Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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An Afternoon Volunteering at Feed My Starving Children

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one”. – Mother Teresa

I have always been committed to volunteering and giving back either locally or around the globe. Since having children my focus has been more on them and volunteering at their  elementary school. Yet as they get older, there is less volunteer work needed so I decided it was time to branch out and find more volunteer opportunities locally.

One place I’d been longing to volunteer at is a fabulous non-profit faith-based organization called Feed My Starving Children (FMSC). Founded in 1987 in Minnesota by a Christian businessman, FMSC has produced nearly 900 million meals and shipped them to over 70 countries around the world. Last year alone, FMSC donated 191.6 million meals!

I had the pleasure of accompanying a good friend to FMSC November Gala and made a promise that I’d set aside some time to volunteer at one of their three packing plants here in town. I was inspired by their mission and their business model of volunteerism. Not one person is ever paid to pack a meal and no machines are used. Every single meal that goes out is hand-packed by volunteers around the United States (they have packing sites in Illinois and Arizona and mobile packing sites anywhere in the US). Furthermore, all meals are funded by donations.

Just to get an idea of the vastness of hunger, it is important to step back and look at the numbers. 1 in 8 people in the world go hungry every single day. That means almost 1 billion people do not eat each day. To me, it is utterly unimaginable.


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Silver Lining

silver lining (noun)

a consoling aspect of an otherwise desperate or difficult situation; “every dark rain cloud has a silver edge or lining”; “look on the bright side of it.”

Hondruas sky

Arriving into dark rain clouds in Honduras. January 2013.

Roughly a year ago I was in Honduras doing volunteer work and taking Spanish classes for a week.  It was my fourth volunteer trip, third one to a Central American country, and was fulfilling the promise I made to myself years ago to give back to those in need.

For a place of so much beauty, there is also so much pain.

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Habitat for Humanity’s A Brush with Kindness

Last Friday I decided to test out one of the volunteer opportunities I’ve had the pleasure of writing about on my blog: Habitat for Humanity’s Women Build. After interviewing Lisa Marie Nickerson, Associate Director of Women Build (to read post, click here) I was inspired to see what this program and experience was all about. I signed up for a time slot and was able to help out for a few hours on Friday morning.

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La Ceiba, Honduras

Leaving La Ceiba

Author’s note: This post is part of my series on my recent trip to Honduras. To read past posts on Honduras, click here.

I often find that a week is not enough time to experience a new country or volunteer abroad. There is way too much to learn, and the experience is often a bit overwhelming and intense. However, in my humble opinion a week is better than nothing so I normally do whatever I can to get as much out of my time abroad as possible, even if it means running myself rampant.

Friday came before I knew it. Just as my Spanish was beginning to pick up once again and I had finally began to feel comfortable in my surroundings, it was time to go. The hardest part leaving La Ceiba was leaving its people, both the children I had worked with at the day care center and my lovely host family. I felt really sad leaving the kids knowing how poorly they were treated and understanding that my presence as a volunteer at the center was the highlight of their day. I knew another volunteer was still there yet it wasn’t enough. In a center with over 60 young children and uninspiring employees, one volunteer could simply not make up for the lack of care, attention and love that the children required. It was heartbreaking to leave.


I also felt sad leaving my warm, caring host family. I was amazed how easily they welcomed me into their home with open arms, compassion, patience (with my lack of Spanish) and love. After only a few days I felt like an extended member of the family and it was hard to leave.  It is rare to develop this kind of friendship with anyone in such a short period of time yet I came to understand that most Hondurans are incredibly warm and compassionate people. They may not have much, but they do have happiness and an overall acceptance of the hardship of their lives. Something many of us could learn from.


A five year old girl takes care of her one year old sister all day long at the day care center as there is no one else to help her.

Here are a few of my last photos that I took before I left. I purposely chose photos that depict the sharp contrast I felt in Honduras between beauty and poverty. I felt it so intensely during my trip.


Finding beauty in La Ceiba, Honduras

Author’s note: This post is part of my series on my recent trip to Honduras. To read past posts on Honduras, click here.

La Ceiba is not known as the most beautiful city in the world. In fact, it is known for being well, rather ugly. I had been warned about the unattractiveness of the city several times through my research in Lonely Planet and other noteworthy travel sites. But La Ceiba was where my volunteer project was based so I was going to make the best of it and be sure to use that good old “third-eye” (i.e. open-minded approach). Ugly or not, I would find the beauty of it.


Honduras is a diverse country with lots of jungle and mountains. La Ceiba is located on the Caribbean Sea not far from the famous Bay Islands. Photo credit: Wikipedia.


Becoming a global volunteer

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa


Two lovely Garifuna girls in Roatan, Honduras.

Four years ago, I was finally at the point in my life in which I was able to set a new goal for myself. I made the decision that I would spend one week a year abroad as a global volunteer, giving back to a host community. After years of traveling around the world, I realized how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to see places that most people will never see. Furthermore, I understood how much we truly have in the western world compared to to everyone else who are not so fortunate. Spending time in developing countries opened my eyes even more and I became even more thankful for the fact that I had a more than adequate roof over my head, plenty of food on the table, a loving family, the ability to stay at home with my children and pursue my dreams. All in all, I realized that I had a really great life and that millions of people around the world were just struggling to survive.


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In route to the Mainland

Author’s note: This post is part of my series on my recent trip to Honduras. To read past posts on Honduras, click here.


When I arrived at the ferry station and saw my fellow passengers, it was the first real indication that Roatan and the mainland of Honduras were worlds apart. Unlike the jam-packed United Airlines flight from Houston loaded with passengers dressed in their country club best, 98% of the ferry passengers were Honduran. I was the only blond-haired blue-eyed person on the entire ship of a couple hundred people.


First impressions on nine days in Honduras


Sunset over West Bay Beach on the island of Roatan is always a magical treat.

Sunday night I arrived home utterly exhausted and unfortunately sick from Honduras. I tend to be prone to stomach bugs when I travel to developing countries and thankfully I always carry an antibiotic which has already began to help. Nevertheless, I lost six pounds in a week and came back to a sick child again as well. We just can’t seem to get healthy in our house.


The tropical island of Roatan. Worlds apart from the mainland of Honduras where 80% of the people live in poverty.

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My new little amigos

I’ve completed my second day volunteering with the beautiful children at a children’s day care center that assists poor single mothers so they can work. Originally I thought I would be working at an orphanage but that was somehow lost in translation. I’m finding that much for me is lost in translation since I’m only at a very basic Spanish level. But I’ve come to understand with traveling, especially in developing countries, that you must simply go with the flow. Having an open mind and open heart is paramount. Otherwise you’d pack you bags and leave the next day for home!

Honduras is much more basic and rough around the edges than Guatemala. It has truly opened my eyes. Over 80% of the people here live in poverty and it is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti and along with Bolivia. Yet despite the poverty and the dire situations most people live in, people are generally happy and resolved with their lot in life. Especially the children.

Here is a brief look at some of my beautiful new friends I met today at the center. They are so incredibly loving and full of life. They have so little material goods yet their joyous smile tells it all. For them, there is much more to life than having all the latest toys. Their love of life is evident and infectious.

Come, meet a few of my new little friends and see for yourself.









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Rebuilding homes and hope in Haiti

This post is the second piece of a two-part series on the recent Carter Work Project and Habitat for Humanity’s work in Haiti. To read the first post “The Story of How 600 Volunteers Built 100 Homes in a Week” click here

In lieu of pictures, this video says it all. The commitment, the teamwork, the compassion and the hope that these volunteers have given to people who have lost it all.

Above: “Our Carter Work Project closing ceremonies video celebrates the impact of 100 new homes built in Haiti by more than 600 volunteers alongside families affected by the 2010 earthquake.”

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Helping Haiti: The story of how 600 volunteers built 100 homes in a week

I am honored to be writing a two part series on behalf of Habitat for Humanity. Recently 600 volunteers from around the world set off to Haiti as part of the Carter Work Project for the second year in a row with the goal of building 100 homes in a week. Here is their story. 

Men anpil, chay pa lou.

Many hands [make] the load lighter.

-Haitian proverb

In 1984, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn created the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in response to the basic need of simple, decent and affordable shelter for people around the world. For 29 consecutive Mr. and Mrs. Carter have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity for one week building homes and hope in over 14 countries.  Past missions have brought people together to build homes as close as Mexico and Canada and as far away as South Africa and the Philippines. It has been an amazing feat and even more impressive given the fact that Carter and his wife Rosalynn, who are both in their mid-eighties, are right there with the volunteers on the ground, pouring in their heart, sweat and soul, in every project.

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