When I was seven years old, my family moved to Nairobi, Kenya. We lived there for a year while my mom researched Pygmy music for her dissertation. That experience is a large part of the reason I’m so gung-ho about voluntouring with children. It’s funny how memory works. With a few exceptions, my early memories are more impressions and snapshots than specific events. I remember jumping in a pile of leaves but not when or with whom. I remember feeling angry with my dad but not why. All that changed when we moved to Africa.
After writing yesterday’s article about the Lewis family, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact volunteering can have on families with children. The typical family vacation, especially if said family happens to include a teenager, is often rife with stress. Maybe the kids don’t want to go, or they’re moody and difficult. Every car ride is punctuated by a hundred are-we-there-yets. The Chevy Chase-style Big Ben/Parliament rotary tour comes to mind. Family vacations are supposed to be quality-time adventures. They’re supposed to end with everyone feeling closer, happier, more unified and refreshed. The trouble is, most typical family vacations don’t end that way at all.
Travel is irreplaceable. No matter how much you read or learn in school, you can’t capture the real flavor of a place and the people who call it home until you’ve been there. It can feel scary—there are so many unknowns—but taking that risk is part of what makes it so unforgettable. For children, travel is perhaps even more important. Seeing the world’s inequalities first-hand, realizing that any of us could have been born in the slums of Kibera, we learn that there is nothing special about those who are born into privilege. It’s just dumb luck. For those of us who are so lucky, shouldn’t we be doing more to make a difference?
When I was 17, fresh out of high school and raring to go, Costa Rica was just one of about 50 different countries I wanted to visit. I grew up in a privileged suburb of Boston and was expected to head off to college alongside the rest of my graduating class. At the time, it wasn’t quite as fashionable to spend a year abroad. It was the kind of choice kids made who hadn’t applied to college, couldn’t pay for it, or otherwise didn’t have much direction. Even though I lived in a fancy suburb, my family had fallen on some tough times and I suddenly found myself in the “couldn’t pay for it” college category. I look back now and can’t understand how anyone pays for college but at the time it was a real blow. After busting my hump for four years with a singular focus—making high honor roll every semester, doing a bazillion extra-curriculars, and then getting into my top choice school—I was piping mad that money was holding me back. I was completely unable to put my situation in perspective. Never mind the millions of children in the world who get zero education, I deserved college. It was my right!