Voluntourism: Packing Heart on Your Next Vacation

Street child in Bangladesh

— by Ann Craig-Cinnamon

Let’s face it: some of the most fascinating places in the world are located in some of the most impoverished places in the world. You can’t visit the Pyramids of Giza without driving through the slums of Cairo. The Taj Mahal, arguably the most beautiful building ever built, sits amid some of the worst poverty anywhere. Even vacationing on a beautiful Caribbean island, your luxury resort is an anomaly; the ugly truth is all around you.

I’ve been traveling for most of my life and, in fact, I lived in Tehran, Iran as a young woman back in the mid 1970’s. Poverty was all around me there. I had a beggar friend that I passed every day on the street. We were warned not to give money to beggars because if you did, they wouldn’t leave you alone and you might draw an unwanted crowd. So I didn’t give him anything, and for his part, he never asked.  We just had a friendly salaam and a smile for each other each day. But I always felt bad about it.  

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The commonly-used rationalization about the poor not knowing any better never held any truth for me. It’s more “there but for the grace of God go I” that sums up my feelings more accurately. I don’t know how you can witness other human beings struggling for their everyday existence and not get changed by it.

As much as I love to travel to exciting and exotic spots around the world, I have always had lot of trouble justifying my own good fortune being able to enjoy the best of what a country has to offer while the people there, many of them poor, are waiting on me and treating me like a king. I understand and agree with the logic that, by going, I am helping to create jobs and am contributing to the economy.  But it just doesn’t seem like enough.

A few years ago I read about a couple who, on their own, raised money, medical supplies and clothing at their workplace and church which they personally delivered to an orphanage in Nairobi. So when my husband and I decided to travel to Kenya we thought we would try the same thing. We raised several thousand dollars, lots of clothing, and had a local pharmaceutical company donate medical supplies which we then took with us to the New Life Children’s Home in Nairobi. We packed everything in old suitcases that we just left there. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do; it just took a little thought and planning. And we received way more than we gave when we had the opportunity to visit with those beautiful children and see the good work the orphanage was doing in a country devastated by Aids and other diseases.

More recently, when we visited Cambodia, we noticed wells that had signs on them. We asked our guide about it and learned that the wells had been donated by tourists who wanted to help when they saw the poverty that the people of Cambodia were living in. We decided to donate a well ourselves so our guide took us to an area near Siem Reap where the government had given small plots of land to the poor and the disabled. Many of these people had nothing but a shack to live in, and no water nearby. Drinking dirty polluted water was a common occurrence and people often became ill and even died because of it. So, we donated enough money to have a well built in an area where several families lived. Believe it or not, the well only cost us $200. For the cost of a utility bill here at home, several families would have fresh, clean water to drink. It was an easy thing to do. We didn’t even lift a finger.

There are a lot of non-profit organizations that offer what are called “voluntourism” trips, in which the travelers get involved in charitable work while they are visiting a poor country. And that is a great way to help. But if you are the kind of traveler who wants to go on your own, but still you’d like to do something to help while you are visiting, you can, if you seek it out. It doesn’t have to be Cambodia or Kenya. It can be closer to home, like in the Caribbean. Just do a little research ahead of the visit time to find an organization that is legitimate, contact them to see what they might need, and start a fundraiser of your own at your synagogue before you go. Tour guides are often a great source too. You have the added bonus of seeing for yourself that your donation is going to a good cause. I guarantee you that you will enjoy your trip a lot more if you leave something meaningful behind, rather than taking lots of things home with you.

Ann Craig-Cinnamon has spent 30 years in both radio and television broadcasting in the Indianapolis market. After living in Tehran, she developed a love for travel and has visited all 50 states and more than 70 countries on all seven continents. She is also the author of the new book, Walking Naked in Tehran.

Unique Mitzvah Projects for Kids

Looking for something different to delve into for a community service project?  Most Jewish pre-teens who are about to reach their milestone in becoming a bar or bat mitzvah are confronted with the difficult task of selecting a meaningful endeavor to serve as their “mitzvah” project.  They become easily frustrated when trying to come up with an original idea to fulfill their obligation in performing a good deed.  Some popular opportunities that many families are already familiar with in the tri-state area are volunteering with a food bank, teaming up with a non-profit organization to do a walk or helping out at a senior retirement home. However, there are numerous experiences that b’nai mitzvahs can embrace.  They may simply be unaware of what’s out there to discover.

Two years ago, Valerie Franklin and Cheryl Friedenberg, two Jewish moms from the suburbs of Philadelphia, decided to launch The Mitzvah Bowl website when they realized that there was no central database in the tri-state area listing mitzvah projects. The site connects bar/bat mitzvah students to social action projects.

This one-of-a-kind website offers kids the chance to find the perfect match for a meaningful enriching experience.  Recently the website was revamped to make browsing easier.  Students are much more motivated to engage themselves if it’s something that interests them.

  • Enjoy dancing? Consider working with individuals in wheelchairs and guiding them as their dancing partner.
  • Do you get a thrill from shooting hoops?  Organize a basketball tournament with PeacePlayers International to help further peace in the Middle East.  
  • Want to feel empowered by feeding the hungry?  Arrange a food drive to send goods to Mazon, A Jewish Response to Hunger.  
  • Are you an avid reader and want to share your love of literacy?  Create a community-wide book drive for the African Library Project and help change children’s lives on another continent.

The Mitzvah Bowl lists well over 100 unique ideas to fulfill community service hours by getting involved with a worthy cause.

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Raquel Dunoff, a 7th grader from Plymouth Meeting, PA organized a clothesline art sale to benefit Fresh Artists.  This non-profit organization provides art programs and supplies to inner city schools, which have cut their art budgets dramatically.  Dunoff collected art and ceramics created by friends and arranged a sale at her township building.

Adolescents have the power, themselves, to play an active part in fixing the critical needs of our society. By offering them the chance to grab hold of a philanthropy that they feel passionate about, the connection becomes worthwhile and relevant.

The Mitzvah Bowl website provides a much needed resource for this community to assist these tweens and teens to find that perfect match.