Archive for the ‘Profiles’ Category

Changers Profile: Scott Fifer, GO Campaign

Scott Fifer GO CampaignI was recently e-introduced to Scott Fifer by a dear friend with whom I have traveled to Haiti, because she said her friend Scott was headed to Haiti again soon, setting up some grassroots volunteer programs generated from within the community, and we both shared a fascination with Haitian voodoo (vodoun) art, including the sometimes disturbing genre that includes plastic babydoll heads. Quirky and committed to service are a couple of high benchmarks in my estimation of folks, so I was looking forward to the conversation.

I, like so many of us would, figured I had to do an internet search ahead of time so I’d know more about who I was going to meet, and quickly became smitten with Scott’s huge undertaking, GO Campaign. Fifer is the founder and executive director of the organization whose mission he sums up: “We partner with grassroots Local Heroes to give opportunity to orphans and vulnerable children around the world.”

Now, tourism and orphanages uttered in the same breath become dangerous territory these days as it has become somehow cynically cool on the web to bash volunteer travel, especially in relation to kids. That’s an argument for which I have little patience, though it is true that there are some nefarious folks out there trying to capitalize on best intentions of travelers and who are creating a nasty “orphanage tourism” scam business model. While I don’t let that dampen my commitment to serving young people around the world, due diligence should be done before any of us lend our dollars or hours to any organization.

GO Campaign, established in 2006, is the real deal. The key is Scott and company’s commitment to work only with vetted “local heroes” who are already fighting the good fight in the communities where they live. This assures there is no foreign “savior” coming in and imposing outsider will on a local problem or issue. This is EXACTLY the sort of project initiative you should look for when volunteering anywhere—locally-generated solutions. The fact that this ethos is built into GO Campaign is a great sign. With GO Campaign, you can fund high impact projects from home, or you can go and volunteer with the hero projects in some amazing locations. The volunteer opportunities pages of the website share links to projects, and define the need for volunteers who might visit.

After the jump, find Scott’s answers to a bunch of Changers Profile questions: Continue reading

Changers Profile: Kirky “Xena” Kirkendall

XenaIf you were a blog reader here over this past summer, you know about the outstanding impact my volunteering at Champ Camp for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation had on me. A world-class camp for kids who are burn survivors, Champ Camp draws the most amazing people—campers and volunteers alike. As a counselor for my cabin of “Rancheros” (8-10 year-olds) I really won the volunteer lottery—I was over the moon for those kids—I still am. The volunteers at camp are some of the most dedicated I’ve known, and there is a very organized system of leadership. The unit leader of our Ranchero age group (my direct boss, I suppose) was Xena, aka Kirky Kirkendall. I didn’t know her name then—we all exclusively use our camp names—I am Monkey—and many of us will never learn the actual names of others, even after years of working together.

Next summer, Xena will step into a larger role at camp, and become one of two Camp Directors, meaning the buck stops here. We’ll be lucky having her as one of the Queen Bees…and honestly, I wish every one of you could meet her and hang out with her and have her crack you up for a week…but until you come volunteer with us at Camp (or other volunteer activities with the foundation), you can meet Xena this way:

Tell me a little bit about what you will be doing at Champ Camp 2014 (Not as opposed to previous years, but in general, for readers who are unaware of the program) and your history at camp. How did you first get involved?

Burn survivors are affected both psychologically and physically by the injuries that they endure. Many of the survivors are very young and are burned as a result of an accident of some kind. These youth then have to adapt to an entire new persona. Burns at any age can be traumatic due to the physical changes and adaptations which need to happen. For those that are burned at a young age, however, the physical and “natural” difficulties of growing up become that much more difficult.

I became acutely aware of these difficulties in 2009 as my nephew (he was 17 at the time) became a burn survivor when he was electrocuted. He thought there was a brush fire and was going to try to help put it out, but it was actually a downed power line. His chest caught on fire and a volt went through his body. He was changed forever! He would always be nervous and stressed somehow by power lines and his skin would always have issues and need different surgeries. It is amazing how important skin is to our self-perception, self-worth, and confidence. To this day he is having to re-create himself, as so many youths are doing….

This is what compelled me to be involved in Champ Camp through the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation, a summer camp for any youth between 5-16 that has been treated for burns in California. This camp creates an opportunity for youth to play and be, for one week at least, “normal”, without scars, to play confidently, and laugh. I started to volunteer in this experience as a counselor four years ago and will transition this year humbly to be a director of this camp with Jeeter (who is a co-director with me) with 80 other of my dearest friends who also volunteer. (More after the jump) Continue reading

Changers Profile: TORY SONSTROEM, Volunteers for Peace

logoTory 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 PeaceIMG_2725 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. Continue reading


Lindsay at clinic with four girls on the way to their father's funeral.

Lindsay at clinic with four girls on the way to their father’s funeral.

This is World Health Workers Week (April 8-12), so it seems a perfect time to run this profile of Lindsay Southgate, who went as a volunteer with Global Brigades to Panama, and found it to be such a powerful experience, she then went on another service trip with the organization, this time as a Co-President/group leader, to Ghana.

Global Brigades works internationally to resolve global health and economic disparities by empowering student volunteers, local professionals, and community members in a collaborative holistic approach to sustainable development. Their vision is “To improve equality of life by igniting the largest student-led social responsibility movement on the planet.”

Lindsay explains so thoroughly what the experience was like for her–I hope it inspires you as much as it does me…I lover her attitude of basically saying: This was pretty daunting, but that’s what it took, so that’s what I did. What choice did I have, there was no alternative to changing people’s lives, so I did whatever it took (my interpretation/words, not Lindsay’s)

Tell me a little bit about what you did on your two trips with Global Brigades. What possessed you? There must have been easier vacations to take—why this?

A friend in Ghana

A friend in Ghana

On my two trips with Global Brigades, I traveled to Ghana and Panama. I got involved with GB through a roommate. She is a nursing major and the nursing program initiated the GB San Diego State University branch. After learning about the Panama trip I applied and got in. It was unfortunate because my roommate who informed me about the trip did not get chosen in the raffle for Panama, but fortunately she did come to Ghana. My interest was sparked because I had recently been to a pre-medical conference that suggested students get international experience. Of course, as a premed, we do everything we think we need in order to get into medical school. Prior to learning about the Panama trip I decided that I would not go abroad because it was too expensive, and not realistic for me at that time. Once I decided to get involved with the Panama trip it became more than just another check mark on the list. It became a passion to raise enough money to get the opportunity to travel far and help such deserving people. (more after the jump) Continue reading

Marilyn Monroe Birthday–and Her Charity Work


Katharine McPhee or Megan Hilty, whoever plays Marilyn Monroe in the show-within-the-show on Smash, the delving into her larger-than-life persona probably won’t go into Norma Jeane’s charitable work…but for a superstar of her era, she set a mighty fine example. Today is Marilyn’s birthday, so I thought I’d try to find some of the ways she reached out to make the world a better place.

In 1953 she performed with Jane Russell in a fundraising benefit at the Hollywood Bowl for underprivileged children at St. Jude’s hospital.

While still traveling on her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio, she did three gigs for US service members serving in Korea.

Worked with WAIF (World Adoption International Fund–founded by Jane Russell in 1955), an organization that facilitated more than 50,000 abandoned children being adopted.

In 1955 she rode a pink elephant at a benefit gala for Mike Todd’s Celebrity Circus at Madison Square Garden for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation.

Marilyn gave her earnings from the world premiere of The Prince and The Showgirl to The Milk Fund For Babies.

1958 March of Dimes Fashion Parade to aid children with polio.

Donated to a children’s welfare organization that provided free breakfasts to underprivileged children.

This one is well known: Marilyn visited an orphanage in Mexico and wrote a check for $1000 while the press was there–and after they left she tore it up and wrote a new one for $10,000.

Was a member and lent her name and efforts to SANE, an organization dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons.

Her last public appearance was at Dodger Stadium for a benefit for muscular dystrophy.

Alice Rallies All of Us: #Alice’sBucketList

Alice Pyne and Mabel

My apologies for the radio silence of late–had a little health scare and was in the hospital for a few days, but am definitely on the mend and feeling better every day now.

Because of my days immersed in healthcare and all its foibles (and GREAT nurses, in my case), I am drawn to the recent super-trending story of Alice Pyne in Ulverston, England. Alice has gained international attention for her blog, Alice’s Bucket List. Alice is a 15-year-old girl with cancer. She has been fighting it for four years, and with incredible grace that just guts me, she has come to the understanding that she’s not going to win this fight. Alice has created a Bucket List of things she is anxious to accomplish in the time she has, with fantastic experiences she longs for, like “To Swim With Sharks,” “To Be a Dolphin Trainer,” and “To Meet [the band] Take That.” Alice’s number one wish is for everyone, and she does mean everyone, to sign up to be a potential bone marrow donor. A donor match can save a life. One-to-one, you being responsible for the survival of another, and without you, they will not make it. It is an awesome responsibility and honor. Alice’s work for awareness is huge.

Respond to the international movement started by this young woman, by finding the marrow donation center nearest you, and put yourself on the list. It is easier than you think.

Be the Match

CHANGERS PROFILE: Katherine Fisher—Destination:PEACE

Without getting too smarmy, the most amazing experiences I get from doing this blog are the interconnected webs of relationships with people I’ve met who are up to the same things as I. There are deep friendships that have been forged with some people who I haven’t even met yet, but we create a connection through work and through networking that lets us keep up with one another. Katherine Fisher reached out to me via the blog a while ago, and I honestly feel so supported by her, and am so inspired by the work she does in Mexico, she feels like family…and we’ve never been in the same place at the same time…YET…That’ll all change when I am lucky enough to join one of these fantastic volunteer trips she does, bringing folks into communities in Mexico to work, and giving folks a little downtime and yoga practice too. Her story, and the story of Destination:PEACE, is inspiring as I learn more about someone who saw a place in the world that needed an infusion of energy and support, and she recognized that nothing would fill that gap quite as perfectly as she herself…and now she holds the door open for us to join her as well.


Katherine Fisher is a visionary businesswoman who has creatively found a way to balance her life’s passions and practical skills into a social venture. After many years as a PEACE volunteer and multiple years serving on the Board of Directors, Katherine saw an opportunity to bring mind, body, and spirit together and founded Destination:PEACE Volunteer Vacations.

When Katherine discovered Bikram Yoga, she fell in love with the practice for both its meditative and physically challenging aspects, changing her perspective on what it truly means to be healthy. It was this outlook that led her to believe that like-minded yoga participants would enjoy combining this healthy practice with the opportunity to bring support to struggling families and animals in Mexico.

Katherine combined her background in business and sales with her passion for Yoga and has committed herself full time to build, organize, and promote Destination:PEACE, bringing funding to non-profits in Mexico while allowing volunteers to serve the local community and fulfill their own vacation and inspirational needs.

Mission Statement: To provide an opportunity for volunteers from all walks of life to experience different volunteer programs, to become immersed in another culture, and work side-by-side with other volunteers and residents to create and further sustainable community initiatives.

Read the interview after the jump. Continue reading

CHANGERS PROFILE: Erin Guttenplan—Edge of Seven

I got some great international response to the blog recently, including a lovely and heartfelt comment yesterday from a reader in Kathmandu, Nepal. How perfect that today I am running this interview with the amazing Erin Guttenplan who created the service tour/volunteer travel company, Edge of Seven (with a great program—that I am desperate to do—that creates more education opportunities for girls in Nepal). Erin is one of those folks I find so fascinating, who saw the world a particular way, and it demanded that she step up and create something new. I love what she’s up to, and how the world reaps the benefits of her work, and her astute perceptions of how some charitable organizations/NGOs are not doing what they say they are was sadly but vividly played out similarly in my recent experiences in Haiti…

Erin Guttenplan

ERIN GUTTENPLAN (Founder/Executive Director), EDGE OF SEVEN

Erin believes in the potential of international service to foster global understanding between people and nations. She created Edge of Seven because she has worked with communities in need in the developing world. She has also met volunteers who want to serve in any capacity, big or small. Erin believes that Edge of Seven is an affordable vehicle to harness the potential in connecting the two.

The mission of Edge of Seven is to create awareness and volunteer support for service projects in developing countries that are sustainable, community driven, and responsive to local needs. We at Edge of Seven believe that change is possible with collective action over time.

Tell me a little bit about the genesis of EDGE OF SEVEN—why this? And what’s the scoop on that name?
It really began years ago when I attended an info session about the Peace Corps. After learning that it was a 2 ½ year time commitment, I decided not to apply. I felt that I couldn’t go that far away, for that long, at that time in my life. I searched for a short-term alternative but they were too expensive. I noticed a need.

As for easier things to start, I’m a firm believer that we learn the most from our greatest challenges. I have been incredibly lucky to have the unwavering support of my family and friends every step of the way. Everything is easier with people behind you. (I also love wine. That certainly helps.)

Our name! I love telling the story of our name. Edge is our heart. When I was thinking about names for a volunteering-abroad-in-developing-countries-around-the-world nonprofit, I was looking for a word that signified adventure. Enter “edge”. We strive to create a bold experience that pushes volunteers since real discovery happens outside of our comfort zone. Further, we think that intercultural cooperation happens when you feel how people live halfway across the world. Seven is our vision. We’d like to support projects on all seven continents in the future. We’ll grow slowly because the most important piece of the puzzle is that we find the RIGHT projects. We’re on the hunt for projects that are community driven, sustainable, and responsive to local needs. Those projects exist all over the world and we’re excited to find them. (More after the jump)

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Shermans Travel Interview

A lovely thing about having friends and colleagues in the industry in which you work means that there arise occasions for mutual back scratching. A wonderful (and newlywed) pal of mine, Ms. Blane Bachelor, with whom I had the pleasure of traveling  to Scotland last year, recently  interviewed me about voluntourism. Shermans Travel will get you where you’re going and find deals to get you there…and their Adventure Blog currently features this interview.

About Adventure Travel

Blane Bachelor is always up for the next big adventure, whether rock-climbing in the Caribbean or hunting for the season’s best adventure-travel deal.

andrew-mersmann-resize.jpgPhoto courtesy Andrew Mersmann
Several years ago, Andrew Mersmann, editor of Passport magazine, was on assignment in Key West when his group learned that a pod of 27 pilot whales had beached themselves nearby.

Upon hearing the news, Mersmann “tossed [his] itinerary in the air and started getting involved” with the volunteer effort to save the seven surviving whales. He donned a borrowed wetsuit and a flotation device and quickly learned how to ladle water over the animals’ skin so they wouldn’t get sunburned, while keeping their blow holes above water.

“I don’t care what religion you belong to, how you were brought up, what you believe, when you’re looking into that whale’s eye and trying to keep it alive, you see God,” Mersmann says. “That whale experience was a majorly pivotal moment.”

Since then, Mersmann’s volunteer travel includes trips with a medical and humanitarian group on horseback in Rajasthan, India; endangered manatees in Crystal River, Fla.; and the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He’s written Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, which focuses on the exploding sector of volunteer travel, and also writes a daily blog,, on the subject.

I spoke with him about “voluntourism” – and why it makes such a great travel experience for adventurous types.

What are some of the factors involved in the “voluntourism” trend?

There are a couple of things that are feeding this frenzy. As information has over the last several years become so much more readily available, everybody knows we’re a global community. People know and are aware of what’s going on beyond their front door – and a lot of what’s going on is not good. And because there’s a universal awareness, there’s this bigger sense that people can actually help and have an impact. This is really about having an authentic experience in a community or a place. If you’re working side by side with locals saving baby elephants, or clearing brush off the trail, you’re having an impact on that community. And you’re taking that impact back home with you and that’s a huge thing. It’s so much better than being in hotel or restaurant with a little dance in the middle of dinner and [hotel officials saying], “Oh, look at this cultural performance!”

What sort of experience or skills do you need?

Everybody knows about the Peace Corps, or about disaster response, but that requires a lot of special skills. This kind of travel needn’t really require any experience or skills, and you just jump right in.

What type of travelers does the experience draw?

The age is pretty diverse. People who have a lot of money to travel are older, so a lot of baby boomers do these sort of trips. And then there’s the young gap year, the backpackers who take a year off to find themselves in the world, that demographic.  But the cool thing about this kind of travel is that there are ways to do something in an afternoon, or a week, or a couple of weeks, without having to make a commitment of a ton of time or money. There are ways to have an effect in an afternoon.

Tell me about the costs involved.

There are lots of opportunities where it’s free, it’s not going to cost you any money, and [organizers will] pay for your room and board for the work you do. And there are some trips where you’re going to pay $10K and room and board. If you’re a volunteer for a 501c3 nonprofit or an international NGO and you’re not adding extra days to go touring, a large portion or all of your trip can be tax deductable. Your meals, hotels, transportation – all of that is considered in service to the organization. So that offsets a lot of the cost. There are even some trips where you can get paid a bit, but it’s not an income. Everybody should check with their tax adviser beforehand.

For the more adventurous traveler, what kinds of trips are out there?

The way my book is organized is that chapters are all broken down into the type of work, and there’s lots dedicated to intrepid, adventurous travelers. There’s a huge section about trips where you work with endangered species and other animals. There are programs to work with big game and conservation throughout Africa, pink dolphin expeditions in the Amazon, lion expeditions in South Africa. There’s this category of animals that is called “charismatic megafauna” – they are animals that capture people’s hearts and make them care more. Giant pandas, elephants, dolphins – they make people say “wow” and tend to affect people more than, say, a snake.

I would imagine there are lots of opportunities for environmental-type trips, too?

There’s a whole chapter on healing the environment, tree planting, greening and cleaning, trail building and ranch volunteers. The Appalachian Trail offers lots of opportunities, and it’s not that you just go and move a rock that fell. Some of the work consists of blazing new trails, clearing brush when stuff gets overgrown, or adding signage for hikers and campers. Usually programs have specific weeks and weekends where people will be camping. You might hike 4, 5, 6, miles before you get to the work spot with a shovel slung over your shoulder.

Any specific trips or opportunities to make note of now?

There’s a category of travel that involves rebuilding after disaster, both natural disaster and recovery from war. These experiences take a special kind of spirit and heart. There are still giant refugee areas throughout Africa. Post-genocide Rwanda is in huge need of help right now. And Haiti is just about to start opening up to non-trained volunteers. People can [soon] start getting in there and not be in the way.


I’ve known Tom Kellogg for several years—was lucky enough to work with him creatively when I was living in Los Angeles, and recently, the crazy small world of facebook made our worlds once again intersect. I had been dimly aware, over the years, of his playwright/arts work with at-risk kids, but didn’t know many details. I knew the kids, and his colleagues, were lucky to work with him—not many are as giving and committed as he, and even fewer get such joy from wrestling with big issues and figuring out how to see the world with fresh eyes. It cracks your world open to be around Tom as he has this energy of, “Well, sure, that’s the way you understand your life…but how about if you look at it like this?” That’s a real gift to the rest of us.

Thomas Dean Kellogg (Cherokee, Choctaw, Celtic, Slavic) is the Artistic Director and Founder of MAPP and theatre fofo. He has designed, developed, and implemented many successful playwriting/ mentoring programs throughout North America over the better part of the past two decades while pursuing his other passion of producing, writing, and directing theatre. He continues to travel nationally and internationally, to conduct his mentored writing workshops, train artists and educators, and to produce theatre.

The Mentor Artists Playwrights Project (MAPP), is an arts consultancy company that partners with schools and not-for-profit youth development organizations to share Thomas Dean Kellogg’s unique playwriting workshops with young writers and to provide community presentations of the work.

A group of young people, each paired with a mentor actor or writer, participate in a progressive series of intensive playwriting workshops led by Master Artist Thomas Dean Kellogg. With a core emphasis on the importance of the young person’s dreams and aspirations, Kellogg’s method introduces fundamental playwriting tools that explore the use of metaphor, the creation of characters through sensory and emotional work, monologue, dramatic storytelling, and theme. The young people are taught to examine the dynamics of conflict, and write plays where crisis, urgency, and possible consequences are explored.

The process culminates in public staged presentations of the young writers’ original plays by professional actors.

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