Volunteer Abroad by Kathryn and Mike Pisco

Kathryn Pisco is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back.  She grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended Cornell University where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications and Business.  After years of working in sales for large corporations, she took a career break with her husband and traveled the world doing a mix of personal travel and volunteer work.  She returned from the trip inspired to create her own social venture –Unearth the World– that focuses on service learning and responsibly pairing volunteers with international nonprofits.

Unearth the World is an international volunteer placement company that focuses on volunteer education (pre and post-trip), community impact and financial transparency.  They partner with nonprofits that address social problems and connect them with volunteers to help them complete their mission.

Kat in the classroom in Nepal

Kat in the classroom in Nepal

Why did you choose to volunteer abroad?

My husband, Mike, and I were fortunate to take a career break last year where we traveled and engaged in 5 separate international volunteer projects. We chose to volunteer abroad in order to give back to others and to experience a more authentic style of travel.  We wanted to positively contribute to the communities we visited while also experiencing life as a local.

Did you work through a volunteer organization? How did you find/choose your particular organization?

When we first started out, we had no idea how to find viable and safe international volunteer projects.  So, we used a volunteer placement organization called Love Volunteers to help us for our first three projects.  After we got the hang of volunteering abroad, we felt more equipped to find and vet our own projects.  We started by reaching out to family and friends and actually found one project through a recommendation.  We also emailed local hostels in the communities we wanted to visit and inquired about nonprofits or projects in need.  This strategy also worked well because the hostel owners we spoke with had a good pulse on the needs in the community.

Mike constructing homes in Zambia

Mike constructing homes in Zambia

Where, when and how long did you volunteer?

Our volunteer projects varied:

–      March 2014: Worked for 2 weeks at a school in Kathmandu, Nepal with Nepal Volunteers Council

–      April 2014: Spent 2 weeks at a children’s home outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand

–      May 2014: Taught supplement English at New Way of Life orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for 2 weeks

–      June 2014: Cared for children and cooked meals at Royal Seed Home school/orphanage in Ghana for one week

–      July 2014: Worked for two weeks alongside local villagers to build safer homes for families affected by AIDS in Mwandi, Zambia

The children of Royal Seed Home in Ghana

The children of Royal Seed Home in Ghana

What was your job while volunteering? A typical day?

Just as our projects varied from site to site, so did our roles and typical days.  In most projects, we lived onsite or with a host family. Mornings consisted of eating a local dish for breakfast before making our way to our project.  In Nepal and Thailand, we took local buses to get to the school and children’s home.  In Cambodia, we boarded a tuk-tuk.  And in Ghana and Zambia, we walked.  Once on site, we dove into the activities for the day: teaching English to young children in Nepal and Cambodia, playing educational games and sports in Thailand, preparing children for school and cooking local food in Ghana, and constructing huts in Zambia.  As a general rule, we worked from 8/9 am until 4/5 pm. Evenings were generally open so in addition to preparing for our next day, we tried to explore the communities in which we lived in our spare time in order to really understand and enjoy our environment.

How did you save/raise money to pay for your volunteer expenses?

Prior to taking our trip, Mike and I prioritized travel ahead of everything else.  We earmarked money from every paycheck and put it in a “travel fund.”  We also made conscious choices to cook dinners at home instead of going out and putting any money we would spend at Starbucks towards travel.  While we did not do fundraising, many of the volunteers that I work with through Unearth the World have successfully utilized various crowd funding platforms.

Mike volunteering with children

Mike volunteering with children

Do you feel your presence and work made a difference?

This is an interesting and important question and my answer would change depending on which project I am speaking about.  As a general rule, I believe that my presence made a difference on a very personal level.  The projects touched me deeply and I think that the personal relationships that I developed left a positive impact on the individuals that I met.  That being said, I learned a lot about the potentially negative aspects of the volunteer travel industry while at the projects.

Certain aspects of our first three projects were not well thought out.  It felt terrible when we realized that some projects are designed more for the volunteer than the nonprofit.  I am ashamed to admit that sometimes we even felt like we were taking jobs away from locals in the community and that the nonprofits only benefitted from our presence because of the money we brought in.  I think that we could have avoided these unfortunate experiences if we would have asked better questions before volunteering or if we had been more educated about what constitutes a “good” project versus a “bad” project.

At the same time, we learned that projects can also be incredible if they are community driven and focused on empowering the nonprofit to ultimately become sustainable.  When volunteers have a clear job that fits into the mission of the international nonprofit, it is immediately obvious that volunteers can make a difference- even it is on a small scale.  For instance, in our Ghana and Zambia projects, Mike and I really saw the importance of the financial and human capital that we contributed.  These two projects changed our lives for the better and we witnessed – first hand – the effect we had during our project.

Kat teaching Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kat teaching Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Would you recommend volunteering abroad? Why or Why not?

Yes – as long as the volunteer has done research and asked the right questions to ensure they are participating in a responsible project.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before your volunteer experience started?

So many things.

  1. Good intentions do not make for a good project.  Unfortunately there are a lot of unethical projects and volunteer sending organizations and I believe it is up to the volunteer to find responsible projects or organizations to work with.
  2. Volunteers are not going to “change the world” in two weeks.
  3. Asking the right questions can help a volunteer find worthwhile projects.
  4. The volunteer is likely to learn more from the project than they actually teach.
  5. It is extremely important to research and prepare for international volunteer projects but the most important thing that a volunteer can do is enter with an attitude of humility.

Any additional information you would like to share?

Please email me at info@unearththeworld.com if you want to talk about volunteer travel or learn more about potential projects. Even if my company does not have a project or opportunity that suits you, I am happy to speak with anyone and help point them in the right direction. Volunteering around the world was a life-changing experience for Mike and I.  After seeing the pros and cons of international voluntourism, we were inspired to start our own social venture – Unearth the World and we want to help other people to experience the transformative power of volunteer travel in a responsible and ethical way.

Do you have a volunteer abroad experience you would like to share? Please email glinda@travelationship.com to be featured.

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