Last Sunday, I tuned into one of my favorite programs, CBS’ 60 Minutes. The top story that evening focused on “Children Helping Children” — kids who were learning early on in their lives that volunteering can be incredibly rewarding. I practically lept out of my chair because this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish with Journeys for Good — showing people that volunteer travel is a great way to become engaged as a global citizen and that truly anyone can have a positive impact. To see this kind of story on one of the top television programs in the US made me believe that voluntourism is truly coming into the mainstream and, conversely, coverage in mainstream media will help people become more aware of volunteer travel. Either way, it is an encouraing sign that this kind of forward-thinking is on the rise.
Recently, we had a chance to interview Ruth Tofler-Riesel, of Kids Giving Back. She knows firsthand the benefits and rewards of involving kids in volunteering at an early age. Below is Part 1 of our interview.
Ruth, what inspired you to get involved with volunteer travel?
My son Alexander is 11 years old, and like all parents of young children we want to find things for him to do that are fun and at the same time meaningful. I’ve always loved travel and in November 2010 I read an article about volunteering abroad. My brain started ticking as I realized this would be a fantastic thing to do with my active and engaging then 9-year old son. I soon became obsessed with the idea of volunteering in Thailand. I dug around the ‘net, and despite finding numerous organisations offering volunteering opportunities, none accepted children under 18. That was, until I found Starfish Volunteers. Within a month Alexander and I headed off to Thailand for what was to be an incredibly rich and life altering experience.
We taught English to primary school kids in the poorest region of Thailand, we rode and cared for elephants and stayed in a village in the house of the head mahout. After work each day Alexander played with the local village children. One day after a day of teaching together, Alexander turned to me and said “Mum, why don’t we create something so that all kids can do the same volunteering that we’ve just done”. It was his excitement that made me know that I needed to do something more, not just for Alexander but to make a difference to others.
This was the spark that ignited Kids Giving Back and I can honestly say that it was the elephants and teaching that changed my son’s life and his way of looking at the world.
What is your organization about (their mission)?
Kids Giving Back is a recently formed non-profit founded by myself and my friend Carole Schlessinger. Our mission is to instill in children and their family unit the beauty of giving to others, not just of material things but of time, through real life experiences.
This is particularly pertinent at a time where many of our children are loaded with material goods, when what they really need (and as a recent UN study shows), is “time, not stuff”. Volunteering with children gives families time together as well as giving children the opportunity to develop new relationships, both with other volunteers as well as with members of the community with whom they are working.
Our tag line says it all: Creating the Next Generation of Generosity. We provide kids, families, schools and corporations with volunteering experiences locally, nationally, and internationally. We believe that when kids volunteer, we are developing our next generation of leaders and creating a culture of generosity and civic responsibility.
We are passionate about volunteer travel, and Kids Giving Back now has a partner relationship with Starfish Volunteers so families and school groups can book their Thailand volunteering trips directly through our Kids Giving Back travel agent.
We do however feel strongly that volunteering starts at home, and to this end we are linking kids, families and schools with a huge variety of volunteering opportunities with numerous non-profit organisations on home turf.
What positive effects have you seen in your work?
Lots! Starting with the effects on the recipients – I know the difference that we and other volunteers with children have made in Thailand, teaching children whose only opportunity to learn English from native speakers is from volunteers, as well as supporting the ability of a tiny village living in poverty to live with the elephants that are a part of its culture. Locally in Australia our kids and families are making a difference every day, helping a wide range of communities. When Alexander and I volunteer, or when Kids Giving Back connects a school group with a community, the assistance these kids give is tangible, and they really do make a difference. And then there’s a whole other level on which kids touch the hearts of those they’re helping.
In terms of the effects on the kids, it’s great seeing them embracing real life, away from the cyber worlds so many of them get stuck in for many hours of the day. You can really see the kids’ focus shift as they become aware of others beyond themselves, and learn the value of empathy. It’s great when kids work side by side with their parents or teachers who, while acting as role models, also get to enjoy the children in a new way, partnering with them as together they help others. It’s a very powerful shift in dynamics.
Alexander will at times express his gratitude for the fact that he is receiving a great education, that he has a warm bed, that we have running water and electricity, and that he can eat nutritious food. This is the sort of awareness and empathy that comes from first hand experience, and I can see how volunteering has really informed Alexander’s perspective on our world.
Please check back next week for Part 2 of our interview.