Does growth, inspiration and connection sound appealing?
I had the good fortune of meeting Barb Gilles on one of my first international volunteer experiences. We shared a meaningful and fun week with Cross-Cultural Solutions in Salvador, Brazil. Since that time, we’ve stayed in touch through various adventures in life, career and travel. Here are some highlights from Barb’s rich story and her recent volunteer travel in Southeast Asia.
Joy: Could you share a bit about yourself & how you 1st got into volunteer travel?
Barb: I have always had a sense of adventure, love of travel and appreciation of other cultures, finding that I truly learn when outside of my element and in new and different environments. My parents also instilled in me at an early age that I needed to help others, and I volunteered my time at the local Tot Lot and homeless shelter. As I joined the workforce, I would donate time with charities that my employer’s supported. While I probably don’t give as much time as I’d like to today, the marriage of volunteering and international travel has been an inspiring way to grow and connect, both in the communities in which I travel to, and with the other volunteers I meet along the way.
“the marriage of volunteering and international travel has been an inspiring way to grow and connect”
My first volunteer trip was to Guatemala in 2008. I found the opportunity through my employer “perks” – and am fortunate that we had a corporate discount and gift match to offset the cost. I convinced a co-worker to travel with me, and we started our prep for the trip. Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) was the company that sponsored the trip, and both the US and in-country staff were amazing in getting us ready for the experience, making sure we were comfortable in our new surroundings and introducing us to the volunteer work, which happened to be at an elderly care center for women. One of the unique elements about CCS is that you go as a group to your volunteer setting every weekday morning, and then each afternoon or evening there is a cultural activity planned to immerse you into the local community. I’ve found that the activities that the in-country staff plans are often ones I would not experience as a tourist, and that coupled with the volunteering makes it a totally rewarding trip all the way around.
Joy: And since that time…what other volunteer travel adventures have you taken?
Barb: Guatemala was first, then Brazil, Morocco, and Tanzania, all with CCS, an organization I trust and truly believe in.
Joy: Your recent travels took you to Asia. Would you mind sharing more about the organizations and your experience?
Barb: In 2015 I planned an extended vacation in Southeast Asia, with travel through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. While in the midst of planning the trip, I was also looking for some sort of volunteer experience – and because I love elephants, I was also quite interested in better understanding the plight of domesticated elephants in the region. After careful consideration, and reading through a ton of sites and reviews, I landed on the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), an elephant sanctuary about 5 hours from Phenom Penh. I looped in a couple of friends to join me while in Cambodia, and we spent 3 days at EVP, following the elephants in the jungle observing them living freely and comfortably, no longer working in logging camps or carrying tourists. The intricacies of the situation between humans and elephants, elimination of their habitat, and continued use of elephants for work make this project so important in the region. At the camp, we cleaned and cleared the compost areas, adding new posts and fencing over 2 afternoons. Hard work, but a positive improvement for the camp, it’s workers and future volunteers. While in Southeast Asia – I went to another sanctuary in Laos, the Elephant Conservation Center, another great camp dedicated to allowing elephants to live as they should, free from work.
Joy: What ‘words of wisdom’ would you share with someone considering a trip like this?
Barb: If you are thinking about an international volunteer trip, my first piece of advice is to absolutely do it. The rewards are multiple; helping others, no matter how small you might think, every bit is rewarding for both you and the community you are in. Additionally, you can learn about another country or culture, and in our global world today, understanding others is critical to our survival. Last, the people you meet along the way might become lifelong learners and volunteers with you. When determining the trip that is right for you, I would advise to do your research, read as much online as you can about the organization and the work they do. It’s also a good idea to speak to past volunteers so they can reflect on their experience, and offer personal advice.
Check out these resources to learn more about how to support and get involved:
Cross-Cultural Solutions https://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/
Elephant Valley Project http://www.elephantvalleyproject.org
Elephant Conservation Center http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com/