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'Voluntourism' combines travel abroad with helping others

Wednesday, May 9, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:47 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Be The Change Volunteers is a Columbia nonprofit organization providing what is coming to be known as "voluntourism" opportunities to build schools and teach in developing countries. Projects have included educational projects in Malawi, Cambodia and Rwanda.

COLUMBIA — Natalie Collins, a senior at Columbia Independent School, has big plans for her summer vacation: traveling to Guatemala to help build a school there. 

Collins has been saving her Christmas and birthday money for the trip. But to meet the $2,000 goal, she will start mowing her grandparents' lawn as soon as school is out.   

This is not the first time Collins has prepared for a trip like this. Last summer, she participated in a two-week school project to build an early education school for physically and mentally disabled children in Ayur, India.

"I kind of pulled my own weight to do it again," Collins said. "It really changed my outlook on the way my life is."

More than 55 million Americans have been volunteer travelers, according to Voluntourism.org. The website about volunteer tourism describes it as "the conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination."

According to a study done by the University of California-San Diego, about 40 percent of Americans are willing to spend vacations abroad that involve volunteer service.

For volunteer tourists from Columbia, traveling for charitable purposes is meaningful not only because they can help make a difference in the lives of people in need but also because they experience changes in how they see the world.

Sustainable way to help: education

Jimi Cook, a frequent volunteer traveler, said he remains inspired by a young mother he met in Papua New Guinea.

The woman who lived there helped in a school building project, hauling heavy loads of rocks for the school foundation uphill while carrying her baby in her arms.

"With every load she would bring up and deliver to the workers putting in the foundation, she would smile and say, 'My child gets to go to school here,'" Cook said. "To me, this is what it is all about. It was her school for her child. We need to have them take ownership so that the school inspires and empowers them."

In 2007, Cook co-founded Be The Change Volunteers, a Columbia nonprofit organization providing what is coming to be known as "voluntourism" opportunities to build schools and teach in developing countries. Be The Change Volunteers has since run 16 educational projects in 11 countries including Rwanda, Cambodia and Malawi. 

One volunteer is Tammy Whitaker, who went to Thailand in April to help finish a school building. She packed a large bag with 16 English reading books, lots of crayons, stickers and even balloons, which she thought children would need there.

"Everyone is entitled to get educated," Whitaker said. "But in these villages, there are so many obstacles against them. I feel really fortunate that I got to go over and do that." 

Catherine Cleavinger toured with Be The Change Volunteers in 2011 to build a library in Lilongwe, Malawi. She took on jobs such as washing floors, scrubbing things and painting chalk boards. 

"It's more than just building the building," Cleavinger said. "We were interacting with kids and bringing them hope."

Dusty Hoffman, who also went to Malawi in 2011, hopes for a longer-term impact on the community. In that culture, women are often deemed inferior to men and have fewer educational opportunities, he said. Their main job is raising children and farming in the villages while their husbands might or might not be present, Hoffman said.

Making education more affordable for children there will definitely change their lives, especially for girls, Hoffman said.

Hoffman said he also tried to be a positive male role model to boys whose fathers are absent in much of their lives. He did this by being a friend to those kids, playing with them and teaching them to respect girls and women. 

"They just have such fewer opportunities than we have, " Hoffman said. "I would like to contribute to and try to change their future."

'You changed them, they changed you'

Whitaker had never been out of Missouri before she took her first trip to Malawi with church friends in 2011. They joined the Be The Change Volunteers project there. 

"I now know what it feels like to be a foreigner and being so humble about that," Whitaker said. "I get rewarded by them being so thankful and accepting me to be part of their lives."

A year later, she decided to travel alone and joined a Be The Change Volunteers school restoration project in Chaing Rai, Thailand.

"I am not scared now, and I will go by myself again." Whitaker said. "Instead of me changing their lives, I just came back feeling that they changed my life."

Collins, the high school senior, said her experience in India has changed her outlook on life.

"When something is going on in my life, I am always thinking of the kids back in India because they would be happy to have what I have," Collins said.

Collins wants to major in nursing when she goes to college next year.

"That trip kind of really pushes that decision over the top," Collins said. "I realized that I really want to help people. When I die, I want to know that I've done something in my life."

Cook said going on trips with a purpose of making difference for local communities in developing countries gives Be The Change Volunteers a sense of self-fulfillment. Almost every one of them is willing to go again and some have become repeat volunteers, Cook said.

"We have people in our teams who had never been out of the state of Missouri, and it is definitely a sacrifice for them — of time, money, work and emotions," he said. "But I have never had a person who wouldn't say it was worth every penny. "

The leisure component

Collins said she also enjoyed leisure activities in India, such as hiking and playing games in a rain forest and visiting a waterfall.

Whitaker said that in Thailand, she worked five days and took two days off so she could tour the natural attractions such as Koh Samui island, take a boat ride in the GoldenTriangle where Thailand, Laos and Burma intersect, and attend cultural bazaars around the country.  

Cleavinger will never forget the excitement she experienced on her first day in Malawi. Sitting in a van chugging along a dirt road to the village, she saw hundreds of children pouring out to welcome them.

"It was kind of like the things I'd seen in the movies," she said. "It was so overwhelming. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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