Posts Tagged ‘service trip’


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

Go Overseas Interview

This is a quick interview I did for the good people of Go Overseas ( about “a day in the life” of the volunteer project I recently did in Haiti with Elevate Destinations. Go to the Go Overseas website to see it properly formatted and much nicer than the cut-n-paste version here…and while you’re there, find yourself a trip!


Day in the Life of a Volunteer in Haiti

Day in the Life of Andrew Mersmann - Volunteer in Haiti

Andrew Mersmann – Volunteer Alum in Haiti

Andrew Mersmann is a Los Angeles-based travel writer and author (Frommer’s “500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference). He was a client on the Elevate Destinations “Urgent Service” trip to southern Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake, and returned this year as a volunteer team leader. Andrew’s blog, Change By Doing focuses on volunteering and service around the world.

Where: Haiti
What: Volunteering with Elevate Destinations

kids in Haiti

Volunteer with children in Haiti

Morning: We were sleeping in either tents outside or under mosquito netting in a large, dirt-floored classroom…and it was July in Haiti, so I generally woke in a puddle of sweat. 15 of us shared a bathroom with no running water, just a large barrel of cistern water to use for bucket baths and flushing the toilet, and we had a jug of drinking water to brush our teeth, drink, etc. Breakfast, like every meal, was lovingly prepared for us, and we scarfed down peanut butter for protein and lots of carbs for energy.

The morning work detail was transporting sand, gravel, and bags of concrete, bucket brigade-style, up the precipitous side of the rocky hill, to build the kitchen and depot for Let Haiti Live headquarters. Grueling physical labor in intense heat, passing plastic buckets to the next volunteer up the hill, and passing empties back down to be refilled, we made games of staying hydrated, sang songs, shared life stories, and laughed until our sides ached.

Afternoon: The afternoon work was based in education for 40 young people, ages 5-25, in the requested areas of English and Leadership Skills. There were two age-divided classes going simultaneously for three sessions each afternoon, for a total of six lessons a day. We had a lesson plan and general direction for each class, some stood alone as individual lessons, some as continuation on the work of the previous day. Each volunteer taught at least once, then assisted other volunteer class leaders in other sessions. We exchanged cultural experiences (describe foods, sing national anthem and other common songs, share stories everyone learns as a child) and more practical advice (first aid training, entrepreneurship, even yoga) with the help of English translators. At the end of the week, the kids had prepared a program of dance and song and cultural presentation for us when we all shared a day at the beach.

Volunteers working hard in Haiti

Volunteers hard at work in Haiti

Evening: The young people we were there to serve went home to their families in the evening, so this was when we had time to really bond as a volunteer team. We’d stare down the hill at the waning light over the ocean before we had to grab up flashlights. One evening we joined our hosts at a highly competitive and celebratory community soccer match, another night we pooled a small amount of money so a local resto/pub owner could hire a band and we danced with lots of locals deep into the night. Other evenings we hung out in camp, headlamps as our only light, wishing for a cooling breeze, and dodging tarantulas on our way to the bathroom or eventually to bed/tent. Again, the laughter was always the most prominent sound.

Highlights: The highlight for me was after some circumstances waylaid or final day of lessons and we had to skip presentations of student projects (the older group had divided into small groups to create original “campaigns” for Haiti, developing posters, logos, radio commercial scripts, etc about a topic they were passionate about: the environment, education for all, better roads and infrastructure for the country, agriculture/food/hunger)…all of the kids voted to come back to class Saturday morning to finish, even though that had not been scheduled. Them seeing, and valuing, the benefit in what we were all doing together, made it all resonate so forcefully for me.

Quiet time with a 5-year-old growing sleepy as she sat in my lap, or helping clean and bandage a girl’s cut toe as she bravely squeezed my shoulder instead of crying, or a group of teen boys making necklaces for each of us to say goodbye, are subtle memories I’ll have forever.

Damn Dams

I’m a big proponent of hydroelectric and solar power over some of the more invasive energy sources (coal, nuclear, drill-baby-drill fossil fuels) but any energy source can overstay it’s welcome and pursuing it further would be irresponsible. Remember when this photo made the rounds? Chief Raoni of the Xingu people of Brazil crying when Brazil’s president approved a dam that would destroy indigenous lands, flood a million acres of rainforest, and displace 400,000 people of his community. Nature got a reprieve and that particular dam is on hold, but it was a poignant pointing up of the potential harm of stopping the world’s flow (how’s that for alliteration?)

In America, nobody really knows how many dams block or redirect our waterways. How crazy is that? Even the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t have an accurate count, but guesses put the number at around two million. Two million places we have tried to bend water to suit our needs. Of those 2 million dams, estimates are that as many as 26,000 are obsolete, hazardous, or derelict. There are even dams in place where nobody knows who owns them, they have been abandoned so nobody takes responsibility for maintenance, and they no longer serve any viable purpose–yet they remain, destroying habitat and breaking rivers. American Rivers is pledging to put pressure on the government to remove 100 obsolete dams in 2012. Just 100, out of 2 million (and just a hundred out of 26,000 that no longer function in the way they were meant to). Sign a petition here to add your voice advocating making crucial steps toward restoring balance. It isn’t even a particularly politicized issue–those 26 thousand dams are classified as significant hazards–meaning if they fail, it would cause loss of human life and/or serious economic harm–so they have to go. It is economically advantageous to remove them, and only neglect keeps them in place.

Let the rivers flow! Then click here to find ways to volunteer with American Rivers for waterway cleanup and restoration projects around the country.

So the World May Hear–Starkey Hearing Foundation

When I was a kid, not yet a dozen years old, a girl moved into our neighborhood who was deaf. She was the daughter of the pastor of the church on the corner, and since she was our age, several of us decided to learn American Sign Language. We tried to self teach (a big deal for eleven-year-olds) and I seem to remember an adult giving us a few classes. My memory is fuzzy as to why we quit, but even through the haze of time, I certainly still know my hand alphabet, so if needed, I could communicate in a slow, spelled out, laborious way (if, for instance, I was on a desert island where there was no pen or paper…or computer…or texting phone…or stick in the sand…). I have a few friends who are quite fluent in ASL and sign as volunteer work teaching, even a friend who used to sign Broadway shows, perched on the corner of the stage apron, for special performances. I’ve always been jealous of them–to watch someone sign, especially lyrics of a song, is truly beautiful.

This comes to mind because of a conversation I had last night with an old friend who has been working in audiology–fitting people for hearing aids and calibrating the devices (which are sooooo much more advanced than the clunky and squealing things that my Grandpa had in the arms of his chunky horn-rimmed glasses). This friend told me about her hopes to start working with the Starkey Hearing Foundation on some of their Global Hearing Missions. The foundation goes to developing nations–more than 100 trips to impoverished regions each year–and using donated old hearing aids, takes the components out to build new assisted listening devices, and gives the gift of sound to hundreds of thousands of children and adults. That is the gift of hearing a mother’s voice for the first time…or music…or birdsong…or the children around you playing…or laughter…or wind in the trees… Thousands of volunteers and donors around the world bring hearing to more than 50,000 new patients each year. Making a donation to become a “Hearing Angel” is a great way to make the music in your life a little louder, to be heard by more minds and stir a few more souls.

Volunteer at the Cloud Forest School in Costa Rica

A friend was talking this morning about an upcoming trip to Costa Rica, making me green with envy. The small nation has long been at the forefront of green travel and eco-consciousness (that doesn’t mean the record is perfect–no nation’s is) and they understood environmentalism and sustainability long before most of their neighbors in either of the Americas.

One of the many facets of creating a nation that prioritizes the environment, is education. The Cloud Forest School in Monteverde has been teaching kids for 20 years how to explore the world “from the ground up.” Their mission is to nurture generations of ecologically aware, academically well-rounded, bilingual individuals. The “three Rs” are not given more importance than fostering a genuine and enduring sense of wonder. Ahhhh, if only schools in the US were more skilled at THAT. The mostly young, inspired, and energized staff (about half Costa Rican, half North American—Students, too, are culturally diverse) makes learning an adventure, and hands-on, interactive exploration in the classroom and outdoors is the methodology.

Here’s why you care (in addition to being inspired)…you can volunteer there! Visiting volunteers commit to at least 3 weeks, and “typical volunteer tasks include gardening, working on our campus reforestation projects, trail maintenance, building maintenance, assisting with Environmental Education and Land Stewardship classes, as well as any miscellaneous tasks needed on campus.  Past volunteers have also worked on computer networking, teaching music lessons, leading yoga classes, making brochures, working in our library, or helping out in our development office.” Your transportation to and from the school is provided and you’ll live with a host family, be given 3 meals per day,  and Spanish lessons twice a week. Sweet deal, currently $525 for 3 weeks (super cheap by service travel standards).

Go Eco–to Green Up Your Voluntour

Photo: Go Eco

You’ve already decided you want to book a volunteer vacation, doing amazing work that propels you out of bed (or your hammock or sleeping bag) every morning, working in a community where you’ll be forever connected because of the difference you make…but even here, like at every turn when we book travel, we can make ever more responsible choices. Go Eco (“Volunteers for Ecological and Humanitarian Projects”) is helping you find green voluntourism and service travel options, where sustainability and planet stewardship are priorities. Lots of animal-focused trips here, as well as research and education trips, but also medical missions, development projects, teaching English programs, and more.

Photo: Go Eco

Go Eco has curated trips from other providers, helping you narrow down your search, and helping you keep your priorities straight. Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America are all represented, so take a spin around and see what trips your trigger. As I’ve always said, there is a volunteer vacation for everyone–if you haven’t found your inspiration and passion yet, we have to dig a little deeper. It’s out there, and they need you. Not just anyone…YOU.

The Eyes Have It–Give the Gift of Sight

Post-Surgical Cataract Patients from the Ride in Which I Participated--Rajasthan, India

I’ve had a stye in my eye for the past few days and it has been driving me up the wall. I haven’t had an eye infection since I was a teenager, and I am more sensitive and freaked out by eyes than the average soul. If I watch someone put in contact lenses I will weep rivers of tears–the idea just freaks me out. Did anybody tell you YOU ARE TOUCHING YOUR EYE!!! STOP THAT!

The glaucoma test at the optometrist? Murder for me. Hell on earth would be LASIK surgery–aargh–I just had full-body involuntary shivers  thinking of it.

It’s kind of weird, then, that one of the most powerful and life-changing voluntourism experiences I ever had was with Relief Riders International in Rajasthan, India. A group of us were on horseback in the Thar Desert, riding from tiny village to desolate rural outpost, camping along the way, and we, with a team of doctors, were setting up free medical and dental camps as well as delivering school supplies to kids and immunizing them, and donating/delivering milking goats to the poorest families in the region. The eye connection is this–one of the main projects was a free cataract eye surgery camp. Desert-dwelling individuals who have never had sunglasses are prone to cataracts at very early ages, and this medical team goes into rural villages and screens hundreds of potential surgical patients in a day. Those who qualify receive sight-restoring surgery the following day as the surgeon works tirelessly through the night, sitting between two hospital gurneys (set up in a school when we were there), working first on the patient on the left, then as that one is wheeled away, the surgeon simply pivots on the stool and immediately begins the next surgery on the right–and on and on. It is an astounding and efficient process, maximizing every potential to save sight. The patients–some of whom have never had professional medical care of any kind, do not pay for the surgery. Donations Give the Gift of Sight to those who would surely lose their vision without the program. Think about donating. Eighty-five bucks and someone can see again.

Think, also, about possibly joining a Relief Ride–I promise it will rock you to the very core. There are rides in India, and now Turkey as well. Even if you aren’t comfortable on horseback, you can join the caravan (by Jeep–occasionally, perhaps, by camel) and participate fully in camp life and the service parts–the most important parts–of the trip.

Now I have to go put a teabag on my eye–I’m getting squeamish all over again.

CITTA–The Mind’s Heart Working to Better the Heart’s World


CITTA is a Sanskrit word meaning “the mind,” but it refers very specifically to a part, or type of mind, as it relates to the heart and soul. CITTA is also the name of a non-profit organization dedicated to “making a difference against indifference.” Starvation, treatable disease, lack of education, poverty, climate issues affecting livelihood and survival–these are all within the purview of CITTA. They currently have active projects in regions of India, Nepal, and Mexico. They run schools, orphanages, women’s centers, clinics, and hospitals in communities that previously had done without. CITTA’s overriding philosophy is that once medical care is handled, people can think about tomorrow and the future for themselves and their children…so CITTA handles health. Their holistic, adaptable model is called “HEED” (standing for Health, Education, and Economic Development). Each community project’s focus is specific to that community’s needs, but in each, volunteers, workers, and locals have the powerful experience of discovering what is possible when you crack open the hard shell of resignation and let opportunity flow through. It is worth being a part of this–if you knew, you’d want a piece of that feeling. You can Sponsor a Student for a year of education (that they, honestly, won’t have without you or someone like you) or donate to the organization as a whole so they can direct your funds toward the greatest need.