Dallas-Based GlobeAware Organizes ‘Voluntourism’ Trips of a Lifetime
March 5, 2023
By Joy Donovan
Landmines — the explosive leftovers from the Vietnam War and other conflicts — are about the size of a toy and sometimes colorful, making them attractive to children. Two decades of war made these weapons of destruction plentiful in the forested landscape of Southeast Asia. Consequently, many children in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are living as amputees.
The memory of one of those injured children receiving a wheelchair is seared into Kimberly Haley-Coleman’s mind.
“What stands out in my memory is not the response of the child, but the looks on their parents’ faces,” she said. Haley-Coleman, a mother of two, knew her own children have never wanted for anything as she witnessed parents’ happiness over a child receiving something so badly needed. “It affected me physically and emotionally.”
That is the power of GlobeAware, the non-profit Haley-Coleman founded 23 years ago. In those 23 years of serving as CEO, the Dallas resident now can count 3,500 wheelchair assemblies and distributions credited to the non-profit. Assembling wheelchairs is just one of many hands-on, short-term projects overseen by the non-profit that’s located in Dallas’ Lakewood area.
Doing Good in the World’s Neighborhood
Haley-Coleman set out to combine interesting travel with important service amidst other cultures. She admits to growing up in privilege, a second-generation Hockaday graduate who is now raising a third generation. As a child, she traveled a lot and experienced a lot. She earned a master’s degree in art history, and she holds an MBA in international business. But that wasn’t enough.
Personal restlessness led her to combine her love of international travel with helping others. She could do good while experiencing the world.
She visited Ayutthaya, Thailand where she spoke to local monks and made lists of what the community needed and wanted. Projects ranging from installing chalkboards to adding bathroom doors to repairing a pedestrian bridge seemed doable. The difficulties, though, were cultural. Ordering tools and supplies, relatively easy in the U.S., was much more complicated in Thailand.
“Is it brain surgery? No,” she said. “Is it challenging? Yes, very.”
Add in monetary conversions and language difficulties, and Haley-Coleman began to see a need for arranging and managing the logistics.
“So I started organizing these trips on the side,” she said. “When I started asking people if they wanted to come with me, they did.”
GlobeAware was born.
The first trips were to Peru and Costa Rica, followed by Asia. Choosing the locations depended on many variables, such as safety and need. The projects were chosen for students, families, and sometimes corporate teams to finish in a relatively short amount of time. Differences from the usual American lifestyle was key. Electronic devices, fast food, and creature comforts, for example, aren’t part of the promise.
“If they grow up in Dallas in private schools with such privilege, it’s a transformational experience,” Haley-Coleman said. “It changes your perspective.”
A Different Kind of Vacation for Mother and Son
Dallas resident Deb Young knows the difference in traveling this way. After her son Toby graduated in 2022 from St. Mark’s School of Texas, the mother-son duo took a two-week trip to Thailand. One of those weeks was on their own, and the other was through Globe Aware.
“We’ve been lucky enough to do quite a bit of travel,” Young said. But her son wasn’t interested in just touring another museum. “It was perfect for us. We were looking for a way to get back into travel. It’s been tough. Then the idea of doing service with our travel was just really attractive.”
Their Thailand GlobeAware week included talking with monks inside temples, meeting the country’s hill tribe children, visiting a floating market, and practicing English with schoolchildren in Chiang Dao.
“The focus is on giving these kids skills so they can make a life,” Young said. “A lot of what we did was interacting with the local people there.”
The trip’s highlight, she said, was visiting an elephant sanctuary. She and her son fed, petted, and washed the creatures in a river.
They are the biggest, most lovely animals,” she said. “The elephants seem really content, peaceful, and majestic. Being outdoors and being in nature is very compelling and very important to my mental health. It was a real treat.”
Young felt that GlobeAware prepared her and her son well for the trip. Travel logistics were handled, the accommodations were nice and packing instructions given. She knew in advance, for example, that her arms should be covered for temple visits and to prepare to get wet when visiting elephants. It all added up to a successful trip.
“It really does help if you’re going to a place like that, a place that’s so different from home,” Young said. “It was really nice to have a way of talking to the local people. I felt so much more connected to the local people.”
Working a World Away
GlobeAware’s trips span Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Laos, Machu Picchu, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Philipines, Puerto Rico, Romania, South Africa, Thailand, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe. Past projects have included the all-important wheelchair assembly, plus floor installations, sea turtle protection, and adobe stove fittings.
Haley-Coleman stresses that volunteer travelers do not need to be bilingual or to possess special skills. Anyone with special skills could request a site where those skills could be maximized.
“We want people to work side by side, working as equals, making a real difference” she said. “That’s the real hope.”
She has people who return every year to vacation and volunteer simultaneously on GlobeAware trips that run Sundays through Saturdays. The cost averages between $1,200 and $1,400 per person, depending on the program, and students get a discount of about 10 percent. The cost, which is tax-deductible, includes everything but souvenirs, alcohol, or luxury upgrades.
Return on Investment
The return on the investment of money and time seems to be great.
“To go into those countries, helps you realize what you have in your own life,” Haley-Coleman said. “It’s a very quick way to learn a really deep set of perspectives.”
Young plans on traveling again with GlobeAware when her younger son Alex graduates high school.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to go again with GlobeAware,” said Young. “It’s pretty compelling.”
Haley-Coleman thinks the experience is not to be missed.
“It’s one of those things that every person on this earth is cheating themselves out of something they will regret, if they don’t take a few days to appreciate a culture you don’t know,” she said. “I love what we do.”