Many of the volunteer organizations that are active today are concerned with a variety of projects in a variety of places. In many cases, this is because they want to appeal to a variety of volunteers. Indeed, volunteering with a large organization like Cross-Cultural Solutions or Habitat for Humanity means you have a lot of choices about where you go and what you do. You can volunteer with the same organization many times and each time, work with a different community on a different project. I think this does appeal to volunteers and I understand why. But there is also something to be said for the focused organization with a single community in mind. Focused organizations put down roots in one place. They have lasting relationships with local people and they do sustainable work that builds over time. Volunteering with an organization like this means you get to participate in enduring change. You get to see how that change has affected children, children who are now thriving adults. You witness the good an organization can do in ten or twenty years. I think, of necessity, this is missing from a lot of volunteer opportunities and I think seeing this kind of change can really inspire in a way that more transient projects just can’t.
The United Nations is an international organization of countries established in 1945 as a successor to the League of Nations. Its purpose: to promote international peace, security, and cooperation. Because it includes politically powerful delegates from 193 member states and has political power vested in its founding charter, the UN can take wide-ranging action on a variety of issues. Regardless of your political leanings, it’s difficult to criticize the overarching mission of the UN. Their relief agencies “provide aid and protection to over 36 million refugees and others fleeing war, famine or persecution.” The United Nations and its specialized agencies, funds, and programs make the world a safer, more just place to live. The UN works on projects related to conflict resolution, human rights, counter terrorism, disaster relief, refugee protection, sustainable development, disarmament and non-proliferation, the protection of children, gender equality, clearing landmines, economic and social development, and expanding food production. If our world is ever going to be peaceful, it’s organizations like the UN that will make it happen.
When the average America thinks of high-profile humanitarian work, she probably thinks of Angelina Jolie. Of all the activist celebrities, only Jolie has become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. She’s a glamorous celebrity, and I think that makes it easy to dismiss her, but in truth she has helped an extraordinary number of people. From the point of view of my very non-Hollywood life, she seems superhuman. She has six kids, acts in movies, and manages to devote a huge percentage of her time traveling to far off places to give back. I think we should all be looking to her for guidance. She has all the privilege in the world and yet, she uses her power for good! She could be basking in the spotlight, frolicking in the Riviera, and showing off her crazy handsome fiance. Instead, she works hard, every day, to make the world a better place.
There is a close relationship between environmental conservation work and helping people. In many cases, like that of the Galapagos Islands, the restoration of habitats and rebuilding of populations leads to an increase in ecotourism that benefits a local region economically. In other cases, conservation directly impacts a community’s ability to find food, to farm, and to enjoy their own backyards. Conservation also has a watershed effect… literally. As habitats are cleaned up, the entire ecosystem improves, and that includes fresh water sources. Polluted bodies of fresh water harm humans just as much as they harm animals. If a community is located on the seashore, deep sea conservation efforts often have an immediate effect on the shallow fishery. More healthy fish means more food for humans, and it means a healthier economy to boot. The food chain is a complex system. When it is disrupted at any point, that disruption has a domino effect down the chain in both directions. Conservation projects teach us that humans are part of that chain. We suffer when it is disrupted too.
Part two of my interview with Kimberly Haley-Coleman is focused on volunteer feedback, building a volunteer community, and the voluntourism industry as a whole. Enjoy!