Travel that feeds the soul

When Bud Philbrook and Michele Gran were married in 1979, they had chosen a Caribbean cruise as their honeymoon. But during the planning stages, evening newscasts spotlighting the tragic exodus of Cambodians from their terrorized homeland made the couple rethink the frivolity of their honeymoon plans.

They decided then they wanted a more meaningful vacation.

“We spent five days indulging Bud’s childhood dream of visiting Orlando theme parks and five days in an impoverished Guatemalan village,” says Michele. This blending of fantasy and reality led the couple to a life change that today is exemplified in Global Volunteers, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports 20 countries year-round on six continents through volunteer teams, direct project funding and child sponsorship.

Since its inception in 1984, Global Volunteers has sent more than 20,000 volunteers to more than 100 communities and was the first and one of the only one of its kind to be granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations.

“It’s been a huge learning curve for us,” says Bud. “We set out to do this, originally planning to take a group of friends once a year, but it grew tremendously from the little business I ran out of my law office.” Now 61, Philbrook closed his law practice in 1994 to run Global Volunteers full time. “The financial rewards aren’t as great as practising law,” he says, “but the gratification is a far more important reward.” The couple has taken their three sons to more than 15 countries over the years, making their volunteer work a real family affair.

No new business is easy and, as Michele says, “there were times when we looked bankruptcy in the eye, but bankruptcy blinked.”

Local people are in charge
The philosophy of Global Volunteers is a belief that to be truly successful in making a contribution to a developing community, the assistance must be under the direction of the host community. In many cases, Global Volunteers returns to the same community at the invitation of local leaders up to 17 times a year. The ultimate goal of the program is to foster self-reliance with short-term volunteers as resources and the development of inter-cultural friendships that build understanding and respect. With experts in development and service on staff, the organization makes a point of translating local leaders’ goals into volunteer strategies and adjusting work projects for maximum benefit.

The organization invests in host partners’ projects financially and supports ongoing enhancements to a community’s quality of life, with the emphasis on serving the vulnerable and at-risk.

“Local people are always in charge” is the mantra of Global Volunteers, with the emphasis on protecting the host community’s independence, preventing exploitation of local people and minimizing the cultural impact of outsiders.

How it works

Travelling as a volunteer is a unique experience with an opportunity to use your skills and interests to benefit others. A global volunteer has the opportunity to “give back,” to help eradicate racism, learn about poverty, contribute to the development of sustainable community projects, share cultural insights with other volunteers and experience another culture from the inside.

Volunteer vacations come in all sizes from one-, two- and three-week stints. But depending on the wishes of the host community, some programs are offered back-to-back with extended-stay options for unpaid helpers of up to 40 weeks.

A network of services includes teaching conversational English, caring for vulnerable children, teens or the elderly, painting, building and repairing community buildings and assisting with health care. If you can use a hammer, you can volunteer. Simply playing with, holding and giving attention to an at-risk child can significantly improve her well-being.

No specialized skills are needed. You will be provided with complete and accurate information about service opportunities and the service program that best suits your interests and skills. Once you have chosen your program, you will be given extensive assistance to help get the program running, such as a user-friendly conversational English teaching guide.

Besides programs in North America, you can serve in Australia, Brazil, China, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Romania and Tanzania. Currently, Global Volunteers is negotiating with two new partners, South Africa and Portugal.

Who can go?

Everyone. Half the current volunteers are under the age of 50, and half are over 50. About 60 per cent are women, and about 35 per cent of the volunteers return to join another program. And there is an opportunity to stay connected back home by joining an Encore Team, which works to recruit new volunteers, raise funds for special community projects and assist staff with special projects. You can also sponsor a child or a classroom. Intergenerational volunteering is encouraged with entire families participating as well as grandparents bringing their grandkids on a volunteer vacation. What volunteers share in common is compassion, a sense of adventure, flexibility and the desire to work with and learn from local people in another country.

“Only three per cent of our volunteers are Canadian,” says Bud, “so we are looking forward to our partnership with CARP Travel to bring this opportunity to Canadians.”

And he suggests volunteers get as much back as they put in: “One of the most frequent comments from returning volunteers is, ‘I went to teach. I learned more than I taught.’”

Your safety is first priority

The host communities which Global Volunteers serve are rarely involved in political unrest and because volunteers are considered friends, not tourists, host communities go the extra mile to ensure there are no issues with safety. Volunteers work in teams, so there is no need to be alone in a host community.

“We don’t go where there is anything unduly hazardous,” says Bud. “And we turn down host countries constantly because of our safety criteria.”

Team leaders have comprehensive training in CPR, first-aid certification and protocols for managing personal and national emergencies. Where advisable, all team members are registered with local embassies or consulates. Food, lodging and transportation are arranged in a manner to maximize health and safety.

Why you pay to volunteer

Global Volunteers is a private, non-profit organization, independent from government or religious funding. The programs are almost all financed by volunteer contributions. The service program fee ranging from $800 to $3,000-plus, depending on length of involvement and accommodations provided, covers all meals, lodging, airport transfers and team leaders, staff and on-site and pre-program training. Discounts for families and students are available.

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Photo copyright Global Volunteers.

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