Volunteer for Development Work

By Kim Glick

Volunteer with Development Work volunteering volunteer opportunities international volunteer development work

Who has time for a vacation these days with the economy in the dumps and life a seemingly endless drone of bill collectors and other financial responsibilities?

It seems unlikely to find individuals who willingly give their time and money as freely as Michelle Olson.

Michelle is a 54-year old woman with a penchant for vacationing in Guatemala (she has been here 10 times already). But, Michelle does not spend her time in a five-star hotel or lying on the beach, she uses her precious free time getting her hands dirty with cement and whitewash.

I was fortunate to be invited to dinner with Michelle and the rest of her team from an organization called Helps International (HI). A US-based non-profit organization, HI sends groups of volunteers overseas to work in poor rural communities on medical or “home transformation” projects. In this particular case, the trip was a package deal consisting of some much needed kitchen remodeling — construction of improved fuel efficient wood-burning stoves, concrete floors, whitewash walls, and installation water filters for 12 rural families in the Guatemalan highlands.

A veteran HI volunteer, this is Michelle’s ninth trip with the organization. She says she would not trade the experience for the world. Born in Panama to a navy family, service is in her blood. At home in Minnesota, Michelle is self-employed with her own plant nursery business. In Guatemala, she serves as translator and “chief backslapper” for the rest of the crew.

With HI, the volunteers doing the work pay for the project and all of their individual costs such as airfare, hotel, and extras. HI host-country staff make all the arrangements for the working visits, including meals and accommodations; a fully organized “vacation with a conscience”. I asked Michelle why she would spend her precious time and money to help an anonymous Guatemalan family and she humbly responded: “I do it because I like it.”

Since money is always an issue, Michelle says: “I thought about it for many years, but I waited until my son finished high school before I finally acted.”

When asked what her husband thinks about all this, she said smiling: “My husband goes hunting and I volunteer.”

“I’ve never been afraid of things” she says, “I was just waiting for my son to finish school and to have enough money.” The volunteers raised about US $6,000 to cover the renovations for 12 rural families. Michelle’s personal expenses are US $1,700 for airfare and a one-week stay at lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Michelle’s first trip with HI was in 2003 at 49 years old. This just shows you it is never too late. She says it helps to be physically fit but there is always something to do even if you are not as fit as you would like to be. Also, people walk a lot on these trips so everyone gets some exercise.

As an adventurer, Michelle says, “I love to travel and I don’t get to do as much as I’d like since I run my own business.” She continues, “I like to immerse myself in the culture and I can’t think of a better way to do that than being in someone else’s kitchen especially when I only have a one-week break.”

Knowledge of a foreign language is not necessary although Michelle is grateful for the little Spanish she has picked up over the years because it “enhances the experience”. She says, “I feel fortunate to have [some] Spanish…, so I can make connections with people. I had Spanish in high school and college up to an intermediate level. It’s not necessary for the work but, for me, it greatly enhances the experience.”

If you would like to spread your wings but feel reluctant due to a lack of support or money, please take heart. Michelle says she has made many friends on these trips and “some of them are good enough friends that we see each other throughout the year especially to raise money.” She is already planning her “vacations with a conscience” for 2010 and 2011. It may be somewhere in Asia.

If you are intrigued by the idea of this kind of “vacation with a conscience”, check out the Helps International website: www.helpsintl.org, where you can find an active group near you and dates of upcoming service trips.

For the most part, groups depart throughout the year so there is bound to be at least one date that works for you. HI is just one organization working on these kinds of volunteer-oriented development projects and we make no claims about the organization or the sustainability of the projects. In the future, we will spotlight other opportunities to be of service in your own community and overseas. No matter what, when things get tough, sometimes it is good to get away to remember what it is we “do” have and many others do not. By relieving some of the burden of another, we often begin to alleviate our own.


By Kim Glick| October 23, 2009
Categories:  Live

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Kim Glick

Kim Glick

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