Building Community Resilience Through Traveling Volunteers

Last week I virtually attended the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE)’s Building Resilience Through Volunteering During COVID 19 presentation given by Benjamin Lough, PhD. In his presentation Dr. Lough suggested there are 5 key characteristics of a resilient community that can be applied to the activity of volunteering itself: self organisation, connectivity, social cohesion, diversification and redundancy, and feedback and learning. I’d like to go one step further and extend his presentation by applying some elements of his talk to the topic of traveling volunteers. These unique volunteers can provide a value-add service to a community they are visiting by participating in volunteering activities. But now more than ever, they can also be key players in building community resilience as we emerge from this global pandemic.

First, what does resilience mean?

According to Harvard Business Review, resilience means “the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.” It should be understood, that people can be resilient both at the individual and group level. Many aspects help a person become resilient, such as, having a supportive network of friends/family, a strong belief system, or a personality type that lends itself well when the going gets tough. While these insights are helpful for individuals to understand, how (or does it) change at the group or community level?

In other words, what factors help a community become resilient?

I believe factors of community resiliency are based on well-respected leadership. If the community is lead by a team of trustworthy organised people, who are solid communicators providing factual information to a group of diverse of individuals living in that community who feel appreciated, then the community has a firm foundation to build upon if adversity comes their way. If on the other hand, community members do not trust their leaders to have their best interests in mind and they experience spotty non-factual information communicated to them when the going is good, it is hard to imagine how this community can become resilient during/after a crisis is over.

How can traveling volunteers contribute to community resiliency?

By expanding the resource base to tackle a community problem. A resilient-thinking community leadership team looks for innovative ways to help their community bounce back from a crisis if/when it occurs. In reference back to Dr. Lough’s 5 key characteristics of resilient communities, as applied to the activity of volunteering, we can see that diversification is one key characteristic of a resilient community. When a traveling volunteer comes into a community, they bring with them a diverse perspective (and another set of hands!) to add to the mix of people who work together on a local volunteer project. Leadership who embrace the idea of having traveling volunteers part of their community resiliency plan, will find that these new people will not only add to their resource base when a crisis is at hand, but long after it is over.

I. We.

Just 7 months ago we launched the #iamthiscommunity campaign. Many people responded (and continue to respond) to this challenge by posting their local/national volunteering experiences, showcasing community pictures they’ve taken, or (as nonprofit leadership) sharing hoped-for-participation-in volunteering opportunities for the traveler. While we recognise the “iamthiscommunity” challenge tends to focus on individual action, as a business/community member, we believe the individual “I” cannot be disassociated from the collective “we” purpose that drives each volunteer.

How many of you have heard the expression “there is no I in team?” This expression, typically used within the workplace and in sporting activities, means no individual is more important than the collective skills/efforts of the group. While elements of this can be debated and we can understand the reasons for this, in terms of our current global health crisis for example, never is it more important than now to come together as a group to fight COVID-19. Each individual (the I) has been asked to sacrifice many parts of their lives to keep us all safe as we ride this out together.

But how does this virus discussion relate to the topic of the USA/Canadian traveling volunteer and the #iamthiscommunity challenge? Simple. Although we encourage each individual volunteer to give of their time and talents to worthy causes as they travel across these nations, and identify as an #iamthiscommunity member due to the volunteering experience they have in each place, we believe these “I” volunteers make a sustainable difference to these communities because of the “we” nature of the volunteer heart. We believe volunteers are the kind of people who typically focus on others – they want to make an impact on communities they serve (that may not necessarily include themselves).

Given each individual volunteer heart primarily looks at how their actions will contribute to the greater community good, the #iamthiscommunity term may be considered as having the “we” factor embedded in it. Many I-am-this-community members make a collective “we” impact in the communities they serve. Knowing this, we are very proud to be associated with the giving and care volunteers who collectively give back to the communities they live and travel within. Thank you “I’s” for coming together as “we” to make our world a safer and better place.

Volunteers: Quiet Heroes on the Front Lines

“Black Chen, a 30-year-old tattooed bar owner, had never volunteered before the coronavirus outbreak hit his hometown of Wuhan, but he quickly stepped up. … [These volunteering] acts are personal, like a young woman who handed out masks to street cleaners and a mom who hired a helicopter to fly in supplies.” (February 24, 2020, TIME).

It is utterly heartwarming to read about how young Chinese resident volunteers are helping to ease the burden this COVID-19 outbreak is having on their local community and family members. In addition to these examples, there are countless other stories of young (and any-age) people quietly “doing good” throughout this humanitarian crisis that remain unknown. What should be noted from the article, is how this crisis has spurred on a new generation of volunteers who are are ready to take the torch of volunteering from older generations, particularly when their older-age counterparts are incapable of volunteering themselves.

As we rightfully praise and thank these young crisis volunteers for putting their health on the line, let’s be careful to not forget about, or thank, the any-age volunteers who regularly help manage our global, national and local community programs/events throughout a given calendar year. The tasks volunteers sign up for that are not particularly fantastic, or remarkable in any way. Or thank the people who volunteer for a once-in-a-while activity, such as helping to run a festival, sporting event, or a large-scale corporate occasion. These are the types of events that encourage community celebration and connectivity, enriching our lives.

Regardless of how many hours volunteers sign up for, volunteers are the ones who provide tremendous support to nonprofits and for the functioning of a large number of community events. Without volunteer help, many nonprofits, for example, would simply not exist. Volunteers are typically the first ones to work on a natural disaster response team, sign up to help run/manage a leisure event at home or afar, or make themselves available on a regular basis for their favorite charity. These unsung heroes quietly volunteer to make in a difference in their community when no one is looking.

Given that many volunteer acts go unnoticed, we’d like to change this. Please reach out to us through email, or a comment below, indicating you know of a volunteer who has traveled to volunteer, or who volunteers for a fantastic nonprofit in your local community. Perhaps it is you (and this is okay!). We’d like to feature their (or your) volunteering story on the website and on our social media outlets. Thank you quiet volunteer heroes!

Afraid to Travel?

You don’t have to read very far, or watch the news too long, before you are struck with headlines associated with the corona virus. This fast moving virus has been trending for several weeks, and many fear the worst is yet to come. The largest industry on the planet (known as the travel industry) is bracing to take a hit due to concerns about virus transmission and spread. Particularly because of confined space in the airplane and train cabins. While travel, for many, conjures up images of idyllic sand swept beaches and bustling urban cultural centers, these vacationing pleasures may soon be cast aside as the population places more priority on their health and wellness than flying away to an exotic land.

It has been argued that people are panicking for no real reason. Traveling, for example, has always had its risks – not only related to health, but in terms of crime or weather for example. This is true. Yet, how can a person prepare for a long awaited vacation if they are booked to travel, particularly internationally, within the near future? I know I am personally thinking about this as I am set to travel internationally in less than 3 months – with the intention to volunteer while stopped in a few destination cities.

  1. Decide if traveling is worth the health risk. First, consideration must be made for your final (or multiple) destination(s). But perhaps often overlooked is the transportation carrier you will use to get there. We’ve seen the horror stories associated with the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantine and many people have been scared off from booking or stepping foot on a ship (even though I am am using this medium to go from one destination port to another at the end of May). While I am not concerned at this point about virus transmission while on route to (and back from) my port destination and the ship environment itself, I am vigilant in keeping informed about what might happen from now and until then.
  2. If you decide to go, know your Plan B. If you do decide to embark on your trip, know what your Plan B is all along the way. Often people are stressed and worried because they do not plan for the “just in case.” No one wants to be quarantined in a foreign country, for example! But if this highly unlikely scenario arises or you find yourself stranded in another place, knowing you have extras of your life-sustaining medications with you, for example, is helpful by lessening the stress of the situation. When I travelled to Tanzania three years ago for a total of 6 weeks, I took a small suitcase full of snacks/meal replacements my body is used so I could ease into the local food scene. Knowing I had access to my tiny store at any time was tremendously comforting to me!
  3. Always stay updated on current affairs on several news outlets. Before, during and after your trip, you should always keep updated as to what is going on. This means reading and watching several news channels! While you may have a favorite news channel or outlet, it is wise to read/watch information from several sources. I always check multiple sources of information (with priority given to reputable sites) because this alleviates possible bias and helps me form a better perspective as to what might “really be going on out there.”

While it is near impossible to avoid any risks associated with living/visiting any community, (local crime is real, for example) a person should be aware of world events and take proper precautions to be as safe possible. Being aware and prepared is a good way to navigate a community crisis, particularly with a global health epidemic tracking across the world. Risks are something we should all prepare for regardless if we are traveling in the near future or just staying home.

Traveling To Volunteer: Closer Than You Think

Do you travel to volunteer? Many people think traveling to volunteer (volunteer tourism, voluntourism) tends to occur within an international context. However, volunteering while traveling happens on a regular basis within the national space, such as for sporting events, conferences, or post-natural disaster relief projects.

Not long ago I traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota with Tourism Cares. I volunteered to assist with invasive plant removal and tree plantings in the Mississippi Natural Recreation Area to help celebrate the 2015 US National Park Service Centennial Anniversary. Because I traveled from Phoenix to Minneapolis, I fell under the category of traveling to volunteer.

I would like to change the perception that traveling to volunteer activity does not include national volunteering. But that, in fact, does! In particular, within the countries of USA and Canada, where TTV is working at curating volunteering opportunities for leisure and/or business travelers in these nations. But more than this, I want people to understand that within the space of volunteering, deep connections are made not only to the physical environment you are volunteering in, but with the people you meet. 

Do you travel to volunteer?