Beginning in summer of 2011, our family of five stepped out of our usual, hectic lives and spent a year volunteering at various nonprofit organizations which serve vulnerable children in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, Santa Domingo, Neyba and Santiago in the Dominican Republic.
My husband Ken took time off from his credit hedge fund and asset management business, and our children took a year out of school. Four summers ago, our family cancelled our volunteer trip to Peru due to work demands and realized then, that there might never be an ideal time to step out of our routine. We wanted to be undistracted from our usual commitments of work and school in order to make ourselves completely available to spend time connecting with one another.
Where and with whom did we volunteer?
- Lily of the Valley Orphanage (KwaZulu Natal, So Africa)
- World Vision (Santa Dominigo and Neyba, Dominican Republic)
- Young Life (Santiago, Dominican Republic)
What we gained this year: Stronger Relationships
Connecting with our Family
We committed a significant block of time together as a family since our older kids would only be home with us for a few more years before heading to college. Ken, like many fathers, worked long hours and travelled often and missed spending time with his children. He remarked that he has spent more time with our teens this one year than in all the cumulative years of their lives combined!
Dedicating our time to focus only on others freed our days to sit quietly, listen, and enjoy one another. We were able to live our values, experience that a full life is not about the things you have or achieve for yourself but the relationships you build and the impact of your achievement on improving your global community.
Our kids formed deeper relationships with one another. This year our family rallied together whenever we faced challenges. Our children loyally defend and protect one another and we imagine this bond of caring for one another will continue into adulthood.
Committing to a Cause
In August 2011, our family travelled with a team of 25 volunteers from the States to a remote area of South Africa to volunteer at Lily of the Valley Orphanage, which serves over 100 HIV affected orphans. As a mother, I was deeply moved by the 120 orphans who were born into a seemingly impossible situation and humbled by the selfless individuals who chose to care for these vulnerable children. Our first week at Lily, I asked a boy to leave the dishes he was washing and join the kids who were playing. He was excessively grateful. I remember shedding tears while washing those dishes recalling the hundreds of times we, as parents instinctively care for our kids throughout the day and realizing there are so many children who are completely dependent on the kindness of strangers to help raise them. Certainly our family could devote our attention to these kids this year.
Ken and I have enjoyed working together using whatever skills we have towards a larger goal. We are currently working on Lily Orphanage's hydroponic tomato business, which will ideally lead to the orphanage's self-sustainability. It has been a labor of love and I’ve felt such urgency as we’ve devoted our time and efforts on projects for Lily Orphanage.
Stephen and Julia met their World Vision sponsored children this year. Eight years ago, they both chose a child their age to support and have been contributing $35 monthly writing to them over the years. We travelled to the Dominican Republic and met these teens and their families for the first time and we were astonished at the impact of our seemingly small contribution. Our children’s friendship with these teens is forever changed because they met them and spent time getting to know their families and their life circumstances. Our children’s world view has expanded and they more fully understand the realities of poverty. Each of us has been transformed by the realization that every gift, no matter how small can have a profound affect on a child's life.
Connecting with other Volunteers
Can you think of better role models than volunteers and nonprofit leaders?
We have worked alongside generous, courageous and capable individuals who are supremely optimistic and are ensuring the world is a better place. We have shared their triumphs and their disappointments as they live radical lives focused on others. Our teens are struck by how many young people are devoting their skills and lives towards making a difference in the world. These volunteers model passion for a cause and how they are work towards a solution. The perspective and sense of achievement gained working together in a place we all care about has been transformative.
Volunteering – Serve rather than Be Served
When most think of travel, they imagine a vacation where others serve us to ensure we are comfortable. We decide with whom and where we will eat and sleep, where we go, and what activities will fill our days. Volunteering focuses on others and their needs. You serve others rather than be served. You may be asked to help in projects that are physically and emotionally difficult; you work with strangers (who often become friends); and you relinquish control of your schedule and your preferences in order to make yourself available to the projects and needs of those you serve. This year, our family dug ditches, cleared trash from schoolyards, painted homes, performed skits, set up computers and printers, taught computer skills, organized arts and crafts and sports activities, helped with homework, prepared meals, reviewed business plans, taught chess, and sat for hours with children who needed encouragement. We stepped away from our usual full schedules and focused on others together as a family. Volunteering as a family has been more meaningful and memorable than any of the many vacations we have taken. Each day provides an opportunity, a responsibility and a privilege to teach values and show your children how they can contribute to solving problems.
Volunteering away from Home (Practical Advice)
What to pack:
Pack with an expectation that you will not be able to find or have time to purchase anything where you travel. Be prepared but don’t worry if you forget something. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how little you may need to be comfortable.
- copy of passports, full vaccination records, flight information, emergency telephone numbers
- medicines – we packed every over the counter medicine imaginable
- bug repellant
- thin sleeping sack liner – which provides immediate bedding and protective coverlet regardless of where you are required to sleep
- granola bars, vitamins and peanut butter- default nutrients which we carried around with us always
- candy, gum – for energy and for sharing with locals
- flashlights with extra batteries
- water bottle
- notebook – for journaling and recording needs and details of people you meet
- gifts – pack a lot of small items (puzzles, playing cards, stationary, toys, watches) which you can leave for gifts for people you meet.
- donations for projects (books, clothing, household utensils) You can’t overpack donations-no matter how much we packed, we always felt we should have packed more. We typically left most of our clothes and any remaining granola bars and snacks at the end of our trips as well.
Volunteer Approval Process
The process of applying for a volunteer project typically takes 6 months. One needs to fill out an application, be approved and then spend time understanding the local area- the history, the needs and the expectations of what you will be doing to help, meeting the team members and fundraising for the trip.
- Application – fill out an application which includes essays and determines what skills and contributions you offer
- Background checks – Organizations perform background checks on volunteers
- References (personal and professional) References are called and checked to determine your skills and motivations
- Interviews- Each member of your family is interviewed to determine if you would be a good fit for the group of volunteers. Typically a willingness to help in whatever is needed as well as an open-minded and deferential attitude is desired
- Attend planning meetings- get to know the team, responsibilities and expectations, – Your own research
- Determine which languages are spoken, demographics, cultural traditions and expectations
- Register with the US State Dept- Familiarize yourself with requirements
- Vaccinations – Check with with your doctor and pediatrician for recommended vaccinations for the season and area your family will be visiting. Vaccination requirements should be considered as the number of shots as well as the cost can be extensive.
- Fundraising- for the trip expenses and specific volunteer projects: letters written, events planned and attended. Our family donated funds ourselves but we understand that this process takes quite a lot of time and effort including writing letters and emails and attending and working at fundraising events. Typically, each volunteer is tasked to raise a few thousand dollars for project needs of the nonprofit organization. It is admirable that besides devoting precious vacation days to working as a volunteer, many of the young people on our volunteer teams have had to raise money in order to join the volunteer team.
- Review your medical insurance and travel insurance
- Contact information for the closest US Consulate
- Notify your bank and credit card companies of your travel plans
Local Volunteer Opportunities
Understanding that many families do not have the time to commit to an international volunteer initiative, local volunteer opportunities are compelling. Volunteering locally takes less planning and expense as well as provides an opportunity for the family to make a difference in their neighborhoods and regularly see the impact of their efforts. Decide if you’d like to fund immediate needs, which alleviates suffering, or invest in longer term social change, which addresses the root causes. I’ve listed some of the local organizations that we know.
- CT nonprofit organizations
A group of us Harvard Business School alumni started Community Partners of CT which provides CT nonprofits with probono consulting. These organizations fill specific needs in our community and most would welcome volunteers:
- Volunteer Opportunities for Children
There are a number of projects which children can be involved with yearly. We list some of the ones our kids seemed to enjoy the most.
- Baskets from Heaven
Every Thanksgiving, baskets of food are distributed to needy families in Greenwich and Stamford. Last year, our son spent an evening collecting baskets and delivering Thanksgiving meals door to door to grateful recipients.
- Operation Christmas Child
Every Christmas shoeboxes are filled for needy children worldwide. Even young kids are able to collect items throughout the year to give and can be involved in the packing and wrapping of the shoeboxes.
- New Covenant House
- Neighbor to Neighbor
International Volunteer Opportunities to consider
There exist an abundance of organizations welcoming volunteers that it is worth committing some time to investigate.
- Lily of the Valley Orphanage
“provides love, care, and support to children abandoned or orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Our mission is to raise sustainable, servant leaders for healthy communities”
- Young Life Dominican Republic
“An organization committed to investing in children throughout the world, to go to them, on their turf and in their culture, building bridges of authentic friendship.”
- Adventures in Missions
“An interdenominational missions organization that has taken over 90,000 people into the mission field, some for as short as a week and others for as long as a year or longer. “
- Safe Passages
“Empowers the poorest, at-risk children of families working in the community of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump.”
Is volunteering worth it?
Absolutely! We recognize we are fortunate to have the time, the health, and the finances to afford this year together. Devoting this year to spend quality time as a family volunteering has been absolutely worth any perceived sacrifices towards our careers and our children’s education. Our kids are socially confident and academically high-achieving, and we were assured that after one year away, they would return back to school with similar success. Their volunteer experience which relied on demonstrating openmindedness and a loving response in every situation will likely shape their priorities and their motivations as they enter adulthood.
We discovered from volunteering that although the donations and care we provided was so appreciated, everyone seemed more grateful that we came at all- that people from far away cared enough about them and their plight to work alongside them. Connecting with one another was most valued.
Among the blessings of this year are the relationships and community that has developed, not only with our fellow volunteers, but also with our family and our friends here at home. We stepped out of our routine, shed our self-reliance and became part of a larger interdependent community. Our family has experienced the brilliance and hopefulness of our shared humanity.