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Journey with Purpose

by Andrew Findlay

Sometimes the things we take for granted can make a world of difference to someone else. In 2017, Terry-Lynn Stone travelled to Sri Lanka on a volunteer trip with Developing World Connections (DWC), a Kamloops-based non-profit. Over a two-week period, the team of volunteers rebuilt the foundations of a flood-damaged house, home to a family of 10 in the community of Tangalle. They also constructed an outdoor kitchen plumbed with potable water. The family was “grateful beyond belief,” for the outside assistance, Stone recalls, but they also felt a part of it, having helped with the renovations themselves. “And the mother was overwhelmed by the fact we filled the kitchen with plates and dishes for the family,” she says.

Stone, a retired registered nurse and former Executive Director of the Kamloops Brain Injury Society, is well travelled. As the daughter of a British military officer, she grew up global, living for stints in Hong Kong, Malta, Singapore and Germany. However, volunteering overseas was unknown territory for her until she learned from her Rotary Club about DWC (developingworldconnections.org) and the possibility of fulfilling a childhood dream of visiting Sri Lanka. When she signed on, her motivation was simple: to improve the lives of people less fortunate.

“I knew it would be work, and I expected it would move me, but I hadn’t expected how totally it would fulfil me and how much fun I would have,” she says.

The volunteer vacation

Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism,” is basically travel with a social purpose. Volunteer trips can be as short as a few days or as long as a month or more. Projects run the gamut from building houses and installing water filtration systems to assisting with archeological digs, monitoring endangered wildlife and providing health-related services. Opportunities exist for high school and university students, families and adults, as well as for skilled and unskilled labour. Participants can expect to pay the costs of their travel, plus a program fee that helps support the project on the ground.

In 2000, Kamloops entrepreneur and DWC founder Wayne McRann was in Guatemala installing water systems and building houses on a Rotary International trip following Hurricane Mitch.

“[I realized] I wanted to start an organization that was accessible to people without church or Rotary Club affiliations,” he says.

The idea percolated. Three years later, while working in India on a polio eradication project, he brought up the idea with fellow Rotarians, and the following year, DWC was born.

Six months later, on December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake centred off the coast of Sumatra triggered a tsunami that killed approximately 230,000 people in Asia and impacted the lives of millions of others. The catastrophe tested the global aid community with a monumental relief effort and also set DWC on its future course. Boosted by a CBC news story and some coverage in Kamloops media, in February 2005, McRann and a team of volunteers landed in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries, where around 30,000 perished. DWC travelled to Tangalle, a fishing and tourist community on Sri Lanka’s southern coast that had been severely damaged. So began the organization’s flagship project, and a long-term relationship with the people of Tangalle that celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.

Since DWC’sSince DWC’s first trip in 2005, when the wounds of the Boxing Day tsunami were raw, the group has built 24 homes, as well as a Buddhist prayer centre, in Tangalle. McRann estimates he has done more than 100 overseas volunteer trips.

“I have become very much a citizen of the world,” he says. “Volunteering has made me much less judgmental of people in general and I have a huge understanding of poverty around the world.”
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Tip!

Can’t swing a trip overseas to volunteer? Search for opportunities in your own community.

 

Precautionary measures

McRann has some advice for travellers seeking overseas volunteer opportunities. First, organizations that have a demonstrated long-term commitment to a community or project are the most effective. DWC’s model is to work with reputable local charities that can help them identify where volunteer effort and financial resources will have the most positive impact. Long-term commitment also minimizes the risk of charitable resources and effort falling victim to local corruption. Volunteer organizations that listen to what a community needs are also positioned for success. When a charity parachutes into a community with good intentions but poor execution, this often leads to a waste of resources.

McRann says to be wary of for-profit volunteer organizations or organizations with high administrative overhead. A two-week trip with DWC typically costs around $2,300 (on top of airfare) and covers accommodation, food, in-country transportation, program costs and a donation to a local partner charity.

A family affair

Stone has made it her personal mission to expose each of her six grandchildren to community service and volunteering. Last July, she brought her then 22-year-old grandson on a DWC trip to Kenya to build a water collection and storage system. This past April, another grandson, 16, joined her back in Tangalle to bang nails, paint walls and do other maintenance work on the office of Navajaveena, a local organization that provides support to marginalized citizens who face physical and mental disabilities.

Six months later, on December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake centred off the coast of Sumatra triggered a tsunami that killed approximately 230,000 people in Asia and impacted the lives of millions of others. The catastrophe tested the global aid community with a monumental relief effort and also set DWC on its future course. Boosted by a CBC news story and some coverage in Kamloops media, in February 2005, McRann and a team of volunteers landed in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries, where around 30,000 perished. DWC travelled to Tangalle, a fishing and tourist community on Sri Lanka’s southern coast that had been severely damaged. So began the organization’s flagship project, and a long-term relationship with the people of Tangalle that celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.

“It was life-changing for them,” she says. Among the life lessons: understanding cultural differences and adapting. “[We] need to adjust our cultural compass and never expect the country we are visiting to adjust theirs.”

Did You Know?

BCAA employees volunteer around the world. The organization gives paid time off every year for volunteering.

 

Before You Voluntour

Find the right fit. Decide where your interests lie, and where you want to go, then begin your search on reputable sites such as gooverseas.com, projectsabroad.ca and gvicanada.ca.

Research the organization. It should have a multi-year track record in the region and staff on the ground to assist volunteers. Read reviews (such as those on gooverseas.com) and, if possible, contact a past volunteer. Approach any direct work with children cautiously, as it can often do more harm than good. Non-profit group Save the Children recommends against volunteering at orphanages, for instance.

Research the destination. Learn of any risks or required vaccines at travel.gc.ca and check with the local embassy of your destination country about whether you need a special work or visitor’s visa.

Get travel insurance. Before you buy, read through the policy to make sure it covers you for volunteer work abroad (BCAA’s does, for example).

Learn more on how to prepare for volunteering abroad.


Photo Credits: Developing World Connections, Getty Images