I remember the first time I prepared to go to Haiti -- I told an acquaintance about the trip and they responded with a sincerely puzzled, "why are you going there?"
I didn't have a good answer other than that it felt right to take action around the events of the 2010 earthquake that killed over 220,000 people. I had the skills to mobilize people. I could secure needed funds and generate support for community organizations in-country. I also had the backing of a travel organization committed to developing an effective volunteer program.
I wondered if there would be interest. Who would be willing to give up the "idyllic beach vacation" or "adventure travel tour" and volunteer their time and energy to help others in one of the poorest countries in the world?
I was surprised and heartened to receive hundreds of requests from people all over the world wanting to give their time and money to help. They were willing to travel hundreds of miles to work hand in hand with people they did not know in a place they had never been.
Three and a half years later, we're still taking people to Haiti. Our goals are different now and focus on long-term resilience and sustainability. Much of the urgency that followed the earthquake has waned, but there is still real need, which existed before the earthquake ever manifested. People still want to respond to this need, despite the fact that the limelight of recent disaster has refocused elsewhere.
We have heard about the typical profile of a volunteer as a holier-than-thou traveler who is interested in saving people, painting a school or two, and feeling good about themselves. Though financial privilege and responsibility definitely come into play, I believe the motivation behind most volunteers has nothing to do with dealing with issues of "white guilt." Those people may reach out initially, but those that actually go through the process that will get them on the ground and taking action, are acting out of an entirely different motivation.
In addition to forgoing the concept of the perfect vacation and using their paid time off to work, they are committed to fundraising and developing lesson plans in advance of travel. When they get on the ground, they work eight to 10 hour days in the heat of the day on any number of exhausting tasks. This sort of commitment is fueled by the belief that if you have the ability to make a difference, you also have a responsibility to do so.
I talked to volunteer travel expert Andrew Mersmann, who runs the blog Change by Doing, about why he volunteers and why he encourages others to. "Because I can," he says simply. "I feel like not doing so is a missed opportunity and perhaps a missed responsibility. I don't have any judgment of anyone who doesn't know this calling... but I do believe they just haven't found the right volunteer opportunity yet that will fire them up."
Tess Patenaude, 23, from Wisconsin, has been to Haiti four times in as many years. She will return this year as a trip leader on Elevate Destination's summer volunteer trip. I asked her why she keeps going back. "[When I first arrived in Haiti], I couldn't understand why I suddenly felt as if I belonged there. I felt as if I had returned home, despite the fact I had never been to the country."
Tess has worked alongside paid Haitian workers and volunteers on construction projects, hauling buckets in the mornings and then teaching English classes and participating in cultural exchange courses in the afternoons.
Tess is not the only one that has played a continued role in international development. Many people I have taken down have remained committed and return to Haiti and other places around the globe. Clayton Colaw, 23, from California, is now working at a school in Cochabamba, Bolivia. "I went because I was tired of hearing all the pity [for Haiti] as the [primary] perspective through which the rest of the world views Haiti," he says in a post to a closed Facebook group that keeps alumni of Elevate Haiti in touch with each other, with their Haitian non-profit partners, and in the know about Haitian news.
I have taken off-duty cops, Hollywood talent agents, students, yoga teachers, financial executives, and countless others to Haiti through the years. All races, genders, ages. People ranging from the age of 15 to 78 have participated. We've had people sell their plasma to be able to participate in helping others.
What do they all have in common? From my perspective -- these people are "the helpers" that Fred Rogers says to look for. These are the folks that take Dr. King's quote "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" to heart. These are the folks that are taking action and making a difference, in any small way they can, in local and global communities alike.
Andrea Atkinson develops Elevate Destinations' urgent service travel programs. Andrea is a sustainability professional specializing in community engagement at a local and global level.