Affordable wanderlust: How volunteering allowed me to take a year off
Wednesday, 8 March 2017
Rewind the clock back to early 2008 and money was on my brain, big time.
I was working as an editor at a magazine by day, and nights and weekends as a Mary Kay salesperson. I was also squeezing in time as a barista at a chocolate shop, saving every penny I could. Come that June, Tyler (my then-boyfriend and now husband) and I would be boarding a one-way flight to Shanghai for a yearlong trip abroad.
I needed money. I also needed a plan for how to spend the money on the road. We were going to spend six months in Asia and six months in Australia and New Zealand. I knew Asia would be relatively cheap, and that the other half of the trip would scrape our pockets clean. Even with a $16,000 personal loan in hand, I knew I would need more.
So I got creative. Why not give back to the communities we visit? The concept of voluntourism—pairing volunteering with travel—was just catching on in 2008, so we looked up a few programs and realized the world was our oyster. There were opportunities in nearly every country. We knew we'd need to fundraise for this portion of our adventure, but first we had to pick a location in which to volunteer.
Choosing a country
We decided to set aside three months for a volunteer program, and then sat down and stared at a map. I thought choosing a country would be the easy part, but as it turned out we had very different ideas of the perfect experience. I wanted to work with orphans affected by HIV/AIDS in rural Africa. Tyler wanted to live on a beach in Thailand and teach soccer and English. This posed a problem. After fighting about it for a few days, we decided to do our own research and reconvene in two weeks.
We didn't talk about the volunteer option at all during those weeks. Instead, dinner conversation centered around how to get visas, where to forward our mail while we were away, what we were going to do with our furniture, and so on. We independently created PowerPoint presentations with our top three choices of destinations and when the two weeks was over, spent an evening delivering persuasive speeches to each other.
The winner: Nepal. We wanted to stay in Asia, and Africa would have been too far. India was also on my list. Vietnam was on Tyler's list. But in the end Nepal fit the bill—Third World and in the right location for our journey.
Finding a host and fundraising
The next step was to find a nonprofit that could place us in Nepal for a three-month stint. With a little research, we learned that there were dozens of such organizations. We picked one and started fundraising, since a few thousand dollars each was required. This money would cover our food and lodging for three months, though we were on our own for transportation. Our plan was to teach at a government-run school and help out at an orphanage. We would live with host families and the majority of our time would be spent in Kathmandu, with a few weeks in the Chitwan District, located in the southern part of Nepal.
Tyler and I sat down and made a list of the people in our network. We looked at that list and doubled it, encompassing everyone we knew and everyone our families knew. Then we drafted a letter detailing our experience and sent it snail mail. We included tax information for all donors, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and promised to keep in touch as the program progressed.
The response overwhelmed us. Within weeks, we were on the receiving end of hundreds of dollars. Much of it was from our close circle, but soon checks of surprisingly large amounts started rolling in from extended family and friends we hadn't seen in years. By the day we left, we'd fundraised a few thousand dollars more than what was required.
Volunteering on the ground
Our flight landed in Kathmandu on a sunny day in late August 2008. We'd already been traveling for three months at that point, and were excited to give our checkbooks a break. The next three months were some of the most enriching of our lives. We met volunteers from all over the world, learned a smattering of Nepali (Tyler can still speak it after all these years), and connected with the culture of Nepal on a deeper level.
I taught English to sixth grade students while Tyler worked at an orphanage, helping students with their homework assignments and tending to the garden. Near the end of our experience, we pulled aside the orphanage owner and told her about the surplus money we'd raised. We asked her what she'd like us to spend the money on, and her eyes welled up with tears.
"Desks and chairs," she said. "It would be nice not to sit on the floor all the time. And a stereo system for the children."
It was settled. Within days, we'd purchased desks, chairs, and an impressive sound system—something of particular importance to a society that is so tied to its musical culture. The day we delivered those gifts, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Our experience in Nepal ended in mid-November 2008. Those three months changed us forever. We still keep in touch with our host families and hope to go back some day. We left with tears in our eyes and—thanks to our fundraising efforts—money left over in our pockets.
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