The Voluntary Life

by Nola Lee Kelsey / May 03, 2010 / 0 comments

The Voluntary Life

By Daniela Ruby Papi

An excerpt from The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled

A common phrase I have heard when speaking with volunteer tourists is, “Volunteering allows you to do things you would not otherwise do in your ‘real life’”. So, what happens if volunteer tourism becomes your “real life”?

My life changed after my first experience of volunteering abroad with Habitat for Humanity in Nepal. I spent one week helping to build a home with a family in the Kathmandu Valley and another week hiking through the foothills of the Himalayas. After two weeks, I returned to my “real life” already planning my next volunteer vacation.

The experience ignited something in me. Perhaps it could have been described as a renewed passion for life or a desire to give back to the world. “Why travel any other way?” I wrote in my journal. “You not only get to give back to the places you see, but you also have a chance to meet and interact with people in ways that simply sightseeing does not allow. You are no longer a tourist and guide; shopper and seller, but two people working together on the same project.” I was hooked.

Volunteer trips in impoverished areas continued to be reality checks on my “real life.” I would return home to piles of material goods, which I suddenly realized were unnecessary. I was shocked at the amount of waste created in my daily life. I had a new desire to ride my bike to the store. Yet, within a few weeks of returning from each trip, these feelings would subside and the commercials telling me that I needed the newest gadgets or fashionable accessories would lead me back to the stores.

I began to realize how unreal my “real life” was.  The hours I spent volunteering and building homes equated to physical contributions: a foundation laid, window frames painted, the walls of a new house visible for all to see. My “real life” seemed to be lacking substance: hours on a computer connecting “virtually” by email with friends I might rarely or never meet. I began to recognize that all around me the world was pushing me to invest my time and energy to acquire “assets” which involved little human contact. Rarely did I walk over to meet my neighbor, let alone help him work on his home.

I began to seek more opportunities to renew that energy and the desire to give back to the world, improving my own life along the way. After a friend and I organized a bike trip through Cambodia that raised funds to support educational programs, I realized that giving back did not have to be something that I just did while on vacation from my “real life.”

I have now spent three years living and working in Cambodia running an educational, non-profit organization, as well as an adventure and volunteer tour operation that funds our educational programs and social development partner organizations. I am surrounded by inspiring co-workers who remind me of our interconnectedness; helping, supporting and getting to know each other. This is what keeps our passion for life alive.

About the Author:
Daniela Papi grew up in New York, but has spent the last 7.5 years in Asia working in education and tourism.  She the founder of PEPY, an educational non-profit organization funded through volunteer and adventure tours of Cambodia. PEPY's tagline, "Adventurous Living. Responsible Giving." highlights the dual mission of the organization.  PEPY has won the CIMPA Humanitarian Travel Award, the University of Notre Dame's Social Venture Business Plan competition and was a finalist for the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards. Daniela recognizes that volunteer tourism, when not researched or monitored properly, can have negative impacts in the communities it is aiming to support. She currently manages PEPY from her Cambodia office in Siem Reap. Visit to learn

The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled is published by Dog’s Eye View Media and is available at Borders Bookstore or your favorite online shop.



Nola Lee Kelsey is the Author of  The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled.