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See the World, Save the World

Ethical vacationing? Travel philanthropy? Whatever you call it, sightseeing and service can go hand in hand.

By Meredith Scaggs

“When I retired, I wanted to do two things: travel the world and do good work,” says former middle school French teacher Chris Hartman. Shortly after saying “au revoir” to her students, Hartman discovered she might have the chance to do both at the same time.

Hartman heard about a group of retired teachers from her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, who had trekked to Nicaragua to volunteer in countryside villages. She arranged a meeting with them—and that meeting resulted not only in her first trip to a developing country, but also a new mission for the next phase of her life.

Linda Weber, a retired Spanish teacher, served as the catalyst who brought not only Hartman on board, but also three other NEA-Retired members from Appleton who all travel as a group to Nicaragua every year.

Weber made her first trip to Central America when she was asked to undertake a gardening project with the Wisconsin Nicaragua Partners of America, a group she’d been involved with since the 1990s.

“I had absolutely no gardening experience,” Weber admits, “but the director of the project had confidence in me and said that since I was a teacher I should be able to figure it out.”

She recruited fellow teacher and avid gardener  Judy Miller to travel with her to Las Lagunas, Nicaragua, where they worked with children of all ages to construct a garden and teach them composting skills.

After hearing about their adventures and service, Hartman and retired high school physical education teacher Mary Beth Nienhaum decided to join Weber and Miller in 2005. The following year, retired teacher Kathy Nodolf joined as well—all NEA- members, all determined to have a meaningful retirement.

They’re among a growing number of people who want to experience the culture of a different country while simultaneously working to improve the lives of those who live there. That’s the very definition of the word “voluntourist.”

In their past six visits, the women have helped with everything from dental hygiene to supplying the villagers with clean water and recreational equipment. “We purchased all the materials and built two swing sets for the villages from scratch ourselves,” Nienhaum says proudly. 

The women also created a scholarship for the village children. “Most kids in rural areas only had access to a sixth-grade education and we wanted to change that,” says Miller. The scholarship, established in 2003, now supports 15 high school kids at a time.

Hartman stresses that although the group travels to Nicaragua only once a year, they work year-round to raise funds and find sponsors between their trips. “Linda has an extra garage at her house so that people from the community who have been inspired by our story can drop off items to send to Nicaragua,” she says.

The former educators have gotten Wisconsin youngsters involved, too. Children from the Appleton middle schools raised over $2,000 for books to stock a new lending library opening in Las Lagunas this year. “Most libraries in Nicaragua don’t allow the children to take the books home,” says Miller. “Lending libraries are rare.”

In addition, this year the women will inaugurate a new learning center where the people of Nicaragua will be able to work and generate their own income.

But what about the “touring” part of voluntouring?

“It’s not all work and no play while we’re there,” Hartman says. The group says the connections they’ve made through voluntouring have resulted in experiences the average tourist would be unlikely to even know about. They’ve explored the different terrains of the towns and countryside, visited volcanoes, taken boat trips, and yes, even gone on a zip-line tour.

 “The whole experience is a total adventure and it only gets more fun every time we go,” Miller says.

Much like Chris Hartman, retired educator, principal, and superintendent Arthur Donart and his wife Frances Donart knew they wanted to teach in another country upon retirement, “to learn the culture and history of another country and . . . to serve,” Donart says. 

His adventure began in 2002 when Frances, a retired elementary educator, received a job offer to teach in Thailand. Shortly after they arrived, Donart found another local school in need of an English-speaking teacher and spent the next year as a volunteer English teacher to Thai students.

Donart recalls that the school did not have a single working computer. Determined to improve the school’s learning environment, he bought textbooks, computers, school uniforms, and even helped pay for some of the children’s medical expenses. He raised funds to help build a workshop for technical education classes that doubles as a venue where adults in the community can learn job skills.

Just as the Wisconsin retirees reported, Donart says his initial experience was so profound, he immediately started planning his next trip.

For the next few years, the Donarts traveled back and forth between Thailand and their home in Thomson, Illinois, raising money to help fund the programs in Thailand. In addition, they matched all of the donations. “You take what you can get and make the difference out of your own pocket,” Arthur Donart says matter-of-factly.

He was then offered a year-long paid position to return to Thailand and continue to teach English. Upon his return for the 2006-07 school year, he redesigned the way that English was being taught to the students.

“The kids knew very little English even after having nearly eight years of instruction,” said Donart. “They were trying to teach the children English grammar and you can’t teach a child the grammar of a language they don’t know how to speak,” he adds.

Donart modified the curriculum, using games and songs to engage the kids. “Every morning we would play games and to win those games you had to speak English. We just had so much fun,” Donart says.

He also makes sure he enjoys the richness of the country every time he’s there. “All of my friends are Thai teachers and I’ve gotten to enjoy a side of Thailand that a regular tourist may never see,” says Donart. 

He has toured many different areas throughout Thailand and Laos, sometimes abandoning the cozy accommodations provided for him to sleep on floors under mosquito nets. “It really made me appreciate the culture,” he says. 

Donart and the Appleton retirees have similar advice to offer anyone thinking of voluntouring: “You definitely need to be someone who is slow to judge and has patience, the ability to take it all in, and a sense of humor,” Donart says.

Miller says don’t ignore your concerns about safety. “I would not just head off to a third-world country without having any connections there. It helps to know someone if you get into a jam,” Miller says.

Donart suggests going through a university program, while Nienhaum says that going through a church group or a mission trip might also be a wise choice.

The thought of making all of the arrangements for such an adventure may seem daunting, but all of these Retired members emphasized that knowing they’ve enriched others’ lives while having an adventure of their own is worth it.

“Poco a poco, se anda lejos,” says Weber, reflecting on her experience. “It’s a Spanish saying that means ‘little by little, one goes far’ and that’s what we’ve done together.”

Donart says he was humbled the last time he left Thailand. “It brought tears to my eyes—people had taken up a collection to buy me three shirts and two Thai vases,” he says. “I hadn’t really thought much about what I had done; I was just happy to do it.”

Finding Your Feel-good Vacation

By NEA Member Benefits

Once you’ve decide to “voluntour,” it’s important to choose the organization, volunteer activity, and destination that is right for you. For starters, consider these points:

  • Retired educators have desirable skills, and voluntouring offers a wonderful way to live your personal values. Though you may feel compelled to go where the need is greatest, take your own requirements, skills, and desires into consideration.
  • Research organizations thoroughly. Make multiple phone calls, request to speak with past volunteers, and make sure your questions are answered before you sign up.
  • Know your limitations. If you are vulnerable to heat, an outdoor project in Costa Rica is not the right choice for you.
  • Be mentally prepared, especially if you’re considering voluntouring in a place where poverty is profound, food and customs are different, and hygiene standards differ from what you are used to. If you are so affected by culture shock that you cannot adequately perform your volunteer duties, your trip will not be a success.

Organizations are mobilizing as never before to offer assistance ranging from humanitarian to scientific, and making it easy for the public to join their efforts.

Though only nonprofit organizations are profiled in this article, there are for-profits that cater to the voluntourist as well.  Whatever company you choose, make sure that its volunteer activities are legitimate and that the company is a responsible partner to the communities that are featured in their itineraries.
Center for Cultural Interchange
Participate in environmental and social welfare projects with CCI’s Greenheart Travel program. Volunteer opportunities include education-specific programs like computer training in a middle school in Benin, or working as a teacher’s assistant in a public school in Lima, Peru.
Tourism: Participants are paired with a homestay family, giving them a firsthand view of everyday life. There is ample free time to explore the host country on one’s own.
Cost: Program fees are between $970-$4,350.

Earthwatch Institute
Work alongside leading scientists to conduct field research related to sustainable development in four interrelated categories—oceans, climate change, sustainable culture, and ecosystems services. Earthwatch offers a variety of expeditions that range from less than a week to more than two weeks, and vary in activity level from the least strenuous (assisting with a paleontological dig in Rapid City, South Dakota) to the most (monitoring fossa, a mongoose-like mammal endemic to the forests of Madagascar).
Tourism: Many projects are set amidst beautiful and unspoiled locations, both here and abroad. Programs typically allow for additional community interaction separate from field research by providing opportunities to visit a local school or a nearby attraction.
Cost: Fees are listed as “minimum contributions,” and range from $1,500 to over $5,000. 
Elderhostel, which caters primarily to travelers 55 years and older, features service learning programs around the world. Work in an animal sanctuary in Utah, or help study the ecosystem of Grand Teton National Park. Some programs are intergenerational, designed for adults and minors traveling together.
Tourism: Though it varies by program, on average about a quarter to half of the trip is spent on field trips, lectures, and sightseeing related to the theme of the program.
Cost: Most of the programs are under $1,000 and include all meals, though extras like single occupancy accommodations can add to the cost.

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Retired Educators Change Lives!

NEA-Retired educators do valuable volunteer work in communities across the United States and around the world. Tell us about your activities and what inspires you to keep giving!

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