Reading Village is a non-profit organization whose mission is to eradicate illiteracy in impoverished communities and empower youth to lead their communities out of poverty. Each year, volunteer travelers have an opportunity to take a Learning Journey into rural Guatemala and to…
When a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in early 2010, it seemed like the entire world turned its eyes to the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation – and Sean Penn was no exception. In the wake of the disaster, which virtually leveled the tiny country, Penn and fellow philanthropist Diana Jenkins sprung into action and formed the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO).
Unlike some other celebrity-based charity organizations, the J/P HRO and its namesakes were not only at ground zero immediately following the disaster but, nearly three years later, are still actively involved. Sean Penn’s volunteerism through the J/P HRO is, in fact, so lauded that he was recently named ambassador at large for Haiti.
Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend disadvantage. Living here, in the United States, I have so many luxuries. While I am not rich compared to my neighbors, I am a millionaire compared to so many people in the world. It’s easy to see yourself through the lens of your own culture—to forget that, on a global scale, the picture is so dramatically different. I thought about this a lot at the beginning of the Occupy movement. Here were millions of Americans, rallying together to fight the 1%, the people in America who enjoy the vast majority of the wealth. Who were we fighting for? We were fighting for the rest of our population—the 99% of Americans who pay taxes, fall behind on mortgages with outrageous interest rates, default on student loans, and can’t find gainful employment. There is no doubt—the way America works is deeply flawed and innocent, hard-working people suffer—but what I think we forget is that, on the global stage, Americans are the 1%. We are the privileged. This is what it means to have a global perspective.
Aldeas de Paz is a Venezuelan NGO with a history of inspired service. In 1995 a German entrepreneur named Manfred Mönninghoff was volunteering on a humanitarian project in Merida, Venezuela. The project was focused on integrating street children and at risk youth into more stable environments via school, community projects, and foster families. It was a grassroots effort, as so many humanitarian projects are, and it inspired Mönninghoff to do more, to dedicate his life (and his life savings) to the service of children with an organization dedicated to their care. In 2001, he formed Fundación Aldeas de Paz, a volunteer-based NGO in Caracas. Today, that NGO is based in Santa Elena, a gold and diamonds mining town in the heart of the remote Canaima National Park, on the border with Brazil and Guyana. The location is isolated, beautiful, and culturally and ecologically important.
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.