Since 2010, my company, Elevate Destinations, has been running "Urgent Service" trips to Haiti -- helping communities rebuild infrastructure and staging a mobile "leadership camp" for youth. Last week I accompanied 10 other volunteers to the island of Ile a Vache, off the southern coast of Haiti.
This time was our first foray to Ile a Vache, but we stumbled upon the community riches endemic to Haiti as a whole -- a resilient and joyous spirit, 52 youth curious and eager to learn what we could teach, and days filled with laughter about matters great and small.
Our accommodations were rustic, but turquoise waters, silted with limestone, fronted our hotel. The island also boasted the ultimate luxury in soundscapes: There were no cars.
For a week we ran classes in leadership, English, art and music. When, on the first day, we took a poll on what instruments our students liked, we quickly realized that in spite of selecting violin or piano -- these kids had no musical instruments available to them at all. Their dream, however, was to create a music video. Could we help them?
In leadership class, we polled our students on their hopes and dreams. Everyone aspired to a profession -- doctor, nurse, accountant, policeman -- but hunger and lack of funds to pay school fees (between $50-$100 per child per year) were reported as challenges to completing an education.
The bags of art supplies we had brought were immediately devoured by the younger kids, who began a weeklong marathon of painting landscapes in luscious colors.
Encouraged by the spontaneous rendition of an original song by one youth, we decided that yes, we could create a music video for them in three days! A zealous team set to hiking the island with a video camera we had brought; one of our Haitian translators began to rehearse a troupe of girls who wanted to dance in the video; and an Oberlin volunteer began to assemble the musicians and search for items that could create a beat: a swash of palm leaf, a rusty can he filled with beans, two sharp rocks from the many bleached on the beach. These substituted for traditional instruments, and long recording hours began.
We provided lunch at the camp while we were there. For some of our students, this might have been their main meal of the day. They waited uncomplaining and patient no matter how long it took to prepare.
Our week was an exercise in improvising resources we didn't have, in partnership with people of a different culture and language, in a completely unfamiliar environment with a group of strangers who fast became family.
As the founder of company that customizes volunteer trips in emerging world destinations, I am frequently on the phone with parents desperate to give their kids perspective on their lives: "We need to get them out of their bubble...into the real world...off their phones."
Many parents are right to be terrified about their kids' level of oblivion. Scheduled to the max, and investing their down time in an electronic matrix, many kids are lacking a skill we used to take for granted -- the ability to meet circumstances and challenges outside the lives that have been staged for them.
A new asset map has emerged: Kids in developing countries have freedom, live connection creativity and resilience because their lives are less structured by bloated systems. Kids at home have more goods and services but these threaten to stifle their independence and resourcefulness. My trip to Haiti this past week brought some of these issues to the fore.
Sitting beside me on my return flight was a 10-year-old boy returning from a vacation with his grandparents to Haiti. I asked him if he liked it there. He said: "I like it because I am freer. At home I can't leave the house to get a soda without an adult. In Haiti I can go wherever I want all day long."
From my vantage point, I hear parents who are tuning in to what's missing in their kids lives. In an effort to be the best parents possible, they have plied on educational priorities, extra-curricular activities, state of the art technology and other packaged, "consumable" experiences. What their kids are missing is down time, and the opportunity to invent what they don't readily have.
This is the new cry for help from clients. Parents remember a time when connecting didn't mean just online and a time when they had less, but were a lot less exhausted. We are tired from having more. We need to return to our center and locate the self in our "selfies." Parents know their kids need to change environments to locate what they have lost and they are traveling with them to do so.
But it is as hard for parents to let go of their habits as it is for kids. They want to let go of the leash but they themselves are wound so tight that they are apprehensive about any uncertainties in their proposed travel schedule. Perhaps they sense that they have lost the habit of problem solving on the spot? Of bringing inner resources to bear when wrestling with unfamiliar circumstances? Mapping one's world out with such certainty every day -- thanks in great part to technological advances -- has resulted in our being rusty in the face of chaos, and yet parents -- like miner's canaries -- know it's time to dig wider and deeper.
This is why my inbox is full of requests for family trips. Pleas from mothers who want to take the brat out of their boys or connect with the daughters whom they have lost to Instagram. Each request is like a puzzle -- a quest to find the right destination for each family that cannot name what it needs. That is why I like my work.
Our group helped our Haitian students to create an amazing music video. In the process, we spent a week filling our hearts with their laughter and their joy, and discovered we didn't need much more than that.
Dominique Callimanopulos is the Founder of Elevate Destinations, a philanthropic travel company that gives back to people, communities and the environment. A pioneer of personalized, environmentally-friendly and socially-conscious itineraries for individuals, private groups and non-profits, Elevate Destinations creates unforgettable travel experiences around the world that have a positive impact.