The Voluntary Traveler: An Interview with Nola Lee Kelsey

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

We've always been interested in volunteering - and giving back - whether at home or while we travel. Recently, we reviewed The Voluntary Traveler, created and edited by Nola Lee Kelsey. I was so impressed with this book that I contacted Nola for an interview - and it is Fascinating. We've also got excerpts from this book scheduled in the next month, so be sure to keep an eye out!

Over the past two decades zoologist Nola L. Kelsey has worked as a dog caregiver for Best Friends Animal Society (Nat Geo Channel’s ‘Dogtown’), a reptile keeper, marine park trainer, penguin handler and a wildlife rehabilitator. She is also a self-confessed serial volunteer for global animal rescue organizations.

As she has meandered the globe, her humor articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications from Reptiles Magazine to The Bangkok Post. Over the course of her life, Kelsey has been bitten by just about everything – twice! The final culprit was the writing bug. (According to Kelsey, this distant relative of the travel bug actually pumps ink into your veins while sucking your wallet dry.)
In addition to being the creator and content editor of The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from The Road Best Traveled, Kelsey has penned a myriad of titles from the scathingly wicked satires, Dogs: Funny Side Up! and Bitch Unleashed: The Harsh Realities of Goin’ Country, to the educational, children's read-aloud, Let’s Go Visit Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Her next title 700 Places to Volunteer Before You Die will be released July, 2010 - look for our book review here.

Kelsey is also the Managing Editor of Dog’s Eye View Media, a professional speaker and a freelance humor writer with a passion for educating people about volunteer travel opportunities, especially those with small nonprofits organization in need of help.


Nola Lee Kelsey


We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Nola about The Voluntary Traveler, volunteering, making a difference, and more. Here's what she had to say...


WE:    Please tell us about your book, The Voluntary Traveler....

NK: The Voluntary Traveler is one part anthology and one part reference guide. For the most part, the first half of the book was written by everyday people from all walks of life. They have one thing in common – they are serial volunteers. Advice chapters have also been incorporated to help readers plan their own volunteer adventure.  The result is a diverse mix of reading experiences.

The back half of The Voluntary Traveler is made up of listings submitted by providers of volunteer travel opportunities. Some are small charities; others are large organizations that coordinate give-back travel opportunities. They were given a loose template, allowing each of them the chance to tell readers/potential volunteers about their programs in their own words, as opposed to a guide book that may describe projects with brief sound bites created by the author.

In both sections “in their own words” is a prevailing theme.


Voluntary Traveler


WE: What led you to write this book?

NK: Actually I am the book's creator. There are numerous authors on this project.

As for what led me to create this title that answer is two-fold. I sold my home and set about wandering around the world volunteering for a couple years myself. Four months in I came home briefly to care for my mother after hip surgery. I estimated it would take three months. That was 2.5 years ago. While grounded by elder care my own serial volunteerism needed, and found, another outlet.

I had been wanted to produce a title that told people the real stories behind volunteer travel. Eliminating some of the mystery of what to expect might encourage more people to consider this type of adventure. Plus I loved the idea of presenting project providers on an equal platform. One page might give details about trips offered via a big company like the fantastic Global Visions International; the next page could be seeking help for a smaller volunteer project, such as the equally fantastic Care for Dogs in Chiangmai, Thailand.

I love experimenting outside the box. Lots of lessons were learned producing this manuscript, but lots of fun was had.


WE: What can readers find, in this book?

NK: Readers will find a gritty, refreshingly unprofessional casualness to the book, along with immense diversity. The Voluntary Traveler is not your same old, small print, just the facts, travel guide. By being able to allow ordinary people to tell their stories, I hope to have offered every ‘ordinary’ person out there an opportunity to relate and to say, “Hey that is me. I can do this.”


WE: Can you please share with us some of the volunteer projects, in this book?

NK: Wow! There are so many interesting projects I hate to single out just a few, but I will. Most people who know me know my heart has gone to the dogs. As a result, I am partial to a humor piece by an aspiring writer who is also a dedicated vagabond, Tony James Slater. Tony contributed a chapter about his time in Thailand volunteering with Phangan Animal Care (PAC). He told the tale with a wonderful balance of wicked fun and an over-sized heart. 

I have been to this island, (which is more famous for its Full Moon Party than animal welfare) before and after PAC opened. I know the difference their work has made firsthand. It is night and day for the animals.  So naturally, when a story about this project landed on my desk, I was honored to have some small part in telling the world about their work.

That said, there are also beautiful contributions by Shelley Seale, the author of The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India and a very special chapter by Bay Area Dentist, Adrian Ferguson of Los Médicos Voladores (The Flying Doctors).


WE: How can volunteers help implement change?

NK: Whatever volunteer adventure you select for yourself, approach it with a desire to learn as much as you teach , then give the project hosts and local people as much respect as you would want to receive. It is this open exchange of work, knowledge and friendship that takes the tourism out of voluntourism and elevates the experience to a whole new level of travel, inspiring positive change along the way.


WE: How can travelers/volunteers really make a difference?

NK: In any of a thousand ways – the secret is in finding the give-back travel opportunity that is right for you. Whether you want to teach tennis to the blind or track wolves for a census, pinpointing the opportunity that speaks to you and begs to be experienced is a major step in making sure you approach a volunteer opportunity with a strong interest and thus a desire to succeed. Making a difference comes from successful work.


WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

NK: Yes! Volunteering while on vacation is truly the road best traveled.  Do not go forth and conquer the world. Go forth and embrace it as an equal among all living things. Keep that attitude in mind and your journey down that road will take you further than you ever imagined was possible.


WE: Thanks so much, Nola! We strongly believe in volunteering - your book is a great addition to this field!

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