A World of Good Beyond Medicine

worldmedicine“Within seconds of shooting the tranquilizer dart into the hyena, it went into cardiac arrest,” comments Diane Mew, an editor from Toronto, Canada who was on a volunteer expedition with the Earthwatch Institute in Kenya to place radio collars on hyenas. “The  anesthesiologist who happened to be on the trip jumped into action and started shouting instructions and pumping the creature’s heart.  The professor leading our expedition gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — and remember this animal is a carrion eater — while the doctor continued pumping.  Once it began to revive, we took it back to camp for observation.  I rode in the back of the landrover with my hand over the hyena’s heart to make sure we wouldn’t need to intervene again.  At that point I wasn’t worried about it failing, I was afraid it would completely revive.  I don’t think the doctor had expected to use his medical training on this trip, but we were all glad he was there — especially the hyena.”

Of course, one case of hyena first aid doesn’t a medical mission make. Like many physicians who volunteer as lay citizens, the Earthwatch anesthesiologist found occasion to use his professional skills, but for the most part he was banding hyenas–taking advantage, alongside everyone else, of the compelling diversity of nonmedical volunteer vacations available both close to home and abroad. As an indication of the possibilities, here is a sampling of what you can do in just a week or two:  help build an orphanage in Cochabamba, Bolivia; research and document the Underground Railroad’s activities in northern Illinois; track the elusive snow leopard in the shadow of Annapurna, Nepal; or interview and record traditional Celtic musicians in pubs and music festivals throughout Ireland.

Not only do volunteers roll up their sleeves and work hard on these trips, they also pay for the privilege of spending their precious vacation days laying bricks, rebuilding trails, teaching English, or taking copious field notes on elephants’ eating habits. “Volunteer vacations are for people who want to diverge from the traditional tourist path, to escape the tinted windows of tour buses, to meet the local populations, and have the satisfaction of making a difference.”  says Sunil Oommen of Cross Cultural Solutions, an organization that sends volunteers around the world to do meaningful humanitarian work.

Trips fall into three general categories — community service, environmental action, and specialty research.  All organizations work closely with local leaders, community groups, or educators in a host country to establish a working partnership so that volunteers arrive wanted and welcomed.  “We have file drawers full of invitations from various communities around the world,” says Kim Regnier  of Global Citizens Network, a nonprofit establishment that runs trips into Belize, Guatemala, the Yucatan, St. Vincent, Kenya, American Indian reservations, and Nepal.  “We select only the communities with whom we can develop constructive long-term relationships.”

Dr. Hunter Stokes, a retired ophthalmologist from South Carolina, recently worked on one of Global Citizen’s rotating volunteer teams in Africa:  “The government in Kenya will supply a community with a nurse as long as the community provides the housing.  This village had a clinic but no one to staff it since there was no place for the nurse to live.   It was a remarkable experience for a 60-year-old eye surgeon who had never even built a sand castle before to lay bricks and mortar to help build a house.”

The tag-team approach to service projects has been highly successful for Cross Cultural Solutions as well.  They operate continuous three-week programs in India, Ghana, and Peru.  Volunteer assignments vary according to the skills and interests of participants who are placed with one of a dozen local groups in their host community.  In New Delhi, for example, visitors might teach sewing or English to women hoping to start a small business, help in Mother Teresa’s orphanage, or create after school activities for children living in shantytowns.  Cross Cultural Solutions has its own housing in each site; other organizations place volunteers in local homes, hotels, dormitories, or field centers.

Many people find teaching English a particularly rewarding — and easy  — way to volunteer.  “Learning English can be a passport out of poverty in many parts of the developing world, and language instruction is one of our most popular programs with both volunteers and communities requesting our help,” says Nancy Groves of Global Volunteers, an organization that has been sending volunteers around the world for fifteen years.  “Of the twenty countries we operate in, thirteen have English language programs.  We also use health care professionals, business people to lead small classes and seminars, and volunteers to build and repair group homes, medical clinics, and playgrounds or nurture at-risk children in orphanages and daycare programs.”

While the goal to alleviate suffering and foster world peace and understanding is what leads many groups to direct programs abroad, many haven’t forgotten those in need closer to home.   Habitat for Humanity, a well-known volunteer organization thanks to former president Jimmy Carter’s involvement, has built more than 80,000 homes throughout the world with the assistance of volunteers of all ages.   One-third of their homes are constructed in the United States; Builder magazine recently ranked Habitat the 19th largest homebuilder in the nation.

The Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States, offers ninety service trips each year.  Emergency room physician Bart Hobson of Sedona, Arizona has been on fifteen of their trips, as both a participant and a leader.  “Sierra Club service trips are an opportunity for people who’ve spent many years hiking in the wild areas of our country to help build and fix the trails we all enjoy and to do work that would otherwise go undone.  I’ve been to remote parts of Alaska, Colorado — all over the country — and have met all kinds of interesting people.”    Half of the Sierra Clubs service trips involve trail maintenance; the rest involve activities such as clearing nonnative plants or trash from national forests, assisting with wildlife research, and spiffing up campgrounds.

Amateur archaeologist Tom Cree has racked up a dozen trips with the U.S. Forest Service’s “Passport in Time” program, which is dedicated to the preservation of archaeological and historical sites throughout the country.  Most recently he spent a week in Laramie, Wyoming looking through a microscope for microfossils collected from an ancient streambed. “We were examining soil from the beginning of the dinosaur extinction and we spotted tiny shark teeth, fish scales, frog bones, and baby dinosaur jawbones with teeth attached,” he says.  “The work on all the Passport in Time programs is fairly simple and they teach you everything you need to know. If you’re brand new, they’ll pair you with someone who has had experience.”

Earthwatch’s catalog of trips reads like National Geographic magazine — and joining one of their teams puts you right in the middle of the story.  Since 1972, more than 50,000 volunteers have been put to work on their one- to two-week projects that pair scientists, educators, and people from all walks of life to support scientific field research around the world.  Projects range from digging for dinosaur bones in Argentina or documenting the behavior of Sri Lanka’s temple monkeys to searching for the origins of the Angkor Empire in Thailand.  General Practitioner Dr. Caroline Bain has been on three Earthwatch expeditions: ” These trips allow me to connect with a culture on a deeper level than as a tourist, to accomplish something, and to take a short break from medicine on my time off. I’ve participated in an archaeological dig on Easter Island, a coral reef investigation in Maui, and a search for the first king of England’s remains in Winchester.  Each trip was completely different, and each was fascinating.”

But it’s not all about work; most organizations see to it that their volunteers have the opportunity to explore their surroundings.   “On our trips, you get to work and play side by side with the local people,’ says Daniel Weiss, founder of Amizade, an organization that sends volunteers to Bolivia, Brazil, Australia, Appalachia, a Navajo reservation, and Yellowstone National Park.   “We schedule recreational activities together, such as a hike in the Bolivian Andes or the Brazilian rain forest, white water rafting in Yellowstone, or an afternoon exploring South America’s biggest open market.”  Amizade also offers a unique service; they will customize service trips for families, students, and church groups of eight to twenty-four people in the countries in which they operate.

The impact of these trips on the volunteers who take them is profound.  As Sunil Oommen puts it, “when a volunteer goes in with the right attitude and tries his very best to take on the challenge to operate outside his comfort zone, adjust to different cultural norms, and make an impact in people’s lives, he will return home with a host of amazing experiences, a broadened perspective on interesting aspects of his life otherwise left unpondered, and the knowledge that he made a difference halfway around the world…and he’ll have friends to return to.”