by Erin Michelson
When I’m on the road sharing my life as an adventure philanthropist, it’s the travel stories that get people to sit up and take notice. My personal motivation to go out and explore the world as a volunteer actually is the philanthropic side of my adventures.
When I say “philanthropy,” I conceive of the term in the broadest possible sense. Not just giving money (which is important), but also becoming knowledgeable about societal issues, as well as volunteering time and expertise.
It’s through volunteering in remote locations around the world that gives me the biggest burst of excitement and has largest impact on my life. I find volunteering not only enhances the travel experience, but all of my experiences. Here’s why:
Volunteering helps me to push both my physical and emotional boundaries. I find myself traveling to far off destinations to learn more about the causes I care about. Before I know it, I’m at the world’s largest leprosy colony in the Philippines, a dusty border town straddling Kenya and Uganda, in the jungles of Borneo searching for pythons and orangutans. Volunteering literally transports me.
Working in service to others also helps me overcome emotional barriers. By putting myself in situations where I feel uncomfortable such as helping HIV/AIDS patients in hospice, working with abused women in Honduras, meeting abused girls in Zambia. These experiences help me to better focus on what’s truly important in life and face some of my own fears.
Serving as a volunteer in poverty-stricken areas also helps ground me. Sometimes we need to come face-to-face with the challenges of others to not just appreciate our own good fortune in life, but to better gain an understanding of how we can play a role in alleviating some of this suffering.
By bearing witness to the hardships that surround us, we are better able to help individuals and communities find ways of solving these seemingly intractable problems. To me, empathy is the first step in creating solutions towards poverty alleviation. Once we have an emotional response, we are more likely to be motivated to address the issues of poverty / discrimination / inequality that we see. Empathy gained through volunteering often leads to action.
In the end, it really all comes down to educating ourselves. By working hand-in-hand with communities in need, we have the opportunity to engage in volunteering and not simply voyeurism. I can’t tell you how many times my eyes have been opened to societal problems I didn’t even know existed: child abandonment in Nepal, bride buying in the Horn of Africa, the effects of palm oil deforestation in Southeast Asia.
Not only have I been exposed to important issues, but to cultures in which I was unaware. With nearly 100 countries under my belt, I consider myself a well-traveled, fairly educated person. And yet before my two-year “living and giving” adventure, I had no idea about the fierceness of the Kuna Yala of Panama, the difference between girls and boys in Colombia’s Kogi tribes, or the animist beliefs of the Hmong tribes in northern Vietnam. Volunteering is one of the best forms of education.
Making a Difference
What I love most about spending my time as a volunteer is that it enables me to couple my passion for travel with a purpose. I realize that while I’m out trying to do a bit of good in the world, in reality I’m the one receiving invaluable gifts.
I’m given the opportunity to discover not only new places and cultures, but new depths of how I want to interact with the world. I’m given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. It is this opportunity to give back that provides me the most happiness.
Erin Michelson is a social entrepreneur and the author of Adventure Philanthropist: Great Adventures Volunteering Abroad. The book chronicles her 2 years traveling to more than 60 countries and all 7 continents volunteering with nonprofit organizations along the way. Leaving the world of corporate finance to work in the nonprofit arena, Erin currently runs a consulting firm specializing in growth strategies for international nonprofit organizations. Living a nomadic life, Erin continues to write, speak, volunteer, and travel widely. You can follow her “living and giving” adventures on www.GoErinGo.com.