People around the world are drawn to the opportunity to do something more with their leisure time.
Ana Maria Quintanilla, a voluntourist herself, describes the people who participate in these kinds of programs as having “a great sense of something bigger than themselves.”
This may had drawn the eight volunteers from North America and two coordinators, one of them being Ana, on a six-week voluntouring adventure in Cusco, Peru. I was there to document their work as the only Canadian behind-the-scenes/field director working with an American T.V. crew out of Philadelphia.
Our aim was to film a pro-social documentary series called “Voluntouring,” working in conjunction with Globe Aware, a non-profit organization that set this program up.
The primary goal for voluntourists was to work with over sixty deaf-mute children at one of the city’s orphanages. Children were taught job skills they could use for future sustainability, and their once lackluster courtyard got a sunny wash of color with freshly painted games, a revitalized swing set and a new volleyball net.
Working With the Community
Voluntourists also assisted the community outside the orphanage walls. Twenty adobe stoves with chimneys were built in Quechua village homes (vastly reducing the intake of cooking fire smoke) about forty minutes outside of Cusco in the surrounding mountains. And finally, ten kit wheel chairs were built with the help of orphanage kids and given to the neurologically handicapped children of another orphanage in the city.
Short and Temporary
The upside to these vacations far outweighs any lows. There’s the emotional high as Bob Link, one of the older voluntourists in Peru, shared regarding his work on the kit wheel chairs and their distribution to needy children.
The other undeniable plus, according to Bob, is that “one feels much better about themselves as a result. It is sometimes a serendipitous feeling and it is something money can't buy.”
What money can buy, however, is a spot on one of the many programs offered around the world. From building homes and schools, to working with indigenous communities, many voluntouring vacations are one or two week commitments. For those not able or wanting to toil physically, providing assistance can take on many forms. In Peru, the voluntourists’ attention and affection was the most invaluable gift the orphaned children, who so desperately longed to feel wanted, received.
Globe Aware founder Kimberly Haley Coleman says that the usual short-term trip costs around $US1000 and covers accommodation, meals, in-country transportation, medical insurance, project materials, direct financial contribution to the community, and coordinator expenses. Airfare is extra and in the United States, the voluntouring trip fee is 100% tax deductible.
Regarding the Globe Aware mandate, Kimberly says “The central forces were non-religious, non-political, short-term programs in locations that were the least like our own. Get Westerners, particularly North Americans, to think beyond themselves… promote cultural awareness to volunteers while mutually reinforcing sustainability.”
Trips and program objectives vary from organization to organization, as does the “typical” voluntourist. There is no one demographic, age, or ethnic background to those who choose this form of vacationing, although the majority of travelers are women with busy careers. Another growing trend according to Kimberly, is the fact that multi-generational families volunteer and travel together, often learning as much about each other as their new surroundings.
Work AND Play
If all of this sounds like too much earnest work and not enough play, think again. The Peru program in Cusco, which we filmed is ideally situated in the heartland of the Incan Empire - smack in the middle of the awe-inspiring Sacred Valley.
Volunteers partook in local festivals and customs, and the brave three who chose to hike the Salkantay Pass to Machu Picchu were physically challenged and spiritually rewarded.
Making a Difference
The possibility of making a difference in Thailand is what drove former Peru voluntourist Terry Westerman to tsunami affected regions. He’s been advised by the U.S. Embassy there to seek out The Red Cross if he wishes to help.
While this vacation option isn’t encouraging people to go to danger zones, it emphasizes the fact that the world does extend beyond our first-world streets and cities.
It’s also often the greatest gift some of the people you come into contact will ever be given. Bob heard a speech on Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. that should remind us all, that even a drop in the ocean can make a difference. Here it is, as Bob remembers it: “You can't do everything, but you can do something. If you can do something, then you should do something. If you should do something, then do something. Now!”
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