Voluntourism: A Trip with a Mission4 min read
Who says you can’t make a difference in the great big world we live in?
According to one young woman with a passion for voluntourism, you can.
Kimberly Heinl is a recent college graduate who has traveled all over the world to do volunteer work, including cities in South Africa, Brazil, and Cambodia. In doing so, she’s been able learn about numerous cultures and help support the people and places she’s visited.
Kim first got the volunteer travel bug during high school when she visited New Orleans to help clean up the city after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005.
“I went with my church group down to Louisiana, where we gutted condemned houses, handed out food to people, and learned the stories of those who lived through the hurricane,” Kim said. “It was my first trip volunteering, which was great because it was in my own backyard in the United States. Helping people in a local area gave me a better idea of what it would be like to go out and work in the rest of the world.”
While that passion for traveling and helping others had always been a dream of hers, she realized that people have incredible stories and anyone can help make a difference to improve their quality of life.
She also recalled a particular moment during a trip to Worchester, South Africa, where she met a man named Abraham. “He was a street cleaner, and he was embarrassed to even shake my hand because it was covered in filth. So I told him I didn’t mind and I encouraged him and the hard work he does for his family. And do you know what he told me? He thanked me and said, ‘You’ll never know the impact this small conversation has had on my life.’”
There are millions of others with stories just like Abraham’s, she added, and it’s important for those who are able to help to do so.
Aside from building relationships with those she meets in other countries, Kim also said some of the most important things volunteers can do is to play sports with the local children, help in soup kitchens, bring medicine to villages, and educate locals in a variety of skills, including art, music, and English.
“When outsiders come into these areas, even just doing the smallest thing can encourage the locals and keep them moving forward towards making their community a better place,” Kim said. “Simple talents like painting and items like shoes or medical supplies are things we take for granted. But they can be taught or given to people who never had these things before, and [in the case of painting] they end up having more ways to express themselves.
“There’s one man I met who learned how to paint, and he now sells his artwork to help support orphanages in the community. It’s a great example of how people can learn talents to make a difference in their community. They just need someone to show them how to do it.”
While traveling to other countries, building friendships with locals, and ultimately returning home can be difficult, the impact of the visit is long lasting. “When I come back home and share the stories of the those I met during my trip, people are touched and want to support and donate to these communities,” Kim said.
However, she also cautions that volunteer travel isn’t for everyone.
“If you don’t like putting yourself outside of your comfort zone and being challenged, it’s going to be very hard,” Kim said. “Not only can the food be different from what you’re used to, but some basic things we take for granted, such as bathrooms and clean water, might not be available. And if you’re not going with an open mind, you’re going to have a hard time adapting and positively interacting with those you meet.”
But if you think it’s for you, Kim recommends starting with volunteering in your local hometown before heading to a foreign country.
When you’re ready to make the next step and travel internationally, she suggests learning a few words of the local language before you go, researching the cultural customs, and learning the country’s history.
Currently, Kim is getting ready for an upcoming trip to Honduras, where she’ll help young women transition from living in an orphanage to living on their own. While she’ll be spending a significant amount of her time there over the next few months, she emphasizes that volunteer traveling isn’t only about giving—it can be deeply rewarding as well.
“You learn to see the world through eyes that aren’t of your own culture, which forces you to reflect on issues others deal with,” she said. “The world is hard, but there are some people who are going through incredibly difficult situations and are still standing strong. And that teaches you to appreciate the things you have back at home too.”
Above all, she says it’s an experience like no other.
“Helping others just gives you this unexplainable feeling of amazement,” Kim said. “Nothing I’ve ever done before has fulfilled me in this way.”