Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit volunteer organization, engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.
by Mary Luz Mejia
Ever find yourself in some remote corner of the world, basking in golden sunlight, sipping a cocktail, only to feel a twinge of guilt? Care for a little philanthropy with your all-inclusive?
Well, not quite, but these days, “voluntouring” comes as close to this ideal as any vacation can.
Part Peace Corps and part cultural immersion, voluntouring gives people from all walks of life a chance to lend a helping hand while experiencing vast and vibrant lands.
People around the world are drawn to the opportunity to do something more with their leisure time.
A Sense of Something Bigger
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.
The open garbage area was closed off with a door and latch, and the orphanage’s water heaters were finally repaired so that the children could avoid ice-cold showers.
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.
Since 1976, Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian housing organization, has built more than 175,000 houses, providing shelter for nearly 900,000 people worldwide.
Short and Temporary
Most voluntourists would concur with Ana when she says, “The low point often is the feeling of not doing enough… and the reality that your visit is 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.
“I didn’t expect much from this project at first,” he says, “but the deep-seated appreciation shown by the recipients was very heart-warming. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group who witnessed the presentation.”
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.
What are the Expenses?
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.
Since its founding in 1971, Earthwatch Institute has mobilized over 3,000 projects in 118 countries and 36 states.
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.”
Having gone it alone before voluntouring was in vogue, Kimberly recommends Habitat for Humanity and Earthwatch as other solid organizations to voluntour. The former deals primarily with the construction of homes and communities, while the latter enables volunteers to help scientists in the field and promote 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.
The city itself is a colorful amalgam of hand polished Incan foundation stone walls and Spanish Colonial architecture. Quechua natives (descendants of the Incas) walk the cobblestone streets in brilliant hand loomed textiles with llamas and a smile, always ready for a “photo, amiga?” opportunity.
Habitat invites people of all backgrounds, races and religions to build houses together in partnership with families in need.
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.
After four days of trekking, our ragged but excited crew arrived at the legendary Machu Picchu, or “old mountain” in the Incan Quechua language. The ancient city gave the volunteers a chance to pause and think about where they had been, what they had done and what they hoped to do in the remaining weeks.
And just as voluntourist Robyn Liston shared what she had learned so far on her experience for the camera, a majestic condor flew by, an Incan symbol of strength representing the skies. Looking back, Robyn says, “When the condor flew over my head at Machu Picchu, I realized that my life was about living in faith. That with faith anything is possible.”
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.
Canadian voluntourist Elaine Sombrutsky’s research confirmed what Terry experienced – hands-on help is secondary right now to financial aid. However, Globe Aware programs are currently being established in hard hit areas, allowing voluntourists to pitch in and help with the rebuilding of homes and communities as soon as March of this year.
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.
Elaine is planning a voluntouring vacation with her family in the near future and adds, “After having participated in this program, I will strive to spend more of my time, energy and resources investing in people as opposed to investing in things.”
When asked if she would voluntour again, Robyn replied, “I would absolutely do it again and will. It’s the greatest gift I could give to myself.”
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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