Volunteer with Elephants at Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park

Resident Elephant at Elephant Nature Park

Image source: Phototracs.com

Elephants are some of the world’s most majestic creatures. They’re the largest living land animals on Earth. Known for their memory and intelligence, Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures. When I was a girl living in Kenya, I spent long days by the game preserve’s salt lick, watching the elephants interacting with each other and caring for their young. Once, three hyenas tried to attack one of the babies and the adults surrounded her in a giant circle, trumpeting their furious sounds and rearing up, thrashing their massive tusks in the air. The hyenas skulked back into the underbrush. The baby was safe. Elephants migrate over huge distances, through deserts, to find watering holes. The matriarchs teach the younger females how to find the water, where to find food, how far to march… elephants are some of the only animals besides humans that have culture. They have history. They have communities. They have no natural predators and yet, elephants all over the world are facing possible extinction.

Cultural Integration with Volunteers in Asia

A Group of Japanese Exchange Students

Image source: Viaprograms.wordpress.com

The history of the relationship between Asia and North America is impossibly complicated and rife with ideological conflict. With the fastest growing economy in the world, China is a major global superpower and yet, the perception of America in China isn’t what it could be. I recently heard a fantastic piece on This American Life called “Americans in China.” It explored the complex relationship between American ex-pats and their Chinese neighbors. How Chinese can an American become? What products and emblems affect our cultural perceptions (Anime, G.I. Joe, Hello Kitty, MacDonalds, etc.)? What barriers are there between the two cultures? How is the American democracy perceived by Chinese citizens? Clearly, these two cultures are going to become more and more intertwined as each relies more heavily on the other. All of Asia is part of this globalizing equation—the tightening of our ties and the cultural interplay that must inevitably follow.

Openmind Projects

DePaul University Student Volunteer

Image source: Inspiredideations.wordpress.com

As someone with a limited budget and an unlimited imagination, I’m always attracted to low-cost volunteer experiences with organizations that still hold themselves to top-of-the-line standards. There aren’t a ton of organizations that do both and understandably so. It costs money to be idealistic. I feel so jaded just writing that. I’m reminded of my college freshman self, that girl who was so determined never to get paid for her art. Back in those days I was making a very popular podcast with thousands of viewers, but I refused any kind of compensation. I was making it for the right reasons! I wasn’t about to sell out! I think a lot of the volunteer organizations that share that idealism fail. They fail because they can’t support their staff, they can’t fund new projects, and they can’t invest in marketing or publicity. On the opposite extreme are the greedy organizations—the groups that charge exorbitant fees and pocket most of them. They may look professional and flashy, and for good reason: they’ve got plenty of money. Clearly there is a happy medium here, an organization that remembers the details but doesn’t sweat the luxury.