs and enjoying the company of local health care professionals, learning their culture, understanding their concerns and having a great time.' ' Another volunteer tourism organization, with offices in Bangkok and Luang Prabang, North by North-East Travel, specializes in trips to Southeast Asia. The company says it " " provides meaningful volunteer work by aiming to empower communities through the transfer of vocational skills and leadership abilities, so they can benefit directly from tourism.' ' North by North-East has facilitated a number of projects in both Thailand and Laos, from educational ones to providing tsunami relief. Responsible tourism, it says, is not imposing one' s culture on others or conforming totally to a local culture. It is about a respectful and equal exchange of values.

Before jumping on the voluntourism bandwagon, says Globe Aware' s McMillan, travelers should make sure that the organization they are working with is legitimate and that they understand how donations are used for the benefit of the community.

" " Just handing out funds creates dependency, and you don' t want to do that,' ' McMillan points out. " " Potential volunteers should be able to ask for references from past volunteer participants.' ' For Sinclair, the occupational therapist, the rewards of service " " are in increased knowledge of the region and its health care needs, in sharing global perspectives with my local counterparts and in getting to know some really fantastic people.' '


Condé Nast Traveler: Globe Aware in Ghana

Travel writer George Rush traveled with Globe Aware for a volunteer vacation in Ghana. Joined by his 10-year-old son  Eamon, George’s adventures in-sights are featured in a colorful 5,000 word essay in the September 2010 edition of Condé Nast Traveler.

Trying (Hard) to Be a Good Man in Africa

By George Rush
Published September 2010
It' s funny, the detours you take when you set out to enlighten a nation.
My ten"year"old son, Eamon, and I had come to Ghana as volunteers to lend a hand in building a computer center. We were supposed to help connect a rural village to the World Wide Web, so that, one day, its benighted people might learn to Google, Wiki, and Twitter. But here I was in a Vodun ceremony, stripped down to a white sarong, whipping my head like a hypnotized chicken, as a fetish priest and his coven of drummers connected me to an older Ethernet.
Eamon shook his head in embarrassment. Isn' t it awful when your dad drags you to Africa and then gets lost in a spirit trance?
It had started as a lark. After a morning spent mixing mortar and lugging cinder blocks, our little band of volunteers figured a hike would be a good way to walk off lunch. We' d marched through the bush for less than an hour when we came to a clearing where a half"dozen thatched huts were protected by a stone talisman, a wax"covered little man with a knife in his head. This was the Mina Mavo Healing Center. People stayed here for days, looking for a cure for their physical and mental maladies. We hadn' t come with any complaints. And yet, to different degrees, all of us saw Ghana as a kind of healing center. Among our patients were a recent divorcée, a globe"trotting executive craving a reward beyond frequent"flier miles, and a young family simply looking for relief from the usual holiday, where the memory of the trip fades faster than the tan. We all wanted to sweat off some of our self"absorption. I' d been to thirty"five or so countries, but I often came home feeling that I' d just scratched the surface of the culture, leaving behind nothing more than a little baksheesh. I was looking for the deep"tissue massage you can get only by doing hard labor for a good cause. I also had this picture of working with my son, shoulder to shoulder, to conquer African poverty' even if I could barely get him to clean our cat' s litter box.
We weren' t the first to come to Ghana looking to be useful. The country' s political stability, its robust economy (it has one of the world' s best"performing stock markets), and the fact that its people speak English have made Ghana one of the most popular African destinations for anyone who ever considered joining the Peace Corps. Goodwill ambassador Louis Armstrong visited in 1956, the year before the citizens of the Gold Coast won their independence from Great Britain after a decade of civil disobedience. More than 100,000 fans turned out to hear Satchmo play at Accra' s Old Polo Ground.
"I came from here, way back," he said, after spotting a woman who resembled his late mother. "Now I know this is my country too."
Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou came later to see the first sub"Saharan nation to hand its colonial rulers their hats. Some of them saw Ghana as a refuge from American prejudice and were attracted to first president Kwame Nkrumah' s dream of Pan"African unity. Some seventy thousand Americans visited Ghana last year, and the country remains a pilgrimage destination for African"Americans' including Stevie Wonder, Will Smith, Danny Glover, Beyoncé, and Jay"Z' who come to see, among other historically significant sites, the continent' s largest repository of slave forts.
Ghana has not escaped coups and corruption. But its democratic progress has been impressive enough to earn visits from presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama (who chose to visit Ghana even over his father' s homeland, Kenya).
But Ghana isn' t only about tear¬stained remembrance and hernia"inducing acts of charity. A couple of taxi rides with Ghanaian drivers in New York City was enough to tip me off that these people were a lively bunch. Their enduring art forms include traveling comic operas called concert parties and highlife music, a swinging Africanized jazz percolating with social commentary. At least one sociologist has suggested that Ghanaians laugh too easily' to conform and to avoid confrontation. Is it any wonder that a Ghanaian, Kofi Annan, should win the Nobel Peace Prize? Or that the Ghanaian calendar should groan with celebrations? Looking it over, I saw that barely a week passes without some festival, saluting everything from the moon to the yam. There is an even greater abundance of wildlife in Ghana' s eighteen national parks and reserves. So I decided that, before we surrendered for community service, Eamon and I should see some of the country.
An eleven"hour flight from New York deposited us in the capital of Accra on a rainy morning. I' d mapped out an express"lane itinerary that had us circumnavigating the country (about the size of Michigan) in a week. We' d need to make good time. There at the airport to help us was our Land Tours guide, Ben Addo, a husky, genial man who' d driven Jesse Jackson a few times. Underscoring Ghana' s brotherhood with America, Ben made our first stop the former home of W.E.B. DuBois, the Massachusetts"born civil rights pioneer who spent his final years here. We also hit the memorial park honoring President Nkrumah, a graduate of Pennsylvania' s Lincoln University. A bronze statue of Nkrumah was missing its head and left arm (broken off during a 1966 coup). The city of about 4.5 million people takes its name from the Akan word for "ants," because there were once many anthills here. Today they' ve been replaced by more than a dozen skyscrapers, but most of Accra still doesn' t climb above three stories. On our tour of the town, we saw at least a dozen remnants of the British realm, including the nineteenth"century Holy Trinity Cathedral, designed by Sir Aston Webb, architect of London' s Victoria and Albert Museum. The Soviets had clearly inspired Black Star Square, with its triumphal Independence Arch.
The Chinese had supplied the soaring modernist National Theatre, which claims the only classical symphony orchestra in West, Central, and East Africa, and the Danes had left behind the seventeenth"century Osu Castle. It had been home to every Ghanaian president until 2009, when members of President John Kufuor' s National Patriotic party decided he shouldn' t live in a former slave fort, borrowed thirty million dollars from India, and built a palace shaped like a Ghanaian chief' s throne stool. We had started our tour at Nkrumah' s mausoleum, and Ben thought it made perfect sense to end it at Accra' s coffin sho ps. Back in the 1950s, carpenter Kane Kwei knew a lady who dreamed of flying. When she died, he made her a casket shaped like an airplane, and that was when sepulchre sculpture really took off in Accra. Kwei' s twenty"five"year"old grandson, Eric, invited us into a showroom where we saw a giant chicken, a fishing boat, a beer bottle, and a satin"lined mango.
Eric had just sold a Mercedes"Benz casket.
"It' s very popular among rich people," he said.
My wiseacre son suggested that the gray snail in the corner might be good for his old dad.
"The snail is usually for a lawyer or a chief," Eric explained, restoring my reputation. "They are very slow, but they usually get to their destination." Next, we were off to Ada, a much smaller town about two hours east, on the Atlantic. (The late soul man Isaac Hayes had a home here.) On the way, we picked up Otor Plahar, an Ada"born government official who had offered to introduce me to local chiefs during the weeklong warrior festival of Asafotufiam.
Ghana has a British"begotten parliament and justice system, complete with white wigs. It also has a National House of Chiefs, which has no executive or legislative power but whose advice is respected on matters of tradition. While some of its hereditary leaders are wealthy and politically wired, others squeak by on what they make from humble day jobs. Arriving in Ada, Otor led us down a dirt alley to a modest one"story dwelling where chickens pecked outside. This was the court of our first chief, Nene Tsatsu Pediator IV. The seventy"five"year"old leader of the Kudzragbe clan (one of ten in Ada) wore a black headband decorated with gold moons and stars. One bare, bony shoulder stuck out of his toga, which was made of Ghana' s famous kente cloth. A sentry holding a nineteenth"century musket stood behind the chief as he chatted on his cell phone.
Custom forbade us from speaking directly to Nene Pediator, dictating that we direct all questions to his court linguist. But after a few awkward exchanges, the chief dispensed with formality. He explained that members of his clan sought his opinion on issues ranging from real estate to adultery.
"Marital disputes' we do a lot of those," he said, flashing a gold tooth. "We give fines."
We spoke for about half an hour, until it came time to give the chief his traditional present. Most chiefs accepted a "libation." Otor whispered that this one, a retired accountant, would prefer cash.
"One hundred dollars U.S. would be fine," he suggested.
I was stunned by the amount, but I didn' t want to breach protocol, especially while that guy with the musket was watching me. I slipped the bills to Otor.
We moved on to the gathering of Ada' s traditional military units, known as asafo companies. Once the warriors of the village, the companies are now dedicated to community service. But during this first week of August, their younger members commemorate Ada' s eighteenth" and nineteenth"century military victories with ram"like displays of testosterone. Stepping cautiously around an open field, we saw a strapping, shirtless teenager wearing antelope horns and brandishing an ancient sword. His friends fired flintlocks into the air. The young men had no bullets. But they' d had a bit of palm wine. At any moment, one of them might sneak up behind you and unload his musket near your ear. One guy stuffed gunpowder into a metal pipe pinched between his legs. Every few minutes, he' d ejaculate fire.
Overseeing this mock combat were the chiefs. Some of them wore capes of leaves. Their linguists gripped staffs carved with power symbols' the parrot, the frog, the egg. Eventually, everyone marched down the road to the Volta River, carrying on their heads their clan chiefs' stools, as well as drums as long as five feet. The celebrants had sung Christian hymns earlier in the day, but that didn' t keep away the fetish priestesses' older ladies, dressed in white, who stayed in touch with the pre"missionary gods. One of the crones whirled around, clenching her fists as though she were boxing someone we couldn' t see.
The height of the festivities came the next day, when Ada' s paramount chief, Nene Abram Kabu Akuaku III, convened his durbar at a parade ground ringed by hundreds of people. Each of the clan chiefs arrived on a palanquin shouldered by his followers. The chiefs wore their finest kente and enough gold bling to humble an American rap star. Once they' d dismounted their litters, the clan leaders crossed the durbar' shaded by umbrella bearers and heralded by men blowing tusks' to swear their allegiance.
After each chief had recalled his clan' s role in historic battles, the paramount chief declared, "We are still at war' this war of development of our resources." He mentioned threats to the local wetlands and boundary disputes. He also called upon attending political candidates to conduct their campaigns "in a manner devoid of insults . . . that would likely inflame passions."
And this was a crowd with flammable passions. Hoisted into the air by their bearers, the chiefs danced on their litters and waved their ceremonial sabers. Jockeying for position in the royal convoy was Nene Buertey Okumko Obuapong IV, whose "war shirt" shimmered with mirrors that deflected the evil eye. The gun smoke of his clan' s musketeers mingled with the dust until the brawny chief appeared to be floating on a russet cloud. He seemed to be having a good time, bouncing up and down, but I sensed his heart fluttering. The day before he' d confided, "I pray to God they don' t drop me."
I was thinking the same thing at six the next morning as we climbed into the clouds aboard a twin"engine Antrak Air palanquin, winging toward the Northern Region city of Tamale. Our wheelman, Ben, met us when we landed, having set out the day before on the eleven"hour drive from the coast. From Tamale, we headed west across dry red terrain relieved by fat baobab trees and stout thatch"and"clay huts. Stopping in Larabanga, we found that Allah, rather than Jesus, held sway, and learned that the villagers claim their mud"and"stick mosque is the oldest building in Ghana. The Northern Region' s biggest draw for us, though, was the country' s largest nature sanctuary.
Ghana might not have the sprawling game reserves of eastern and southern Africa, with their rhinos, zebras, and giraffes. But its 1.2 million"acre Mole Nation al Park does have an estimated six hundred elephants, more than a thousand buffaloes, five types of primates, thirty"three kinds of reptiles, about three hundred bird species, and a dozen makes of antelope. Among its seventeen varieties of carnivores are just a couple of leopards and lions. With so few man"eaters on the prowl in Mole (pronounced mo"lay), you didn' t need to ride around in a Land Rover for protection. You could get intimate with the savanna and walk through the bush, as we did with our dry"humored ranger, D. K. Basig. He carried a vintage .375"caliber carbine but assured us, "I' ve never had to fire it."
We followed him through a fragrant sea of lemongrass and shadowed a cortege of foraging elephants. Around noon, they ended up at a lagoon, where some of their buddies were already snorkeling, their trunks poking out of the water.
The next day, we headed south, past maize and cassava fields, to Kumasi, Ghana' s second"largest city. Founded in 1695, it was the capital of the gold"rich state of Ashanti, whose slave"trading people once controlled an empire probably larger than today' s Ghana.
One of the town' s few remnants of the British realm is Kumasi Fort. Its military museum chronicles the service of Ghanaian soldiers like Bukari Moshie, who even as a sergeant major was not entitled to wear shoes, and three Ghanaian World War II vets who were killed in 1948' not in battle but in a peaceful demonstration against Britain' s refusal to give them their promised pension. Their deaths helped ignite Ghana' s independence movement. A few examples of vernacular Ashanti architecture survive in ten sacred shrines designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One, known as Aduko Jachie, is tucked away at the end of a street lined with evangelical churches, whose ministers tell their congregations to stay away from the shrine. But people still come' secretly, according to its female caretaker, Akua Bedu. The shrine' s last fetish priest ran off years ago, but Akua still prunes the bush in its courtyard. "If you let it blossom," she explained, "a prominent person in town will die."
From Kumasi, we proceeded south to Assin Manso, where slaves would stop for inspection before being shipped to the coast. A sign near the riverbank commemorates their "last bath." African"Americans sometimes bring home vessels of the river' s water and leave wreaths at the graves of two former slaves whose remains were flown here from the United States and Jamaica in 1998.
From Assin Manso it was on to the city of Cape Coast, where in 1653 the Swedes erected a fort on rocks overlooking the Atlantic. The British made the fort' s walls stronger and dungeons deeper, to hold tens of thousands of human beings who were shipped like cargo to the Americas. Descending into this cobblestone purgatory, we saw a line on the wall three feet high that marked the tide of feces, straw, and corpses that the dungeon once contained.
About five hundred women were stored in a separate hell, where the master had his pick. Those who survived their stay in the fort were led to the ships through the Door of No Return.
The following morning, we headed back to Accra to meet up with our fellow Globe Aware volunteers. We could spot one another by our white T"shirts proclaiming, have fun, help people. Founded in 2000, the Dallas"based nonprofit arranges "adventures in service" in fifteen countries. Eamon was pleased to meet a co"conspirator in another ten"year"old boy, Wyatt Keyser, who came with his father, Wayne, a park ranger from Nevada, and his vivacious mother, Jodee. Also on board were Scott Strazik, a General Electric executive; Julie Tortorici, a New York filmmaker shooting a documentary about rebuilding her life after a divorce; and Joe Amon, her laser"witted cameraman.
Each of us had paid thirteen hundred dollars for the privilege of breaking our asses. There to help us do that was Richard Kwashie Yinkah, the thirty"year"old founder of Disaster Volunteers of Ghana. In the last eight years, Richard and his team had built schools, staffed orphanages, and imported books, computers, and teachers from abroad. For all his dedication, Richard had a hip sense of humor' especially when he laid Ghana' s soul"brother handshake on me. First came the interlocking of fists, followed by some quick thumb play, then a slow tango of the middle fingers, all of which culminated in a resounding snap when the two parties pulled their hands apart. At least that was how it was supposed to go. Somehow my hand stayed glued to Richard' s. There was no snap.
"Keep practicing," he said with a wink.
Richard' s thirty"two"year"old first lieutenant, Robert Tornu, helped wedge us into a beat"up passenger van. After driving northeast for two hours, we reached Ho, which would be our base. Ho boasts three hospitals, a cathedral, a museum, a prison, and several hotels and Internet cafés. But many people still think of it as a large village.
We arrived just as Ho' s paramount chief, Togbe Afede XIV, was honoring his predecessor, the late Togbe Afede Asor II, with a procession. Asafo warriors were firing muskets. Lithe, ocher"haired beauties were swiveling their hips. A barefoot fetish priestess who resembled Oprah Winfrey spun around in a trance. Dancers and drummers circled her whenever she plopped down in the middle of the street to blow her whistle.
"Some Christian ladies would be offended to see her here," said Richard. "But tradition says she should have a place in the procession."
We shared a catered dinner in the parking lot of Ho' s public bus terminal, then settled into the bricklike single beds of our dorm rooms at the Ghana National Teachers Association Hostel.
The next day was Sunday. Since almost sixty"nine percent of Ghanaians are Christian, working on their Sabbath was out. So we continued our cultural immersion, rumbling in our van through jade valleys for an hour till we reached the Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary on the border of Togo. There, we walked through a forest glittering with butterflies and across nine footbridges, until the birdsong was devoured by the roar of Wli Falls, said to be the tallest plunge of water in West Africa. Even before we saw it, the mist cooled our faces. Eamon and I had gone bodysurfing in the crashing Atlantic, but we' d stayed out of ponds for fear of the dreaded bilharzia parasites that dwell in still water. Here, the roiling pool at the bottom of the falls was safe. In fact, it was fantastic. We dove into its mighty clouds of joy like a bunch of Baptists. The next morning, we drove forty"five minutes to Tsyome Afedo, a village of well"kept mud"brick houses surrounded by verdant hills. As we got out of t he van, a tipsy old man greeted us, banging a cowbell.
"My name is Teddy Bonfu," he rasped. "But everybody calls me Teddy Bones."
I tried to give him the Ghanaian handshake but again failed miserably. There was no snap.
Richard and Robert guided us to a house where the chief, Togbega Tomadofodoe IV, had gathered with his council. All wore their best togas.
The chief' s linguist gave us a brief history of Tsyome Afedo. He recalled how the Ewe people had settled here in about 1795. Although Tsyome Afedo still isn' t on most maps, it now has a public phone booth and a bus stop. The village has about seven hundred people who farm small tracts, but the linguist said more and more of the young men and women have been getting on the bus to go to the city, to seek jobs and a modern education.
"If we had a computer center," said the linguist, "we believe more people would stay. Our children could browse and learn."
We followed Richard to the work site. So far, the computer center consisted of just three unfinished cinder block walls.
"Progress stops and starts because there is no full"time support," Richard explained. "People have to stop their farming to work on it."
But now the Yanks had come to get the job done! Provided someone pointed us in the right direction. Wyatt' s father, Wayne, and I headed off to a clearing where men were hand"sawing fourteen"foot boards from a felled kapok tree. Wayne and I hoisted a plank onto our shoulders. We hadn' t gotten far down the forest path before sweat was running into our eyes. As we stopped for breath, a barefoot granny whizzed by us with a larger board balanced on her head. I felt like a snail.
Someone asked me to fetch some cement. I loaded two fifty"pound bags into a wheelbarrow, which immediately tipped over. Eventually, I got them to the mortar"mixing slab, where I joined in the shoveling. But I couldn' t quite keep up with the seamless groove of the human cement mixers.
When the mortar was ready, we shoveled it into aluminum pans that the village women lifted onto their heads. After struggling to carry the heavy pans in our arms, we realized that the ladies were onto something. I hoisted a pan onto my head.
"Eamon, take my picture!" I said.
My camera"smile soon turned into a grimace as I felt the pan driving my baseball cap' s top button into my skull.
Noon' s pitiless sun made everyone call it a day. That night, at dinner, some of us questioned how much we were helping the people of Tsyome Afedo.
"I think we may just be comic relief for them," I told Richard. "We' re funny to watch."
"Your coming here wakes them up," he insisted. "Too often, our people wait for a miracle. They go to these new evangelical churches that promise them the Lord will find a way. We can' t wait for God, or for the government, to build the school.
"You guys are part of the motivation for these people," he went on. "They say, " If these Americans can travel three thousand miles to our village just to move concrete, why shouldn' t we do it?' "
We returned to the work site pumped up. When the masons called for mortar, we scrambled to get it. Eamon and Wyatt shoveled cement like a couple of Local 147 sandhogs.
There seemed to be more villagers on the site. Even their queen mother was carrying planks. Maybe Richard was right about our inspiring them. Only . . . we may have inspired them too much. Now they were hogging all the aluminum pans, leaving us to watch.
"They don' t want you to get tired," explained Robert.
We needed more pans. The next morning, we stocked up at the hardware store in Ho and marched onto the work site like Spartans, flashing our gleaming shields. That day we showed our grit' covering ourselves, if not in glory, then in a lot of dirt.
We did get breaks. The village boys showed Eamon how to play the talking drums, and Eamon showed the boys how to throw an American football. One big Ghanaian kid was soon drilling perfect spirals into my gut. (Is it any wonder the country' s Black Stars soccer team booted us out of the World Cup?)
On our last day, more villagers showed up to work than we' d seen all week. The ladies were lined up like ballerinas with fifty"pound cinder blocks on their heads. In between loads, the women would lob taunts at the male masons about their productivity. The men growled back. But the bickering always ended in laughter' the Ghanaian rule.
Where did Eamon go? He' d been sawing iron rods' his greatest feat of independence' but now he' d disappeared. I found him in a school classroom. Three concentric circles of kids hovered around him, or rather around the glowing screen of his Nintendo. They' d never seen a computer you could hold in your palm. Introducing video games to the village made me feel a bit like a playground drug dealer. But maybe this was the shape of things to come, once their computer center opened. And Eamon' s eye candy did open a discussion. Watching the tiny Nintendo skateboarder, one boy asked, "What is skateboarding?"
"It' s like surfing, only on the street," I said.
"What is surfing?" asked the boy.
After lunch and an impromptu international soccer match, Richard asked us if we wanted to visit a Vodun village.
We started down a path into the forest. Tagging along was our ever"present cowbell banger, Teddy Bones' lured no doubt by our offertory bottle of gin. Having forded a stream, we came to that group of thatch

USAToday: Finding the Right Volunteer Vacation

Anne Wallace Allen, a reporter with The Associated Press, considers the motivating factors that leads Americans to take volunteer vacations. Allen considers the life and professional experience of a number of volunteer vacationers and how these individuals want more out of a vacation – and life – than a standard day on the beach and an extended period of downtime.  Allen also spoke with Globe Aware client Pam Solon who explains she selected Globe Aware “because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price.”

How to find the right volunteer vacation

By Anne Wallace Allen, For The Associated Press

Kathy Boisvert, who teaches preschoolers with special needs near her home in Massachusetts, had never been overseas before she signed up with World Teach, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteer teachers with overseas assignments.

Now Boisvert is spending her third summer at a tiny school in a small community an hour northeast of Cape Town, through World Teach. Volunteering at the school for children with disabilities gives her a way to travel and enriches her life when she gets back home.

“Going on a vacation is fun, but I’m not somebody who wants to sit; I won’t lie on the beach,” said Boisvert, of Uxbridge, Mass. “I like being busy.”

Volunteer vacations are a way for travelers to see an area, especially in the developing world, and to get to know its people in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, for tourists. They also give travelers a way to help with problems they might not see in closer to home. And for kids, they provide some perspective, said Mark Solon of Boise, who is volunteering in Cambodia and Ghana this summer with his wife Pam and their two kids, ages 10 and 11.

“American kids need a better dose of perspective about how fortunate they are,” said Solon. “Our job as parents is to produce two kids that contribute to society. So we think this is just part of their education.”

Boisvert, who has a doctorate, teaches an extra class at the University of Massachusetts during the school year to pay for her airfare and lodging.

“It’s really an investment,” said Boisvert. “It has changed my point of view. In this community in South Africa they’re doing the best they can with the little they have, so here, I think I can do so much more. The resources are here; it’s not catastrophic like it was there.”

Volunteer abroad programs can charge thousands of dollars a week for the privilege of helping out, not including airfare. The money goes to administration, lodging, food, and often to the community organizations that are working with the volunteers.

Fees charged by World Teach range from $1,000 to teach in Columbia or China, to almost $6,000 for Rwanda, Tanzania, or Namibia, including airfare. The organization offers year-long and summer-long programs.

“The airfare tends to be a very large percentage of the program cost,” said Maki Park, the outreach director at World Teach.

With so many options for volunteering abroad, it’s difficult to figure out which programs are legitimate ' and which ones really do help people in the local communities they serve, for example ' and which are just costly vacations with a veneer of volunteerism.

Boisvert chose World Teach because it’s part of Harvard University’s Center for International Development, a name that she trusted would ensure the program’s legitimacy. She likes World Teach because volunteers can choose where they want to go based on their own interests. She also looked at the Peace Corps, which doesn’t cost volunteers anything, but which requires a two-year commitment and sends the volunteer to a site chosen by the Peace Corps, not by the volunteer.

Pam Solon reviewed dozens of websites, talked to other families who had volunteered abroad, and read Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger and Ed Asner. She chose GlobeAware,, because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price.

But there are many other online options for finding volunteer opportunities abroad.

VAOPS, which stands for Volunteer Abroad Opportunities '' helps would-be volunteers find free and low-cost trips. Site founder Russell Gagnebin says he created the site after spending hours searching for a volunteer opportunity for himself and realizing that fees paid by volunteers don’t always benefit the charities they work with. Many of the VAOPS listings are designed to connect volunteers directly with the charities, rather than having the trip organized by a middleman.

Gagnebin says that one of his favorite volunteer programs is The Light in Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Peru where volunteers can teach, help kids with their homework, and carry out building projects. Room and board is about $300 a month; information about contacting the group is on the VAOPS site along with many others.

The University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center '' has a wealth of information for would-be volunteers, including a list of high-quality programs that UMN has worked with in the past. The site also offers sample questions that can help you learn if a program is legitimate and a good fit.

“Every program sounds wonderful, but if you talk to an actual past participant and ask the right questions you can get some meaningful answers,” said Scott Daby, a program director at the Learning Abroad Center. “Ask how the project helped the community, how much money goes into the community, that kind of thing.”

The International Volunteer Program Association at also offers guidance on choosing the right program, including a list of best practices.

New York Filmmaker, Volunteer Vacationer Celebrates Film Premiere

Julie Tortorici, a Glen Cove native, celebrated the Long Island premiere of her new film at the Long Island International Film Expo on July 14. Julie wrote and directed Milestone, making it her first film as director. This short film has been accepted to film festivals worldwide, including the New York Downtown Short Film Festival and Los Angeles Women' s International Film Festival. Julie is also a Globe Aware client who recently travelled to Ghana and documented her remarkable experience in “Best Laid Plans”, a film that questions what a person does when their life plan throws a curve ball at them.  Julie was recently profiled in a Long Island, New York newspaper, in the lead up to the premiere of
Milestone, her first film as director:

Glen Cove' s Julie Tortorici Celebrates LI Film Premiere

Milestone is a short comedy about what happens when tubs of ice cream and sad movies don' t get you past your heartbreak – a plot that many people can relate to. In the film, the friends of the heartbroken woman try to help with her break-up. Julie said that she likes to write from her own experience, sharing, "I think its true, write what you know. I take my experiences and twist them around non-fiction to fiction if you will." Inspiration for Milestone, therefore came from the support she gets from those around her, as she stated, "I have a great group of friends around me, my family is amazing."

Directing is just one of Julie' s many talents. She is an actor, writer and producer at On the Leesh Productions, a New York City company that creates film, theater and Web series. Alica Arinella, CEO and president of On the Leesh Productions has been a mentor as well as great friend for Julie, saying, "I can' t say enough great things about her."

One of Julie' s most recent projects, in which she served as producer as well as writer was What can You do 365. Created by Jessica Arinella, this series offers people ideas to combat major world issues such as global warming, domestic violence and hunger even if they only can give one minute of time. Julie, is a co- head writer, which gives her the ability to really "sink her teeth into a series that is both online and premiered on television" as it was shown on PBS affiliate WLIW. "It' s been really fun…I like to say we' re starting a one minute movement" said Julie.

Another major project in her life right now is her feature film, For Belly, which is currently in post-production. For Belly is based on her one woman show that she created right after college and now has been adapted into her first feature film. She produced, wrote and starred in this emotional drama that focuses on a woman suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Adapting a one-woman show into a screen play was another sort of adventure for me," said Julie. Alicia Arinella and Matthew Rashid directed this film. It is a cast of three, with Jessica Arinella, Mary Micari and of course, Julie herself. Julie hopes that it will be finished by late summer!

 Among the many projects that Julie has done, she also found time for a volunteer vacation in Ghana, with an organization called Globe Aware. "I wanted to go away, and I knew I' d be going by myself. I always wanted to go to Africa," she said. This organization gave busy people the opportunity to volunteer in a country for about a week. The thought of bringing a camera ran through Julie' s mind before she went, and of course she brought one, saying, "I went from going on a vacation to all of a sudden doing a documentary." This documentary that began in Ghana suddenly was the beginning of her project, Best Laid Plans, a film that questions what a person does when their life plan throws a curve ball at them.

Julie is currently in the midst of writing a novel called The Break Up. When asked how writing a novel compares to doing a film script she explained how different it was. "A movie is all about dialogue where a novel, you' re really painting the picture." Julie' s father is a writer, primarily a novelist, and has been a great guide for her throughout this new project. The novel is not finished yet but she hopes that it will be published in the near feature. "It' s been very different but really fun," said Julie about her writing experience.

Julie has had a great experience growing up in Glen Cove, saying, "It' s a rich place in a number of ways." As a student at Glen Cove High School, in the class of 1993, she participated in the school' s Masquers drama program. Dale Zurbrick, Julie' s choir teacher and Sally Zweibach, an English and acting teacher, both had a tremendous impact on Julie during her years at GCHS. She said both were extremely supportive and were terrific influences on her in the pursuit of her passions.

She attended Rutgers University, where she studied film and majored in political science. "The wonderful thing about the arts is that if you' re interested in something, you' re finding your own creative process, you really can kind of learn as you go," said Julie. "I think in studying any kind of craft, there are things you need to learn. I think that those things you can learn in the field." When speaking about her experience with a camera, she said that at first, she did not use the camera herself, however "Alicia has taught me the camera, now I' m comfortable with it," proving what she was able to learn without studying in school.

Julie said that she is blessed because of the great support she receives from her family. Her parents have always been there for her, believing in her every step. She also finds comfort from her older sister, also a writer, who lives with her family in Oakland.

"I' m a movie lover," said Julie. "I think if you' re interested in any kind of artistic medium, there is a way you can do it, even if it means it' s not your full-time job. I think it' s a wonderful outlet."

Julie has many high hopes for her future: "I hope to reach whatever the next place for me to reach is. All of these projects are in different states, I' m just excited for them to come out into the world."

Chicago Healthcare Software Salesman and Globe Aware Volunteer Vacationer Named Chief of Ghana Village

Special ceremony held to make Peter Sheehan a chief of Mafi-Wudukpo, a rural community located within the North Tongu District of the Volta region of Ghana.

On July 8, 2010, Peter Sheehan, 34, of Chicago IL., was officially made chief of Mafi-Wudukpo, a village in Ghana. Peter accepted the new moniker Torgbui Nubueke I (New Dawn) from Torgbui Torbo Dakpui III and an assortment of Ghanaian elders, welcoming him as a chief of the agrarian village located in south eastern Ghana.

Peter, and his wife Colleen Sheehan, 29, a senior associate producer at Oprah Winfrey Show, were in Ghana with Globe Aware ( on a one-week volunteer vacation, July 3-9, 2010. Colleen taught in the village while Peter helped construct sanitation facilities, including digging trenches, laying conduits, drainage, and mixing concrete.

"I tried my best to be the first to the job site every day and I always tried to keep busy in order to quickly earn the trust and respect of the people since verbal communication was difficult," explains Peter. "Chief Torgbui Torbo Dakpui III and the elders would be at the worksite all day, observing the progress. The chief eventually invited me to sit and talk and we discussed a wide variety of topics. He is a very interesting man because he is only 30 years old but he has been chief for 12 years."
On July 8 and the day before Peter and Colleen were to leave, their Globe Aware guide notified Peter that the chief had decided to make him a chief. A formal ceremony was held that day.
Peter was dressed in a traditional robe, provided special beads, special sandals and two girls were assigned to follow and fan Peter as he made a formal entrance before the entire village.
"I quickly realized that this was not simple gesture. This was no joke and this was real," relates Peter." I remember thinking to myself that I had better be attentive, very present in the moment and pay attention to every detail."
The video of the ceremony can be viewed on Globe Aware' s website ( and blog (
"During the ceremony my translator was explaining that the chief felt that the fact two Americans came all this way to help his village marked a new era for the region, hence, " new dawn' became my honorary name." Adds Peter, "The chief explained that my wife would be crowned " Queen Mother' on our next visit since tradition dictates both ceremonies cannot be held on the same day."
Peter received a plot of land to build on and he also received a ram during the ceremony.
"Living in the village we were able to overcome the language barrier by communicating through active participation and working within their environment," says Peter. "While I am proud of what were able to accomplish, we are now absolutely committed to ensure that this is just the very beginning of the work we will do for our new family in Mafi-Wudukpo."
If you would like more information about taking a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Romania, Peru, China, India, or you are interested in voluntourism in another country or on another continent, please visit Globe Aware’s Destinations Gallery for program and trip descriptions, dates and Minimum Contribution Fees.


Voluntourism's impact in Northern California

There is a great article in Northern California' s Times-Standard newspaper. The author explains the origins and evolution of the "voluntourism" concept, how volunteer vacations have made their mark in California and the importance of working with reputable, established firms such as Globe Aware:

Voluntourism is an exhilarating and satisfying adventure that appeals to people of all ages; there are meaningful experiences out there for everyone," writes Todd Metcalf, Volunteer Services Manager at the Volunteer Center of the Redwoods. "Typically, agencies such as "Globe Aware" and "Handsup Holidays" coordinate vacations, which are expertly planned and led by committed, knowledgeable professionals. Voluntourists are not required to have any special skills or speak a foreign language. The coordinating agencies prepare the destination prior to arrival and then accompany and work alongside voluntourists during their volunteer vacation."

Metcalf goes on to explain the origins and importance of voluntourism to the Eureka, California community:

Good news on the North Coast — the rains have stopped and summer is officially here. And it’s not too late to plan a summer getaway. Even in these interesting economic times, vacation bargains can be found and they are in the form of something called "voluntourism."

The first organization to introduce that term and concept was the Nevada Board of Tourism in 1998. The board was attempting to attract local residents to volunteering in support of the development of rural tourism in remote locations of Nevada.

Although this is quite different from what the term is currently being used to describe, it is an interesting bit of trivia nonetheless. As the word implies, voluntourism combines the best intentions of the nonprofit sector with the excitement of a tourist’s experience to create stimulating, service-oriented vacations that are becoming popular vacation options.

A Travelocity poll taken in December 2008 found that 38 percent of the 1,000 respondents had added volunteering to their 2007 vacation planning options.

Meanwhile, Travel Industry of America statistics indicate that 55 million people had volunteered during a trip with more than twice that number making plans to do so in the near future. The idea of combining voluntary service with travel is not a new concept. It can be traced back for many thousands of years in various cultures and religious orders throughout the world. Missionaries, healers and medical practitioners, sailors, explorers and countless others have rendered service in conjunction with their travels.

But what about modern-day voluntourism? In its current form, voluntourism received a big boost from the founding of Volunteer Service Overseas in 1958 by Alec and Mora Dickson, and from the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps, established in 1961 during the John F. Kennedy administration.

Subsequent opportunities include Service Learning, established in 1965; Study Abroad Programs, formed in the 1970s; the ecotourism vacations that became popular in the 1980s; and the Volunteer Vacations program developed in the 1990s. Voluntouring can take you almost anywhere.

You can:

  • Repair trails and roads in Nepal;
  • Build hospitals in Eastern Europe;
  • Work on irrigation projects in Southeast Asia;
  • Construct efficient ovens in Central America; or
  • Build schools in the Andes mountains.

For those a little less adventurous, here are some opportunities closer to home:

  • Friends of the Dunes in Manila are always seeking volunteers.
  • Serve as a mentor and counsellor for girls at North Star Quest Camp on the beautiful Mattole River.
  • Attend Humboldt "trail stewards" training for Hammond Trail and Cooper Gulch (volunteers help with trail maintenance, repair and construction).
If you would like more information about taking a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Romania, Peru, China, India, or you are interested in voluntourism in another country or on another continent, please visit Globe Aware’s Destinations Gallery for program and trip descriptions, dates and Minimum Contribution Fees.


Globe Aware Volunteer Vacations in the Spotlight

Globe Aware continues to reach out to parties, partners and individuals interested in travel that makes a difference. Kimberly Haley-Coleman, Executive Director, Globe Aware was recently featured in a profile series at, a popular web-resource with a focus on keeping travelers traveling safely:

1. Who are you? Brief description of trips you offer

Globe Aware is a nonprofit that organizes one week volunteer programs in communities all around the world. Our focus is to promote cultural awareness and sustainability. For us, the concept of sustainability is to help others stand on their own two feet; to teach skills rather than reliance. For example, we build schools in Ghana, homes in Vietnam, assemble wheelchairs for landmine victims in Cambodia. All of our volunteer programs are designed to be safe, culturally interesting, genuinely beneficial to a needy community, and involve significant interaction with the host community. Globe Aware is not a foundation that focuses on giving out charity, but rather an organization which focuses on creating self reliance.

2. How do you define Responsible Travel?

Responsible travel, for us, means ensuring that volunteers are engaged in empowering the host communities and ensuring they are involved in project implementation so that they know how to do them. It also means letting the local community identify where they think they need help and what kind of solution they want. While Globe Aware’s direct, financial assistance benefits the community economically, it is the the actual involvement and collaboration between the volunteers and the community that is of the greatest mutual benefit. Responsible travel also means respecting the culture and heritage of the community in which you are traveling. A volunteer’s goal should not be to change the host community, but rather to work side by side on projects the community finds meaningful.

3. What does your company do to make sure it travels responsibly?

We promote responsible travel by ensuring that the communities in which we work are the ones choosing which projects and initiatives our volunteer work on. We do have set requirements for potential projects – that they be safe, culturally interesting, and genuinely beneficial, but beyond that we let the host communities, the experts on their own culture and needs, tell us how we can help them. Additionally, Globe Aware offsets its carbon emissions with, the country’s leading carbon offset organization. Our carbon footprint is estimated at less than 70 tons annually, and we have chosen to support carbon-reducing projects in renewable energy to offset the CO2 that is produced in running our offices worldwide, from powering our offices to the transportation used to get to and from our work sites. This commitment places Globe Aware as an environmental leader in the volunteer abroad community and demonstrates proactive steps being taken in the fight against global climate change.

4. Tell us about a successful initiative. And an unsuccessful one – what did you learn?

A few of our most recent successful initiatives have been the construction of school buildings in rural Ghana. These children in this community did not have good access to education because of lack of facilities. These school buildings have changed that and now these kids are poised to pursue an education and work skills and break free from the cycle of poverty. Less successful has been promoting projects in communities that are more than 6 hours from the airport of entry. Our primary volunteers tend to be working professionals and they normally only have about a week to take off to participate in a program. Our experience has been that project sites that are too far from the airport of entry tend to be harder to promote to short term volunteers, even if it is a really great project in a needy community.

5. What' s some advice you can offer to travelers wanting to travel responsibly?

Travelers wanting to travel responsibly should learn about the culture of the community they are going to visit before they set off for the airport. When contemplating bringing additional donations, think about just bringing some extra funds with you and buying supplies at a local shop. This helps the community in a number of ways – they get needed supplies and local businesses are generating revenue. Another thing to consider is watching your waste. Use a refillable water bottle and the like. Trash has to go somewhere and in developing communities there is a lack of sanitation services to responsibly remove waste. Outside of volunteering, travelers should opt to stay at locally run hotels and eat at locally owned restaurants. By helping locally owned businesses you are directly supporting the community and not large international conglomerates that overrun popular tourist destinations. In essence, put your bucks where they count. However, avoid handing out direct monetary donations. You don’t want to create dependency or reliance on handouts.

If you would like more information about taking a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Romania, Peru, China, India, or you are interested in voluntourism in another country or on another continent, please visit Globe Aware’s Destinations Gallery for program and trip descriptions, dates and Minimum Contribution Fees.


Globe Aware in WSJ: Voluntour at Home and Abroad

There is an Interesting article in the June 27, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal that examines the motivating factors that lead people to sign up for volunteer vacations at home and abroad. Reporter Shelly Banjo speaks with volunteer vacationers and organizations that provide voluntourism opportunities and advises new and inexperienced travellers to carefully research destinations and work opportunities before signing up.

Globe Aware‘s one-week volunteer vacations are spotlighted in the article, described as “Short-term volunteer programs to promote cultural awareness and sustainability.” The author describes the work undertaken by Globe Aware volunteers as “building schools in the Andes, participating in irrigation projects in South East Asia, repairing trails and roads in Costa Rica, with trip donation costs starting at $1,090, excluding airfare. For more information of Globe Aware volunteer vacation destinations click here. To register for a program, click here.

Help Wanted: ‘Voluntour’ at Home and Abroad


When Shannon Mancuso decided to take a trip to Peru this past spring, she wanted to find a way to immerse herself in the country’s culture while tapping into her skills as a social worker.

peru volunteer vacationsTwo years out of graduate school and living in New York, Ms. Mancuso was short on time and money so she chose to go on a trip that could combine volunteerism and travel in the same week. “You get the best of both worlds,” she says.

Known as “voluntourism” or service travel, a growing number of people are combining volunteering with a vacation. Organizations that run these trips report an uptick in the number of new volunteers and inquiries, particularly after a round of natural disasters and global events that have inspired travelers to want to help out during their vacations.

With hundreds of programs to choose from, it’s crucial for travelers to do their homework before they take off, says Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, an association of nongovernmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.

Where to Go

First, decide what kind of trip you would like to go on: How long do you want to be away? Is there a particular country or cause you would like to pursue? Do you speak a language or possess certain skills that you would like to tap into?

Immediately after large disaster situations, such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, organizations typically look for people with first-responder training or volunteer management experience.

“Volunteers have to be realistic,” says Erin Barnhart, director of volunteerism initiatives at volunteer website “You may be well-meaning but without the training or experience you may actually become a hindrance.”

The current crisis hotspots, the Gulf Coast states, have one message for inexperienced volunteers: Be patient. They have set up websites where volunteers can register, receive updates and wait until their help is needed.

“We’re frustrated that we can’t put more volunteers to work immediately, but the reality is it’s a slow, evolving process,” says Janet Pace, executive director of the Louisiana Serve Commission, which is coordinating volunteer efforts in that state. “We will need you soon.”

BP, the British oil giant largely responsible for the spill, is paying many out-of-work fishermen and shrimpers to help with cleanup operations, leaving little work for volunteers in the actual cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, a coalition of conservation groups including the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society has been tapped to handle oiled wildlife and bird rescue.

“We made a decision not to let volunteers handle oil at this point,” Ms. Pace says.

However, she says a growing number of volunteers will be needed to help with human services and relief efforts. Emergency distribution centers have been set up where volunteers can help distribute food and supplies, provide crisis counseling and case-management services.

Realistic expectations also come into play when choosing the right program.

“Volunteers who parachute into a country and build a school may leave feeling good about themselves but unless local people are involved in determining what volunteers do, that school might never be used because there’s no capacity to, say, hire teachers,” Ms. Barnhart says.

Known as drive-by volunteerism, volunteers who don’t work with local organizations may replace actual paid work that can be done in a community and create a dependency on foreign volunteers, she says.

Paying for It

While it sounds counterintuitive to pay to volunteer, most trips require volunteers to pay a fee for participating. Organizations use these funds to cover their year-round coordinating and operational costs — including lodging, predeparture training for participants and other resources needed for overseas projects such as building houses or planting trees. Often, these fees include airport pickup, side trips, translators and emergency assistance.
“Still, volunteers shouldn’t pay more than $1,000 to $2,000 for programs under two weeks, not including airfare,” Ms. Brown says. “And be sure to find out what that money is going toward.”

For trips that last more than a month, volunteers could pay more than $5,000, she says.

Before choosing a program, call the organization and ask about lodging, meals, preliminary training and if the organization has staff on the ground to assist volunteers. Ask about what local partners volunteers work with and for a sample itinerary of what kind of work volunteers are likely to do while on the trip.

A number of organizations offer matching scholarships or grants. The Volunteers for Prosperity Service Incentive Program, part of the Office of Volunteers for Prosperity at the U.S. Agency for International Development, provides grants of $500 to $1,000 to U.S. partner organizations for skilled Americans who want to volunteer abroad.

Plan for the Worst

It’s important to find out if program fees cover the cost of travel insurance. Most U.S.-based insurance plans don’t cover health problems, car accidents and catastrophic events in other countries.

Since many places where people volunteer are in rural areas without adequate medical care, consider purchasing additional insurance, Ms. Barnhart says.

Also, find out who you can contact in case of a natural disaster, political disruption, personal health problems or other emergencies.

If you would like more information about taking a volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Romania, Peru, China, India, or you are interested in voluntourism in another country or on another continent, please visit Globe Aware’s Destinations Gallery for program and trip descriptions, dates and Minimum Contribution Fees.