For it is in giving that we receive”. – Francis of Assisi
Volunteering abroad can be an immensely rewarding, transformative experience. My first international volunteer trip was in 2009 to Costa Rica. I spent a week volunteering at a nursing home and it was a wonderful experience that taught me so much and filled me with that missing piece of traveling: Connecting and giving back to the local community. Three more international volunteer trips followed: Rabat, Morocco in 2010, Xela, Guatemala in 2011 and La Ceiba, Honduras in 2012.
It was during that fateful volunteer trip to Honduras that I began to think hard about the ethics and standards of international volunteer organizations. I had volunteered abroad with three different organizations and each one was remarkably different. Some charged exorbitant prices to volunteer abroad selling the experience as a “volunteer vacation” where you really only volunteered for a few hours each day and truthfully did not make much of an impact. Other organizations charged less for the opportunity, yet clearly they had no idea about the volunteer experiences they were selling. This was the case with my volunteer work in Honduras. I worked at a daycare center that was not the best and ended up reporting them to the US-based volunteer organization.
The silver lining is that my unfortunate experience in Honduras was a wake up call. I realized that not all international volunteer organizations have the most ethical practices or intentions in mind. The good news is that ethical volunteering does exist and when done right can have an enormous impact on both the local community and the volunteer. These experiences can be life-changing at any age either as a young college age student, a mid-career professional or even as a retiree.
It is my goal over the course of the next few months to introduce you to some amazing international volunteer organizations. The first one is Unearth the World.
In 2013, Kathryn Pisco and her husband Mike left their corporate jobs and decided to take a trip of a lifetime in an attempt to unearth and discover the world. Over the next 250 days, the pair traveled to over 20 countries and volunteered at 5 different volunteer projects.
It was during their volunteer experiences that they learned the ins and outs of volunteering abroad. Although their time volunteering was meaningful, they were surprised to see how broken the system was. A lot of projects charged tons of money for volunteers, were not exactly beneficial to the host community and were not sustainable. The couple returned home and realized that they had to share their knowledge and experience of what they learned.
In 2014, they launched their social enterprise Unearth the World, an international volunteer organization that strives to improve the international volunteering industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible international programs.
Today they work with 6 non-profit partners in Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Zambia which they have personally visited to ensure that each volunteer experience benefits the local community and provides sustainable change. Since they founded Unearth the World, 200 people have already dedicated 3,500+ hours of service over the past two years in collaboration with their six international nonprofit partners.
I first met Kathryn at the Women in Travel Summit in April and instantly connected. She is a mom like me and has a passion for sustainable travel and a zest for life. I knew I wanted to feature Unearth the World on my blog so I set up a phone interview to learn more. Here is a transcript of our conversation.