I’ve written a lot about the benefits of volunteering for families: parents see their children working hard, children are inspired to make a difference, and grandparents have a chance to experience their family in a new way, as a working whole. Volunteering trips overseas transform a family into a team. This same principle applies to unrelated groups of volunteers. Any group can reap the rewards of working together for the greater good. It brings out the best in everyone—the diligent worker, the gregarious conversationalist, the foreign language enthusiast, the goof ball—no skill set goes to waste when you’re exploring a new place and meeting new people.
High school is a trying time for many people. It’s full of social challenges—fitting in, finding yourself, handling bullies, and exploring young love. On top of navigating a complex social life (even more complex and non-stop now that kids have cell phones!) many kids play sports or are active in clubs. They participate in student government or act in school plays. Of course, through all of this they are constantly challenged academically. After a long day at school, they have homework. They have dinner with their families, continuing to develop social skills and coping mechanisms on all fronts. High school kids have very full lives. It’s an easy time to put on blinders—to get so immersed in the jam-packed day-to-day that you forget about the larger world. And yet, teenagehood is perhaps the most perfect time to break out of your routine, to be exposed to bright new places, new people, and new cultures. It’s a time of such rapid interpersonal growth that every experience becomes formative.
My friends, Jane and Travis, just got married. Initially, they were planning on a cruise in the Caribbean for their honeymoon. They’ve never been on one and Jane thought it would be the best of both worlds: legitimately fun and kitschily ironic. Travis was on board (so to speak) but he had reservations. He is a community activist in our city and he kept worrying that a cruise was just too wasteful, predictable, and commercial. I agreed with Travis but since it wasn’t my honeymoon I stayed out of it. Then I remembered: they’d never been on a cruise before! I, on the other hand, have been on several. Each one was a family vacation, paid for by my grandparents, and each one seemed more quintessentially American than the last. The ships were like giant malls complete with expensive cocktail bars, clothing shops, and fake plants. Sure, the accommodations were comfortable but it all felt so generic, so spring break, if you know what I mean. My experiences have left me rather jaded about the whole cruise thing and I didn’t want my friends to be disappointed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to say something.
For the 30-something traveler and volunteer (me), there is something so nostalgic about college-age adventure. It wasn’t that long ago and yet, I remember the idealism and excitement as if they were things of the last century. It’s so easy to become jaded—to let the terrible things about the world into your heart. I don’t think of myself as cynical, but reading about the subject of today’s article has inspired me to take a good hard look at my tarnished optimism. There is no reason for it! Optimism is the product of positive change. It’s the result of standing up for something, of doing things yourself to get them done right. I spend a lot of time reading about volunteer companies. It’s a wonderful thing to read about because so many of them are designed to make the world better. Still, just like in any marketplace, there is often a very thinly veiled profit-incentive. This is fine, so long as the programs are well run, sustainable, and responsible, but it is refreshing to see a company that openly addresses this obvious and pervasive ethical quandary.
I know several people who want desperately to volunteer. These are my friends. They’re smart, capable people, but they don’t have the capital to pay large program fees for a few weeks of service. My best friend, Rebecca, is a farmer. She runs her own organic farm in the middle of the city, giving fresh, free food to her neighbors. She lives in a low-income neighborhood, a place where it isn’t easy to find fresh produce. Every day she is improving the lives of her neighbors. She’s keeping children healthy. She’s making her street more beautiful with her incredible sunflowers and climbing vines. And yet, financially, she’s in a tough place. I look at her and I think any program would be so lucky to have her. She embodies the volunteering spirit that is at the heart of so many organizations. Still, she doesn’t go because she doesn’t have the money. She’d rather keep giving her food away for free than charge her poor neighbors so that she can travel to help other equally needy people, someplace else.