Where the Socially-Conscious Travelers Go
Volunteer vacations may not promise rest and relaxation, but offer the chance to better the world. TRAVEL
BUD PHILBROOK wanted a conventional honeymoon. His then-fianc'ee, Michelle Gran, wanted something different. They compromised by spending a week at Disney World and a week working in a rural village in Guatemala. Their unusual trip planted the seed for an international development organization: Global Volunteers. Established by the couple seven years ago, the program resembles a mini-Peace Corps for people who can't spend large blocks of time away from families, mortgages, and work demands. Unlike the two-year commitment normally required by the Peace Corps, Global Volunteers requires only a two- or three-week commitment.
Volunteers come to rural villages to be ``servant learners,'' says Mr. Philbrook, Global Volunteers' president and founder. They work closely with local ``host'' volunteer groups, learn about the culture, and do only what the villagers want done.
Projects vary widely, depending on what a particular village deems most important. Volunteers might build schoolhouses, teach English, dig latrines, or provide health care to women. Often as many as five projects occur at once. Each new Global Volunteers group picks up where the previous group left off.
The Minnesota-based organization sponsors 18 trips a year to seven developing countries - Mexico, Tanzania, Western Samoa, Guatemala, India, Jamaica, and Paraguay. They plan to include Vietnam and Eastern Europe in future trips.
``There won't be any beaches on these trips,'' says Philbrook. ``It's a vacation in the sense that you're vacating - getting away from it all. But we try to provide up-front information. ... We let people know what the circumstances are.'' If the organization believes a particular trip is too taxing for a volunteer, they suggest another location.
Volunteers pay their own way, and the $1,100 to $3,200 price tag is tax-deductible. Global Volunteers often pay less than the average tourist would pay because tourists would have more lush accommodations. Learning from local people
Morris Burnham, an accountant from Miami, was looking for a different kind of vacation when he read about Global Volunteers in a newspaper. He signed up for a project in Jamaica. Mr. Burnham had been to the Caribbean before as a tourist, but what impressed him the most about this trip was the relationship volunteers developed with the local people. ``As a tourist in a tourist area you don't engage real people,'' he says.
Jacki Bilek, a volunteer from Minneapolis, agrees. ``Before I traveled with Global Volunteers all I knew of India was Gandhi and Mother Theresa,'' she says. After spending several weeks in Sevoor, India, where she helped build a bus shelter for the community, she says she now has no desire to travel as a tourist and see tourist sights.
The idea for Global Volunteers didn't appear to Gran and Philbrook overnight. They went to Guatemala under the auspices of a group Philbrook knew from his work in the Minnesota state legislature, circumstances most people couldn't duplicate. Philbrook says it was such a valuable experience that they thought more people should have the same opportunity.
In looking into organizations to join, the couple found only church or government-affiliated programs.
``We thought this ought to be nonsectarian,'' Philbrook explains. We thought it better if people wore their faith in their hearts rather than on their sleeves.''
At each cite, the volunteers hook up with a native host organization, which provides interpreters and advisers - individuals who help bridge the gap between the volunteers and the local people.
In Mexico, for example, a public university funded in part by the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., acts as a host organization. In Guatemala, it is the state's Institute for Cultural Affairs; in Tanzania, volunteers work with the Lutheran Church; in India, there is a private research organization.
Doug Bollick, a lawyer from Massachusetts, recently spent two weeks in Woburn Lawn, Jamaica, with 10 other Americans between the ages of 28 and 65. They divided their time between working on a proposal for small businesses and building playground equipment. The spare accommodations - a small house with bunk beds and one bathroom - were a foolproof way of getting to know his teammates, says Mr. Bollick.
Although he describes himself as ``a laid-back kind of guy,'' Bollick found he had to adjust his way of thinking when he traveled as part of a Global Volunteers team. He had to accept that he was there to learn rather than to impose his own ideas: ``I think that's the single biggest adjustment I had to make - it's not the climate or the food or the language,'' he says.
Bollick says he had looked for something like Global Volunteers for years. ``The closest thing I found were work camps, usually based in Europe. But it's not really developmental work, and you're not immersed in another culture, and you're not working with local people,'' he says. Not for everyone
Pam Allister, who traveled twice to Tanzania with Global Volunteers, says the ``servant learner'' philosophy ``poses a conflict, because people in their hearts want to make it all better in a hurry, and it's a very slow process.''
Ms. Allister, who lives with her husband and children in New Jersey, has seen progress, however. When she first visited Pommern (population 4,000), there was no school or health clinic. Several years later, largely through the efforts of Global Volunteers, there was a school, a clinic, and a supply of workers for both. The volunteer groups are still working toward establishing running water for the village, she says.
The language difference proved to be somewhat of a barrier, but many of the Tanzanian students they worked with had some knowledge of English, she says. ``And sign language goes a long way. The people were receptive, open, friendly, and helpful,'' she adds.
A common phenomenon occurs when a group of Americans goes to live and work in a rural village in a third-world country, says Allister. ``When they first start their trip they are very excited and everything is novel and interesting and they're thrilled, bubbly, and outgoing. And then what happens is the recognition of the grinding poverty and the problems - the bubble bursts and reality sets in.'' Most people work through their frustration within a few days with the help of other team members, she adds.
Allister and other volunteers concede that Global Volunteers is not for everyone. The most important quality of a successful volunteer, they say, is flexibility and a willingness to learn. ``We tell people to take any preconceived notions they have and put them in their pocket,'' Philbrook says. ``If you go with a lot of expectations it can be pretty tough.''
Giving volunteers a realistic view of the world is what Global Volunteers is all about, he says: ``We intend that the volunteer grow. We intend to have the volunteer's shoes knocked off their feet so that they can see this thing - this `thing' being this globe we live on.'' He says people have no idea how the vast majority of the world lives. ``If there is going to be peace in the world, we need to be cognizant of [other cultures],'' he says.
For more information write: Global Volunteers, 2000 American National Bank Building, St. Paul, MN 55101.