Your Volunteer Travel Questions Answered

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Once in a while, we run across someone whose life purpose has impacted so many people - it is so inspiring! Today we'll be talking with our Cultural Travel Editor, Shelley Seale (author of The Weight of Silence, reviewed here and here on our site), about the importance of Volunteer Travel.  Shelley doesn't just talk - she DOES. She's quite active in volunteering, and is also a contributor to a new bok called the Voluntary Traveler (our book review is forthcoming). Without further ado, let's sit down and chat with Shelley about the importance of helping others...



WE: What triggered your interest in volunteer travel?

SS: I had always volunteered locally, with Child Protective Services, Girls Inc, CASA, and other groups working with abused or at-risk children. I had looked into volunteering with children in other countries, but never pursued it seriously until 2004, when I began volunteering with The Miracle Foundation. This is an Austin nonprofit that supports orphanages in India, and I started sponsoring a child there. I was invited to go on one of their volunteer trips to India, and didn’t hesitate at the opportunity. So really, it was my involvement in the organization that led me to volunteering in another country.


Shelley Seale - helping kids in India



WE: What are the most memorable stories that you heard during your trips to India?

SS: There are so many individual children I have gotten to know, and stories of both heartbreak and inspiration. One little girl, in particular, has made huge impression on me. Her name is Sumitra, and she was brought to the orphanage in the middle of the night by a police officer. Her mother had died of an infection, and Sumitra had been left behind. She was naked and emaciated ­ nine months old but the size of a three-month infant. Her bones were like tent poles, suspending up her fragile skin; she had the oldest eyes I've ever seen. But one year later, I visited the same orphanage, and this chubby toddler came running up to me. She had the hugest grin on her face and jumped all around me with joy - it was Sumitra! It showed me just what a little love, caring and time can do in the lives of these children. There is truly hope, and miracles do happen like this all the time.


Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale



WE: What tips do you have for people who are thinking about taking a volunteer vacation?

SS:  First, think clearly about two things: where in the world you might like to go, and what sort of work you want to do and issues you'd like to be involved with. Once you've looked inside yourself to become familiar with what is meaningful to YOU, then you can begin researching various opportunities - and they are plentiful, all over the world. For the detailed planning stages, there are some wonderful resources such as Jane Stanfield's new book, Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation. For inspiration and a taste of what such volunteer trips are like, you might like to read The Voluntary Traveler. This is an anthology with stories by numerous writers and "voluntourists" - I am a contributing author, and the other contributors also have some amazing stories to share.


Shelley's daughter, in India

Shelley's daughter, in India



WE: What can armchair voluntourist do to help?

SS: There are many things that people can do without ever leaving home. The Alliance for International Women's Rights coined the term with its "Armchair Volunteer" program, which pairs mentors in the US with women in Central Asia to learn English and business skills. People can also support a nonprofit organization local to their own hometown, in its traveling volunteer endeavors, by providing supplies, fundraising, or other much-needed volunteer skills. A lot of work and effort goes into volunteer trips, and local pre- and post-trip help is always appreciated. This is also a great way to become familiar with the organization that you are considering traveling with, and talking to other volunteers who have actually made the trip.

If you can’t take a volunteer vacation, there are still all kinds of cool ways that you can lend a hand, during your own non-volunteer travels or even from your own home. An amazing organization called Stuff Your Rucksack  acts as a middleman between organizations all over the world that need materials and supplies, and travelers who might have a little extra room in their baggage and can take such items.

At home, people can do anything from sponsoring a child through Miracle Foundation or World Vision India; to signing petitions to protect child rights at places such as Global March. Consumers can also be aware of where products are coming from, and make sure they are not made using child slave labor. One good resource is Better World Shopper.


Indian Kids


Additional Resources:

I also have a list of donation and volunteer points on my website. Here I list all of the organizations that I, personally, visited and interviewed for this book.
Travelers can also check out websites such as Global Volunteers and Global Vision International. You might also like to check out a Volunteer Travel Q&A Discussion that I led through The Voluntary Traveler book project, at which I’m a contributing author.

Voluntourism 101: A Self Checklist is another great tool.



WE: Thanks so very much, Shelley - Your work is inspiring. I am so glad you've shared your resources and experiences with us!

For more information on Shelley's work and books, please see:

Comments (1)

  • Beryl Singleton...

    14 years 9 months ago


    One of my dreams is to get active in this kind of travel and this article provides the links and suggestions I needed.Thank you!

    P.S. I posted this article to my facebook account!

    Author of The Scent of God: A Memoir (Counterpoint NY 2006 hardcover; 2007 paperback)

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