Writing this book over the past nine months functioned as a perfect mirror for my own personal fears and vulnerabilities—my book about volunteering ended up with so much of me exposed in the process that the thought of publicly launching was overwhelming.
When I left the United States in 2008 on what became my open-ended journey around the world, I had no idea where my travels would take me. I did however, have hopes that traveling would act as a reset button on my life—that I would find a new focus beyond the acting industry I left behind in Los Angeles and the advertising background I studied in college. I had no idea that four years later I would write a book about volunteer travel, but my path has led me here, to announcing my new (and as yet only) book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.
Why did I think this book needed writing?
After years of volunteering and supporting local communities in each place I visited, I wanted to work on a project that would help others create positive change as they travel. The more I traveled, I affirmed my belief that there is good that can come when we all focus more on socially conscious travel—acknowledging that everyone cannot give, serve, and volunteer in the same way. Over the years, as A Little Adrift found more growth and success, other travelers emailed me with questions about how they could find ways to connect their travel experiences with small, grassroots organizations and local social enterprises all over the world.
And it felt good. And there was a need for this information in the community.
With those needs, and the countless emails I have received over the years as an impetus, I wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. The book addresses the complicated facets of the international volunteer industry, and delves into the ethical issues related to working in developing communities. Through personal stories, and stories from other travelers and organizations, the book paints a clear picture of the ways people can pair travel and service. Sometimes this means through volunteering, but the book also offers ideas for short-term travelers who are perhaps not able to commit to a full volunteer project. On the whole, I wrote the book to address these core elements:
- Foundational ideas about volunteering in developing countries
- The interplay of ethics and development work
- Identifying your motivations for volunteering
- Picking either a volunteer tour, middleman placement company, or an independent organization
- How to research and vet organizations to ultimately decide which jive with your personal ethical code
- Managing your expectations
- Pre-trip cultural research
- How to navigate the experience once you’re there
- All the nuts and bolts of travel like packing, safety, insurance, and visas
The book is a tapestry of ideas on the voluntourism industry. It weaves stories throughout the text to illustrate practical ways to apply the advice, as well as photos, resources, and ideas.
In essence, I wrote the volunteer guide I wish I had before I left to travel. I made mistakes on my volunteer journey, I supported companies that were not working to better their community, but were instead purely profit driven. And in that same breath, I found wonderful grassroots businesses not listed in any guidebook that needed a hand in a way only I could lend. And I found friends and guidance along the way that shaped my views on development and aid work, the potentially harmful impact of naïve do-goodery, and the simple ways we can affect change.
I have traveled within and throughout communities all over the world, always looking for the simple ways I could lend a hand. My first international volunteer experience took place in Nepal, and since then I taught in Nepal, tutored children in Guatemala, built stoves, supported local causes, and found ways to integrate service into my travels through Southeast Asia with my niece last year. I don’t know everything, far from it, but I learning and understanding have underpinned each moment of my travels over the past four years. And with my meticulous nature, coupled with a lot of research, interviews, and questions, I gathered the information and perspectives I think each travelers need before they head out into developing communities.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I put a very real piece of myself into this book. Across several continents, countless countries, and many months (and while caring for my niece) I spent long hours thinking about the best way, the right way to encourage other people to ethically volunteer. I had a lot of fears about the project—surely there were more books I should have read before writing, or if not that, I was no doubt going to grossly overlook fundamental ideas and challenges in the aid and volunteer industries. The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.
Volunteering is the easy word for this book, but really the subject touches on development and international aid policies, the ethics of “developing” these countries in the model of the west, and the tangible value and harm volunteers can bring to international projects. I care so much about doing the subject justice, with all of its nuances and hotly debated opinions, and for a time, this made it a struggle for me to overcome my fears.
That struggle, though, made it better. The concern made me ask more questions, interview more people, and ask for guidance from a diverse range of opinions within the realms of sustainable tourism, international development, and, ultimately, volunteering.
Actually, as Neil Gaiman noted in his keynote speech (that my friend Mike so graciously pointed me to in my moments of angst) the launch of my book is like standing naked in front of my entire community and baring a part of my heart and my soul because there is risk, there is potential failure and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that failure is a scary prospect.
But as I noted above, I felt the book needed to be written. And that overrode the fears.
I think the sum total of this book can create positive change. I believe this is the truth. And I believe this is an immediate core focus for my life and my personal journey, to spread this positive message. I also think any new traveler, veteran traveler, and even arm-chair-occasional-two-week travelers will find value in the message—will find a way to use this information to travel with a more grassroots mentality of supporting local communities.
It took many months and many people (editors, designers, my partners in the book collective, family, and friends) to complete the project and hone the message down to its core components. But it says everything I want it to say. And now I’ve said nearly everything I want to say; I am happy with the results and there were are no words to do justice to the feeling of looking down at the cover and seeing my name in print for the first time.
Thank you! (And now I need your help)
I believe in the change we can create with the right information and the right focus, and I am so happy/excited/terrified to launch my new book into the world. The book is for sale at all major online outlets, and if you or someone you know is interested in this prism through which they can see the world—through local level service and volunteering, I would love for you to pass on the book, share it on Facebook or Twitter (the volunteer book’s permanent landing page is here).
And if you buy it (thanks!), let me know what you think. There are likely things I overlooked, or ideas that will morph and change over the coming months and years and I am eager and open to feedback. Further, I would love to hear your story if you have your own experience volunteering or serving communities anywhere in the world; share it with the community in the comments, or send me an email.
Since I launched this site in 2008, I have grown to deeply value and appreciate the community of travelers who find their way here. I could not have made it to this point in my journey without the support of fellow travelers, readers, and friends. To all of those I have met along the way, for you feedback, guidance, shared stories, and encouragement, simply, thank you.
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