Tory Sonstroem has this whole volunteer thing figured out—Ireland, Wales, Iceland, Alaska, Italy, Turkey, and more. She and her husband and daughter have been project participants as well as project hosts for other visiting service workers for Volunteers for Peace over the past many years. To give of your hard-earned vacation time to make a difference in the lives of others is one thing. To open your doors and arms to other weary and wary travelers doing the same is giving on a whole new level.
The VFP mission: “Volunteers For Peace promotes International Voluntary Service as an effective means of intercultural education, service learning, and community development. We provide projects where people from diverse backgrounds can work together to help overcome the need, violence, and environmental challenges facing our planet. We organize and promote projects where nations join together to improve life on our planet and volunteers experience a microcosm of our world. Through the exchange of ideas and international understanding, our projects are practical ways to both prevent and resolve conflict while meeting local needs. By encouraging and providing opportunities for voluntary service we are sowing the seeds of a better future for all.”
Tory tells me that the typical format of a VFP experience is a 2-3 week residential project with up to a dozen volunteers from different nations. The group usually lives together in simple accommodations while accomplishing a given work assignment. VFP’s fee per project is quite low (currently about $500 per person), although volunteers are responsible for their own transportation. VFP sometimes refers to itself as a “short-term Peace Corps.”
After the jump you’ll find the questions I wanted to know of such a dedicated, repeat (you might even say habitual) volunteer.
How did you first discover the work of VFP and what pushed you over the line of admiring the work to deciding to volunteer? I do not remember the initial discovery but it’s likely that I picked up a copy of VFP’s annual newsletter at my university’s career development center. My then-fiancé (now husband) and I were looking for an interesting and affordable way to travel prior to the summer of 1993. VFP’s catalog offered so many exciting choices and the price was right. Eric and I did two international volunteer projects (previously called workcamps) that summer: The first one was in Ireland, where we worked with low-income seniors, and the second was in Wales, where we helped out at the Eisteddfod music festival.
What role do volunteers play in this work? Are special skills required? In general, volunteers are asked to come prepared to contribute 5-6 hours a day in an organized work project, such as trail maintenance, house painting, etc. We also contribute to the daily tasks of group living, such as cooking and clean-up. Special skills are appreciated but usually not required. Project descriptions will specify what the common language(s) will be, or if a certain skill is desired for the success of the project. For example, in 2012, the three of us volunteered at a youth summer camp in Turkey. The camp’s theme was drama/film, designed to help campers practice their English. Besides serving as the camp’s native speakers of English, the three of us have some experience in theater and film. Our daughter went as a camper and my husband and I were counselors.
What obstacles along the way almost stopped you? The main challenge has been to find projects that will accept the three of us as a family unit, simply because there are fewer offerings of this type. Typically, projects will accept no more than two people from one nation, in order to ensure diversity and to prevent social or language cliques from forming. That policy is successful both in theory and in practice. In the case of family-oriented projects, the goal would be to have only one family per nation in a given group. Overall, this type of traveling has worked well for us – no real obstacles – which is why we keep doing it.
Your husband and daughter participate, but have other family and friends supported you or did they think you were nuts? I think everyone I know has been supportive. Maybe some are a little unclear as to what we get out of it; others may like the idea but have no desire to try it themselves.
Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later? What were you doing before this? Did you forge your own path or are you shaping your world along the same lines as a family member, mentor, etc? That’s a big question! Many factors have influenced my interest in immersion-type travel. For example, my dad’s family helped to design student-abroad programs starting in the late 1950s, before I was even born. As a young teen, I attended a summer camp in Michigan (Crystalaire), that always had a few great international staff members. After college, I went to New Zealand via the YMCA International Camp Counselor Program (ICCP), and came back wanting to work in recreation as a profession. Following our first Volunteer For Peace experience in 1993, Eric and I were asked if we would like to serve as hosts in 1994. With my background in camp administration and Eric’s background as a college teacher, it all started to fit together very well.
Do you have a favorite trip with VFP? Where was it and why does it stand out? Each trip has been memorable for different reasons. My personal favorite was being a camp counselor in Turkey in 2010, because I really like summer camps, and I would have liked to own and operate one of my own, similar to the one I attended.
Is there an ideal volunteer for the group? What attitudes or mindset will help? As VFP and other agencies like this will tell you right up front, it is most important to bring a cooperative spirit and to be flexible. Every group’s dynamic is different, and there is usually more than one good way to accomplish a task, solve a problem, or have fun together. Patience and open communication are key assets. In practical terms, I recommend a few tips like packing light, trying each food offered, learning some of the local language, and bringing small souvenirs from home to share.
What has been the best reward for the work you do? One of the best rewards has been friendships that have continued long after a project ends. For example, we still exchange holiday greetings with a German man we met in Ireland in 1993. Over the years, he has come to stay with us in the U.S, and we have gone to Germany to visit him and his family. We also keep in touch with a Turkish family we met in 2008 in Italy. One of VFP’s mottoes is “Building peace, one friendship at a time.” I really believe in that.
What is the biggest challenge of being a host for other volunteers? I can only speak for myself, because other hosts’ situations will be different. Some years I have found it hard to find an agency in my community that can design a useful work project that can be done by about ten people during a designated two-week span. Volunteers who travel across the world to donate their efforts deserve to be given meaningful work. It is discouraging to work with an agency that agreed to take volunteers but then does not know what to do with them once they arrive. VFP’s deadline for hosts’ commitment is February 1, yet most projects do not take place until the summer. Local agencies can’t always predict their needs that far ahead of time. If I were already connected to a local agency, I would be able to design a work activity myself, thus solving that issue. On the other hand, I have always had the good fortune to be able to provide housing and recreational opportunities for volunteers through my personal contacts.
As a host, what do you wish visiting volunteers would know or consider before they arrive? I wish that volunteers coming to the U.S. would obey the drinking age of 21, at least while they are on the project. Many volunteers are 18-20 years of age and come from countries with a lower (or no) drinking age; they know our laws in advance but often don’t quite believe that there are consequences involved. I do not like having to repeatedly enforce the no-drinking rule, but I also do not want to be held responsible nor challenge my good relationships with the churches, neighbors, and others who support us during those two weeks. Fortunately, California’s law about no smoking in public places seems to be easier for most volunteers to follow.
What is your earliest memory of volunteering to do something for someone else or something else? Crystalaire, the summer camp I mentioned, provided opportunities for us campers to volunteer in the local community as one of our many activity choices. I remember reading picture books to the children of migrant workers, playing lawn games with developmentally disabled adults, and visiting with senior citizens. (Crystalaire itself hosted a few VFP projects in the 1990’s.) My parents also have volunteered throughout my life, in their own areas of interest, so the seed was planted early.
What’s next? The three of us will travel to Iceland this summer to volunteer at a project for an organization called SEEDS, based in Reykjavik. SEEDS listed several different types of projects on VFP’s website. Based on our own schedule as well as what projects had openings for three Americans, we were accepted to volunteer at an international children’s soccer festival. We don’t know much more about it yet but we are looking forward to it!
By the time you read this interview, Tory and her family will have recently returned from Iceland, probably catching up on emails and laundry, with more stories to tell of being of service around the world.