If you’ve ever read anything on my blog, you know this is the year I’m turning 50. For my husband’s 50th, a few years ago, we went on a family trip to South Africa. (You can read about it here and here), and I think my family expected that for mine, we’d do the same: take a luxurious, exotic trip to somewhere mah-velous. “Thailand!” one of my kids suggested. “New Zealand, Australia!” said another.
But all I kept thinking was, why not celebrate my birthday by getting out of my self-pitying-holy-crap-I’m-getting-old mode and doing something NOT about me, but about someone else.
And so the search for a family volunteer vacation began.
I had only two requirements.
1. The trip had to be domestic. I appreciate that poverty in other countries can often run deeper and be more severe than poverty here in the US, but this trip would be as much about my children as about helping others, and I wanted them to understand that poverty isn’t something “over there” or something that you help with in between kite surfing and scuba diving excursions while on your luxury trip to a tropical locale. Need is right here, I wanted them to understand.
Of course, since we live in Manhattan, we could have just travelled a few miles to see that – but I also wanted them to see another part of this country. They are fourth generation Manhattanites. New York City is the only life they know. In my kids’ world, everyone graduates from High School; everyone goes to college; most everyone takes vacations and travels and wears new clothing, and eats organic, and thinks nothing of ordering Sushi dinners and tossing leftovers, and buying brand name everything.
I wanted them to see – I wanted to remind myself – that our life is not the typical US experience, and not the only way to live or to be happy.
2. The Trip Had to Be Hands On Touring a poverty stricken area wasn’t going to cut it for me. Nor was stuffing envelopes or raising money. (Though both of those are needed and valuable, they wouldn’t offer the immersion that I had in mind.)
This wasn’t an easy requirement to fulfill. My kids are not yet 15, and more established programs like Habitat for Humanity, while it allows kids under 16 to participate, doesn’t allow them to do anything other than serve food and pick up garbage. Now, I wanted my kids to be helpful to whatever community they visited, but I also wanted to live to tell the tale. Having them pick up garbage for a week was NOT going to endear them either to public service or to me, so I kept looking.
In fact, I found only ONE established organization offering domestic family volunteer trips: Global Volunteers, a thirty year old organization credited with creating the Volunteer Vacation, Global Volunteers engages “short-term volunteers on long-term projects to create, nurture and sustain the wellbeing of the world’s children – so they can realize the full promise of their human potential. That changes everything.”
Global Volunteers’ philosophy resonated with me:
1. One to one work. So for each volunteer working on a job site, there’s a local person working beside them.
2. By Invitation Only. This is not a colonialist type situation. Communities apply to be served by “Globals.” They WANT the help they are receiving.
3. Local Community Leaders do the Leading. Volunteers are NOT there, Global’s philosophy dictates, to tell local communities how to get things done. They are there to help the local community get things done as the community wants them to. Does that mean your can’t offer suggestions or your expertise? Of course not. But only if asked, and if appropriate. Globals help, they don’t dictate.
True to its name, Global Volunteers runs projects around the world: Africa, Central America, Asia, even Europe…and as far as the Cook Islands. But their two US locations were on a Native America Reservation in Montana, and in West Virgina – the only state entirely in Appalachia. The Appalachia trip coincided with our Spring Break. So Beards Fork, West Virgina, population 199, is where our adventure begins.