The Benefits of Volunteering while Traveling

By: Shelley Seale

I admit it: I’m a travel junkie. I’m also a junkie for humanitarian causes. So when I can combine the two, the world just feels like a better place to me.

I recently ran across an interview that author Nancy Christie did with me, on the benefits of volunteering, for an upcoming book. I thought it would be perfect to share the interview on this site. While I am actively involved with many nonprofit causes at home, I have also incorporated volunteering heavily into my travel: I’ve worked with orphanages in India, a girl’s home in Kenya,  street dogs in Thailand, a CNN Hero who provides education for children in Cambodia, another CNN Hero who’s working to stop the sex trade in Nepal, and many others.

Nancy Christie

Here is my interview on the benefits of volunteering – whether at home, or on the road:

Nancy Christie: What should people keep in mind when considering volunteering?

I think that first and foremost, you should explore your own life and experiences to find out what you are most passionate about. That passion for cause is different for everyone – for me it’s children’s rights, particularly in India; but for someone else it may be the environment, HIV, Alzheimer’s, or breast cancer. It might be something that has touched your life or that of someone you know. The trick is, to find that which you truly care about, and get involved with that cause in some way. It will bring much more meaning to the experience; one should never volunteer just because it’s a “duty” or they feel that they should.

NC: What are some of the benefits of volunteering for the volunteer?

It’s been proven that volunteering is good for the health! In much the same way that close friends or having a pet are healthier for people, so is volunteering. Besides the health benefits, the truth is that the human experience is much closer and more intertwined than I believe any of us really think. We are all part of the same human fabric, and what happens to our fellow man WILL, in some way at some point, directly affect us as well. Increasingly, our global village is growing smaller and smaller and we are all becoming closer. It’s no longer the case that what happens across town, or even in some far-off land, doesn’t affect us.

When we all contribute to the community of which we’re a part, we are making the future world a better place for our children and grandchildren. Lastly, it helps bring meaning to our lives. In the end, we won’t really be measured by the money we left or the houses we built or the career highs we reached. Our legacy will be in the lives we touched, and how we may have changed others’ lives for the better.

With Grace, at St. Monica’s Children Home – Kenya, 2012

NC: What are some of the misconceptions people have about volunteering?

I think one might be that they don’t have enough time. Listen, I know that finding extra time is hard for all of us, and there’s always more than enough obligations to fill the day. But sometimes, when I have felt that I had the least time or energy for volunteering but I did it anyway, I’ve been amazed by how replenished I felt afterward. It’s sort of like exercise – it recharges your batteries in a way that watching TV or some other passive recreational activity just won’t do.

Another might be that one person can’t really make a difference. So many of the issues facing us today are huge and overwhelming – poverty, AIDS, warfare; it seems that there is no end in sight, and that anything we can do is just a drop in the ocean of that vast, overwhelming need. And so it becomes easy to give up before you even begin. I understand this feeling and have become a victim to it many times myself. I have often been overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems. There are twenty-five million orphaned or street children in India – twenty-five million! No matter what I do, no matter what the dozens of social workers and doctors and volunteers I’ve worked with do, we will never make a dent in that tide.

Indian Kids
With some of “my kids” in India, 2010

But when you just start doing something, you realize that is not the point. The point is, I made a difference to THIS child, and THAT child. Any time one individual life is changed for the better, it is all worth it. You don’t have to fix it all. But what if you can do something to significantly improve one person’s life? Mother Theresa said it best when she said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.

NC: What about volunteering as a family or couple activity?

My daughter Chandler in India, 2006

I took my daughter to India with me on my second trip, when she was 15. We went back with a group of volunteers to the orphanage I had visited the first time. She was fifteen years old. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and of hers. She was given this incredible gift of seeing another part of the world, a whole other culture – and a whole other way of life that thousands of children her exact age experience as reality every single day. It brought us closer, and it also instilled in her a sense of balance and values that she still carries with her years later, as an adult and mother herself. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I would highly recommend volunteering with your children, spouse or friends. For companies and colleagues, it’s also a great team-building experience.

NC: Why did you get involved? What benefit did you gain from it? How did it change your life or your relationships?

I became involved with children’s rights because of a long history of that in my family. I was raised in a family that was very much into volunteerism and working on behalf of others; my home was a foster home to over fifty children, including my sister who was adopted after being our foster child, and so I grew up with a heightened awareness of children’s rights and the issues facing abused and neglected children. As an adult I have volunteered with The Miracle Foundation, Child Protective Services, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Girl, Inc and the Heart Gallery.

I always say – and I have heard countless other volunteers say the same thing – that the benefits we get from volunteering always feels as if it far outweighs what we are giving. If you pick the right type of thing that you really love and believe in, whatever that may be, the sense of accomplishment and fulfillment and purpose are hard to describe. When I am with these kids in India, I am constantly awash in a sense of love and acceptance such as I have rarely ever felt – and all for nothing more than simply showing up. They expect nothing from me other than my mere presence. It’s an incredible gift.

cambodian kids
Visiting a children’s shelter supported by the Ponheary Ly Foundation – Cambodia, 2010

I think my volunteer experiences have also changed my personal philosophy of life and my relationships with others for the better. I think that I’m a better mother because of the lessons I’ve learned from these experiences, and I know the trip my daughter and I took to India brought us closer on a level we never could have experienced any other way. I feel I have a greater patience, acceptance and compassion in my relationships with everyone else in my life than I ever had before. This volunteer “work” has been the most amazing teacher that I have ever had.