How One Traveling Couple Is Disrupting Voluntourism

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How One Traveling Couple Is Disrupting Voluntourism. Photo via Fabio Lamanna/Shutterstock.

By Daniela Frendo, Epicure & Culture Contributor 

In 2013, Mike and Kathryn Pisco quit their corporate jobs in Chicago to fulfill a lifelong dream: exploring the world and visiting 20 countries in 250 days. They engaged in all sorts of exhilarating activities, from skydiving in New Zealand to hiking through the Swiss Alps, but what made their trip truly special was the time they spent volunteering in Africa and Asia.

Volunteer travel helped Mike and Kathryn experience the world from a local’s perspective and build lasting relationships with the people they met along the way; however, it also exposed them to the shortcomings of this multi-billion dollar industry. While on the road, the couple became aware of the fact that many volunteer programs tended to be overpriced, and in most cases it was difficult to see how donated money was being spent or whether these programs were truly helping local communities.

It was this encounter with flawed volunteer programs that prompted the couple to take action and become change agents in the volunteer travel industry.

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Kathryn and Mike at the Taj Mahal

 

Enter Unearth the World, a responsible travel organization pairing potential volunteers with reputable non-profits across the globe. Since then, the couple has committed themselves to guaranteeing life-changing experiences for volunteers and partnering with deserving NGOs to help them solve pressing community problems. The organization acts as a matchmaker between volunteers and non-profit partners, taking into account the interests and skills of applicants and the needs of each community-driven project.

Explains Kathryn, “We avoid partnering with programs who do not serve a true need in the community. We also take great care to ensure that our partners are transparent and ethical in the way they conduct their projects. Unearth the World seeks out partners that prioritize our values: learning, empathy, reciprocity and respect.”

So how does Unearth the World work towards implementing meaningful and sustainable voluntary work?

projects abroad

Photo courtesy of Unearth the World

Cultivating Global Citizens

Unearth the World highlights the importance of offering pre- and post-trip support to ensure that their volunteers experience long-term results. Volunteers are given an in-depth training session prior to departure, where they get acquainted with the country’s culture and customs and get an idea of what to expect from their new experience. This pre-trip training is also meant to help participants reflect on important issues related to volunteer travel and service, such as culture shock, global citizenship, power and privilege.

The trip is followed by a reflection session, which aims to offer volunteers further guidance and help them apply their newly-acquired knowledge and experience to everyday life. Travelers are guided towards reaching their long-term goals and using their transformative experience to improve their job prospects. According to Kathryn, the main purpose of this coaching session is to work with volunteers to “develop a strategy to bridge their international experience into their day to day lives and cultivate global citizens.”

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Providing Transparent Ethical Opportunities For Volunteers

Program fees are split into two categories. The first one goes to Unearth the World and covers the cost of the pre and post trip training, travel planning, volunteer orientation, 24/7 support and marketing costs. This money also helps Unearth the World inspect volunteer programs and find the right match for candidates. The second fee goes toward the assigned nonprofit, and includes three meals per day, transportation, accommodation and a donation to the partner.

There’s also a vetting process for partner programs that includes a 30-question form. The goal: to gain insight into the organization’s background, operations and mission. This is followed by a series of five Skype calls and, finally, an on-site visit, where a representative from Unearth the World volunteers with potential partners. The purpose of these meetings is to build rapport and trust between Unearth the World and nonprofit partners, while helping them establish a relationship of mutual benefit.

projects abroad

Photo courtesy of Unearth the World

Promoting Sustainable Tourism In Nicaragua

Unearth the World has teamed up with the non-profit La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel near Managua, Nicaragua to address the issue of poverty in local communities. According to the United Nations, almost half the country’s population lives in poverty. Despite having a rich agricultural economy and a growing tourism industry, Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

This project seeks to provide work to the local people and support community-driven initiatives, such as reforestation projects, organic farming, a women-led cooperative and after-school programs for children with disabilities. It is also geared towards promoting responsible tourism and protecting the environment in the local area. Visitors are housed in La Mariposa eco-hotel and served food prepared from local ingredients. Besides teaching English to secondary school students or staff at the eco-hotel, volunteers are encouraged to help at a nature reserve, participate in wildlife rescue and build structures using eco-friendly materials.

projects abroad

Photo courtesy of Unearth the World

Empowering Women & Children In Peru

Unearth the World has also partnered up with The Light and Leadership Initiative; a non-profit organization in Peru providing supplemental educational programs to marginalized women and children. Despite government efforts to reduce poverty and improve the quality of education, food shortages and high rates of illiteracy remain prevalent in rural regions. Around 25% of the Peruvian population lives on $2 a day, while 34% of children aged between five and 17 work in the labor force.

With the help of volunteers, Unearth the World is giving women and children the opportunity to empower themselves through education. This project is based in a town outside of Lima, where residents have very low incomes and limited access to education. Volunteers offer free classes and workshops in a variety of subjects, including math, English and science, and encourage the active participation of local children in the community. Meanwhile, women are encouraged to advance their skills in the workforce so that they are able to lead an independent life. They are also given free counseling to help them improve their physical and emotional well-being.

projects abroad

Photo courtesy of Unearth the World

Building Sustainable Homes In Zambia

For years, Africa‘s Zambia has been crippled by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and a weak economy. It is estimated that 12% of the population is infected with AIDS, putting many children at risk of becoming orphans. Moreover, Zambia has long suffered an economic decline, and at present almost 70% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Unearth the World’s project in Zambia focuses on building homes for families affected by AIDS in Mwandi, a fishing village where a large percentage of the population has been wiped out by the deadly disease. Orphaned children are looked after by the village elders, but in most cases houses aren’t large enough for the whole family.

Together with Home for Aids Orphans, a local non-profit, Unearth the World has been providing the materials needed to build safe and durable huts for the elders and their adopted children, while volunteers contribute to the construction of houses and help out at a local school and hospital.

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Photo courtesy of Unearth the world

Maximizing The Impact Of Ethical Volunteering

Kathryn and Mike set up Unearth the World with the aim to make volunteer travel meaningful, affordable and transparent.  Last year alone, the organization worked with over 75 volunteers, while another 65 individuals have already traveled with Unearth the World in the first few months of 2016.

Meanwhile, the founders are continuously working towards partnering up with new grassroots nonprofits and maximizing the global impact of their mission. For example, they recently joined forces with Human Connections, an organization bringing together people from different cultural and social backgrounds through educational programs that promote lasting social change. Based in Mexico, Human Connections organizes group trips to local communities, where participants can learn more about sustainable development, the Fair Trade industry and micro financing while engaging with the local people.

As Kathryn explains, “The goal of these trips is to facilitate earnest, personal interaction between participants and local people who communicate their experiences and perspectives related to the selected topics.”

While Unearth the World has come a long way since its launch two years ago, Kathryn and Mike plan to continue establishing new partnerships in Central/South America and Southeast Asia, and start organizing volunteer trips to Europe. Here they will be taking on community projects that address clean water, the environment, education and women empowerment.

Note: Epicure & Culture has not used Unearth the World for our own travels as of yet, and the above information comes from online research and interviews with their team. Before booking any volunteer experiences with any organizations we encourage you to do your own research, as well. Please visit our Volunteer section for assistance. 

What projects abroad do you recommend for responsible travelers? Please share your thoughts in the comments below! 

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Daniela Frendo is a travel writer and photographer from Malta. No matter how often she travels, she keeps breaking out in cold sweats at boarding gates. She is terrified of flying, but willing to try out stomach-churning delicacies wherever she goes. Her trips aren’t complete without doing a bit of trekking, experiencing local culture and getting a souvenir t-shirt.She has a degree in Communications and divides her time between teaching English and writing for different publications, including her own travel blog www.grumpycamel.com.

1 Comment

  1. Daniela,

    I love this story. I’ve emailed Kathryn before, she’s great and always an inspiration! Aside from responsible volunteering, I think transparency, honesty and a real desire to make a difference set Unearth the World apart – along with a handful of other new age volunteer organizations. I have a few projects going on right now that I’d love to share with your readers if you’ll let me! Great post, thanks for sharing 🙂

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