Volunteer travel. Voluntourism. Helping people through travel. Or as I call it “travel gives back.” Even with all the things going on in our world today, I still believe that travel can change the world.
For anyone who has spent time traveling, many hearts have been tugged at seeing the needs of people around the world. Many people have used travel as a way to volunteer – AIDS, orphanages, medical clinics, disaster recovery for victims of earthquakes and floods, and even programs like the Peace Corps.
You don’t even have to travel to have a compassionate heart for other people as many volunteers are need right in their own hometowns. However, how many people would give a year of their lives to travel around the world and help other people?
Charyn Pfeuffer decided to do it. What made her do it? How did she find the time and money to do it? Who did she help? What people were impacted? Did she really make a difference?
Charyn took the time to share some of her answers about her experiences from traveling and volunteering abroad for a year. Here’s my interview with Charyn Pfueffer about her Global Citizen Project.
Where did you grow up? Did you travel as a kid? What places did you see? What was your favorite place to visit?
Berwyn, Pennsylvania – a middle-class suburb outside of Philadelphia.
As for travel, minimally. We summered in South Carolina (Fripp Island), and spent spring breaks either at Hilton Head Island or in Clearwater, Florida at the Philadelphia Phillies’ Spring Training (my parent’s best friend played for the Phillies, so baseball figured prominently into my childhood). We went to the Bahamas twice when I was kid. I didn’t get my first passport until I was 19 years old.
What was it about travel that made you want to see so many places in the world?
To me, travel is the ultimate way to learn – about the world, other people and cultures, but also about one’s self. It inspires me, challenges me, and constantly gives me new perspectives to think about. Traveling is the world’s greatest classroom, in my opinion.
In your travels, you have made it a focus of yours to volunteer and help others. What inspired you to want to do this?
Over my decade plus long career as a full-time freelance food and travel writer, I’ve authored, co-authored or ghostwritten more than a dozen books and contributed to more than 80 publications, including TravelChannel.com, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Sunset, San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Traveler, Islands , DailyCandy.com and Seattle Times. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my editorial endeavors, but crisscrossing the globe many times in search of (mostly luxury) stories to tell seemed irrelevant in our recent time of recession and left me wanting something deeper.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent about one third of my time in impoverished Latin American countries and have had trouble reconciling American excesses and priorities upon resuming my post-third world, day-to-day life. It’s hard to rationalize that my dog’s 15-pound bag of kibble is worth a week’s wages in some countries. Or that some women would need to work an 8-hour shift to afford a single girls’ night out cocktail (never mind dinner out or a movie). And it’s nothing short of inspiring to see people living with so little who are happy and willing to share. It makes you rethink the definition of what it means to lead a “rich” life.
Something had to give, so I made a conscious decision to repurpose my career and intentions, swap my BlackBerry for a backpack (with varying success on giving up the tech), and give back with what I’ve called The Global Citizen Project. I committed to volunteering with 12 community projects in 12 countries over 12 months with the intent of sharing my experiences through my spider web of editorial outlets and social media networks.
The timing of The Global Citizen Project coincides with a date of great personal significance – November 8, 2010 was the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death from lung cancer. Exactly two weeks before her passing, she disclosed a very short list of end-of-life regrets, including: “I never went to Europe.” Her words have inspired me to live a life of travel – fully, spontaneously and with purpose – and The Global Citizen Project will help celebrate her legacy on this big round number anniversary. Also I turned 38-years old during The Global Citizen Project – the same age my mother was when she passed away – which makes the timing of the project even more personally poignant.
Why choose to do this when there are plenty of organizations, like the Peace Corps and others, that could have used you as a volunteer?
I wanted to leverage my role as a journalist to bring attention and awareness to a wide variety of causes and organizations, thus choosing a different organization, destination and focus of service for each month. I didn’t want to commit more than one year of my life to this project and wanted to have some wiggle room for flexibility. My long-term partner is very patient with (and supportive of) my travels, but I really pushed the limits (and the finances) of our relationship this past year.
It’s one thing to jet off on a week-long assignment to a five star hotel in some far flung corner of the world – there’s almost always some means of connectivity and typically, a far lesser level of worry. There were several times this past year where I completely dropped off the grid without notice for weeks at a time, due to remote and rustic living situations, which can be nerve-wracking for all people involved.
What was the attitude of friends, family, and those you reached out to as you began to raise money for this project?
The feedback I received blew me away. When I decided to leverage social media for social good, I launched my fund raising campaign for The Global Citizen Project on Kickstarter, a unique all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands. I raised $20,000 in 90 days solely via social media. More than 220 people donated funds; nearly half from people I did not personally know. It was pretty amazing to see so many people – known and unknown – rally for my volunteer cause.
How did you decide what the 12 projects would be? Were there any personal reasons behind choosing the ones that you did?
I aligned myself with projects that were of personal significance and a good match for my skill set. There was a definite rhyme and reason as to why I picked the projects I did and was in certain destinations as specific times. I cannot tell you how many hours went into researching the individual organizations – but even with the best Nancy Drew work, there were still some duds.
(Note: Some of this information will be revealed later on as Charyn will have opportunities to share more of her story in her own words)
What were the 12 projects you chose?
June Building a Future – Tegucigalpa, Honduras
July Karikuy – Lima, Peru
August Platanitos Turtle Camp – Nayarit, Mexico
September – Sumak Kawsay Yachay – Salasaca, Ecuador
October Quinta das Abelhas – Tabua, Portugal
November Let’s F Cancer (better know as F%@$ Cancer) – Vancouver, B.C., Canada
December Food Lifeline – Shoreline, WA, U.S.A.
January Animal Aware – near Sumpango Sacatepequez, Guatemala
February Globe Aware – Carara, Costa Rica
March Casa Hogar Trisker + Dead Wheat- Boquete, Panama
April Pueblo Ingles – Cazorla National Park, Spain
May 8 Days of Giving for Japan with Blog4Japan – remotely
(Note: You can find out more about each of these organizations by clicking on the links above)
Some of your projects involved helping people while others were focused on helping animals. Besides the obvious differences, how were these projects different?
My projects ranged from helping people, the planet and animals, with an emphasis on creating sustainable solutions. Not much difference between helping people and animals, except for maybe the poo factor.
Tell me about your favorite project. What made it so special to you?
Eeks! Everyone asks me this question and there’s no easy answer. Every project was drastically different; each with its own pros and cons.
What did you learn about yourself through these projects?
TGCP was more challenging and inspiring, than I ever imagined. I went into each project with certain concerns and realized, once in the thick of it, that there was a whole other set of worries I hadn’t even considered. The project also pushed my limits of personal comfort repeatedly. I’m typically a pretty Type A personality and this past year did wonders for making me understand that despite the best laid plans, there’s not much you can control in this world. And that it’s not really worth the wasted energy in trying. Things happen. Deal with it and move along.
Is there anything about these projects that surprised you, something you didn’t expect?
Everything surprised me about these projects. I tried to approach each and every project with a blank slate and no expectations. I learned with my first project that an organization can be the world’s greatest communicators (prior to a project), but a total s%$tshow when it comes to actual on-the-ground, volunteer logistics.
What did your experiences with volunteering teach you about people?
No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what your background is, I believe we all basically want the same things. We want happiness, to love and be loved, for our children to succeed, and for family and friends to be safe and healthy.
What misconceptions do you think people have about volunteering, either at home or abroad?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past nine months of volunteering is that volunteer work is not all about the volunteer. It’s perfectly human to seek some sense of accomplishment when giving your heart and soul in a service capacity, but I must constantly remind myself that the warm and fuzzy feeling I get is an added bonus and not an end goal…
my voluntourism experience with Globe Aware showed that the best experience is one where the volunteer removes him/herself, expectations and can give selflessly without judgment. The more I volunteer around the world, the more I see how far a little humility can go.
(Note: These are excerpts from a piece Charyn wrote on Women on their Way called Voluntourism Isn’t All About the Volunteer. k to read more about Charyn’s thoughts and experiences)
What advice would you offer to those who are considering volunteer opportunities when they travel?
Do your homework and really vet the organizations you think you may want to work with. Get first person feedback from people who’ve participated in the programs, and if applicable, talk with volunteers currently on the ground. I had a few projects go terribly awry this year, which in retrospect, could have been avoided if I’d spent more time talking to previous participants, instead of getting wooed by flashy websites and TK.
Also, be very clear in understanding both your and the organization’s expectations:
A little bit of communication can avoid a lot of headaches.
Being a volunteer isn’t easy. Whether it’s for one day, one project, 12 projects, a few years, or a lifetime, it takes an incredible amount of heart, determination and sacrifice. Whether you do some volunteer travel abroad or just lend a hand close to home, there are all sorts of people, animals, organizations, and projects that need your help.
So what is next for Charyn? Recently, she wrote a post about a new beginning where she looks back on the past year and talks about what is next. Thanks so much to Charyn for sharing a little about her experiences, travels, lessons, and projects through The Global Citizen Project blog. Check out her blog, get her personal updates on what went on in these projects, and get more of her personal stories. Just because the project is over and Charyn is back in Seattle doesn’t mean her desire to help people is over. Follow her on Twitter at @charynpfeuffer
All photos provided by Charyn Pfeuffer