Monthly Archives: August 2010

Quick Tips for a Successful Volunteer Abroad Experience

Volunteers hard at work in Thailand

Last week we talked about why voluntourism is super fabulous so this week I’d like to follow up with some tips on how to get the most out of your volunteer abroad experience.

Let me start by telling you exactly what to expect. Ready, here it is – EXPECT NOTHING. The worst thing you could do is go into a volunteer abroad experience with a boatload of preconceived ideas and expectations because chances are it’s going to be NOTHING like what you expected. While you may have an interest in “volunteering abroad” for a particular cause, what that really means is that you want to step into an organization in a different culture that has a unique set of subjects they are trying to help, a unique set of employees and volunteers, and a unique set of rules, values, priorities and issues. No matter how much research you do you won’t really know what you’re getting yourself into until you get there. So be super excited for the brand new out-of-your-world experience that you are about to embark upon but go in with an open mind and a clean palate because no volunteer experiences are the same.

So here are some tips to help you get the most out of your experience. This list could obviously go on and on but these are the things I wouldn’t have fully understood if I hadn’t experienced them first-hand throughout my journeys. If you have any other tips I’d LOVE to hear them so please leave them in the comments!

1. Embrace the experience & ignore the inconveniences. Volunteering in a foreign country is a once in a lifetime experience (even if you do it more than once!). Ignore the inconveniences that you would never put up with at home. For example, if the shower only runs freezing cold water with no pressure from a faucet located only 2 feet above the ground, that’s okay, you’re not there for a spa. You’ll be back home to your jet streams in no time so don’t let these little discomforts affect your perception of what you’re there to accomplish.

2. Stay away from negative people. Often you will be surrounded by a positive group of volunteers who love every minute of what they’re doing but every now and then someone comes along who hates absolutely everything and has no problem contaminating your experience with their negativity. Whether you want it to or not, their negativity will creep into your brain and affect how you view everything going forward. While they may have their reasons, you should have the chance to make your own assessments. So, to the extent you can, stay away from these people. Be the positive person you would want everyone else to be. Positivity is contagious, let it shine through you.

3. Talk to the organization’s directors/volunteer leaders as much as you can. You are there to learn and the people working there are a wealth of knowledge and stories. If it’s a big organization and there are a lot of other volunteers it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let that happen, seek them out and spend time with them. They will appreciate your curiosity and you will have a richer experience for it.

4. Bond. You will finally be rid of email, facebook and twitter and all your daily gadgets that distract you from fully engaging in conversation. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can bond with people through volunteer work. I still keep in touch with people from almost every trip I’ve been on. These friendships make the experience all the more enriching.

5. Don’t be shocked if things aren’t run exactly as you’d like. I admit, I’ve struggled with this periodically. I’ve been to organizations that fall into all areas of the spectrum, those that are extremely well run and organized providing the ultimate volunteer experience to those that are not so well run. After working for so long at a law firm, which is a well oiled machine built for the most optimal level of efficiency, I’ve often wondered if I am particularly susceptible to falling into an overly critical mindset. But I would hate to be someone who marches in telling people how to run things better after being there for only a few days so I’ve found it’s best to wait for an organization to ask for feedback. If they ask for it it shows that they care about continually improving, as every company should. Just as with everything in life, no organization is perfect, and the smaller ones who need the most help are often the ones who could benefit from some changes. I believe in supporting these organizations (provided that they are legitimate) just as much, if not more than, the larger ones who’ve got it all figured out because the more help they get, the more effective and efficient they can become.

6. Follow the volunteer organization’s rules. While some rules may seem arbitrary and unreasonable to you (i.e., no drinking on the premises), those rules are there for a reason, placed after years of trial and error that you were not a part of. You are only there for a short time, don’t try to rock the boat and be a rebel.

7. Remember you are not there to save the world. As I mentioned in my last post, you will likely learn and gain more from the experience than you give. You are there to help out, to learn and to then spread awareness – that is the beauty of volunteer work.

Here are some random photos I’ve taken of volunteers hard at work and hard at play!

Sanctuary for endangered macaws, Costa Rica

Start of overnight trip into the jungle w/elephants, Thailand

Jungle treehouse, Thailand

Me & Paws, rescued street dog, Costa Rica

Friends of different species at an ecological park that rescues wild animals, Argentina

Break to play soccer w/locals at a sea turtle conservation program, Costa Rica

Break to play soccer w/school children, Thailand

My husband tying a cloth blessed by buddhist monks around a tree to protect it from deforesters, Thailand

Locals entertaining us with their music, Thailand

Silly volunteer ;)

Feeding rescued street dogs, Thailand

Volunteer introducing herself to the local residents!

Smooches for me!!


What is Voluntourism Really About? & 5 Reasons Why It’s WAY COOLER than Just Sitting on a Beach All Day…

Me & fellow volunteers in Thailand

Let’s start with the definition of “voluntourism”. Voluntourism is exactly what is sounds like, volunteering while engaging in traditional tourism activities when you travel. While that sounds so simple it’s really about so much more. It’s about cultural immersion, participation and exploration. It’s about meeting people from all over the world and from all walks of life and engaging in something truly unique with them that bonds you in much deeper way than getting drunk at a hotel bar. While you may exchange a lot of “I love you’s” when you’re drunk, it’s superficial and it probably won’t change your life in any real way.

When you volunteer you get to totally immerse yourself in the culture by working, and even living, with the local people. You get to hear their stories and learn their history. You get to interact with other travelers from all over the world. You get to choose a cause you care about and then participate in it in a unique and amazing way. While you may have to do some hard work, it’s not sitting in a cubicle watching the clock tick kind of work. It’s exhilarating and unique and challenging and it’s for the benefit of those who need it most. By adding tourism activities you get to explore the country and just have fun, because you work hard and you deserve some fun!! It’s the absolute best way to get the most out of a country and out of a vacation in a short amount of time.

So if you haven’t given voluntourism a try yet, here are 5 reasons why you don’t want to miss out!!

1.  Cultural Immersion. The days of traveling to another country merely to sit at a hotel resort sipping mai tai’s and baking in the sun all day every day are somewhat over. From terrorist attacks, to tsunamis, to earth quakes, to economic collapses, to social media, our world has become smaller and smaller. We now want to engage more, learn more and interact more. Spending a ton of money to fly to a foreign country and never leave your resort now seems frivolous. Through voluntourism holidays you can still get your beach and mai tai time in, but you get so much more. There is no better and faster way to immerse yourself in a culture than to work side by side with it’s people for a cause you share together.

2.  Dissolve Stereotypes. It comes as no surprise that people everywhere have stereotypes. Stereotypes of Americans are not always flattering. Prove people wrong. When you volunteer abroad you get to spend a lot of quality time with local people. You can show them what being an American is all about. Be helpful, gracious, courteous, respectful and eager to listen and learn. Slowly but surely you will influence people’s image of not only you but the culture you represent.

3. Knowledge is Contagious. The more you learn on your travels, the more eager you’ll be to continue that learning process when you get home and to educate others about what you’ve learned. My first volunteer abroad experience was in Thailand at an elephant sanctuary. At the time I didn’t know just how harmful it was to go on elephant rides or to watch elephants paint a picture. My instincts told me it wasn’t good, but I didn’t know just how devastating a life those elephants live to provide entertainment for tourists. My point is, I learned from the people working at that sanctuary and I came home and I shared that knowledge. In doing so I affected what other people participate in when they travel and that shared knowledge became invaluable.

4.  It’s Good for Your Health. Volunteering has been shown to help decrease rates of depression, increase your functional ability and reduce your chances of getting heart disease! We’ve all had bouts of depression where it feels like your life is a mess, nothing’s going your way and the future looks bleak. There is nothing better at getting you out of your own head, than helping others, whether they be animals or people or the environment. You may think you have it bad but I guarantee you others have it far worse and they could use your help.  In helping them, you gain a little perspective that goes a long way.

5.  It May Change Your Life. It certainly changed mine.

So whatever your interests may be, if you want to get a little more out of life and out of your vacation, consider including some volunteer work in your travels. You will gain way more than you give.


Got Brainwashed? 5 Things to Consider Before Pouring Your Next Glass of Milk

A few months ago a friend called me and told me that her friend’s day care center had given her baby the wrong mother’s breast milk.  Her friend went to pick up her baby after work as well as the milk bottles she had supplied them with — only one problem, the milk bottles were still full.  So either her baby hadn’t had any milk that day or she drank someone else’s milk.  The woman working there looked into what could have happened and, low and behold, she drank someone else’s breast milk.  Disgusting!!!  Can you imagine the precious little light of your life drinking some unknown mother’s breast milk?  How freaking gross!  Who’s milk was it?  What medication is she on?  What germs or diseases does she have??  Are they communicable?  What kind of lifestyle does she live?  Drug user?  What can be passed on to my baby?!  So the mother, full of rage and disgust, pulled her baby out of that day care (and actually out of day care permanently) and demanded back the money she had paid up front for the entire year.  Does that seem like an appropriate response to you?  I bet most of you moms and dads out there would have had a very similar reaction if it was your little nugget who downed some stranger’s milk.

Well guess what, you drink and feed your family another mother’s milk every single time you pour them a glass of cow’s milk.  But it’s okay cause it’s cow’s milk right?  Let’s think about why that’s so okay but drinking another human mother’s breast milk isn’t.  Chances are that the human mom had taken a nice long shower that morning.  Hell, she probably even spritzed some nice perfume on herself before walking out the door.  She might have even had a good healthy breakfast.  She’d probably been to the doctor and even the dentist within the last year.  So hey, she’s looking better and better.  Maybe we should all be drinking some of her milk?  Nope, still gross.  Even in this best case scenario of an average healthy mom the thought is still pretty disgusting right?  If you think about it, aside from cow’s milk or goat’s milk, is there any other milk that you would find acceptable to drink?  How about gorilla’s milk?  Does that sound yummy?  Pour that over some cornflakes maybe?  How about elephant’s milk or seal’s milk or even horse’s milk.  Any of those tickle your fancy?  Probably not.  The thought of slugging down a cold glass of chocolate flavored gorilla’s milk probably just doesn’t sit well with you.  So why is cow’s milk okay?  Have we been brainwashed or is there just something different about a cow or a goat that makes their milk yummy and acceptable?

Let’s go back to our example and compare this average human mom to the average dairy cow.  I bet you that human mom doesn’t live covered in her own feces and urine and mud every single day of her life.  Probably not.  Well the diary cow at a factory farm does.  I bet you that human mom wasn’t genetically manipulated and pumped up with bovine growth hormone (BHG) (a hormone allowed in the US but banned in Europe and Canada) so that she can produce 10 times more milk than she would naturally.  The dairy cow is.  I bet you that mom’s breasts aren’t hooked up to machines every day that tear her skin and cause painful pussing sores.  The dairy cow’s is.  I bet you that mom gets daily exercise and isn’t confined to a tiny stall all day.  I bet you that mom isn’t impregnated over and over again to force her to keep producing milk.  I bet you that mom hasn’t been repeatedly ripped of her babies right after they’re born.  I bet you that mom’s body isn’t so thoroughly exhausted and abused that she can likely hardly walk by the time she’s shipped off to slaughter.  The dairy cow suffers from all of this and more.

But maybe all this is okay with you.  After all, we need milk right.  I mean, EVERYONE drinks it, it does a body good right?  Or do we just think we need it because people who make BILLIONS of dollars from you drinking it everyday have brainwashed you into believing it’s good for you by spending millions of dollars on advertising each year?  What may have started as a family-farmed-happy-healthy-hormone-and-anitbiotic-free-non-genetically-mutated-pasture-roaming source of an occasional glass of milk has turned into a milk-does-a-body-good-your-bones-will-fall-to-pieces-and-your-teeth-will-fall-out campaign.  Why did this happen?  Because we will all die without milk or because corporations figured out a money making equation — convince people that milk must be a part of their everyday diet and we’ll make BILLIONS of dollars so lets cram together millions of cows and make them produce insane quantities of milk by pumping those suckers up with whatever chemicals we can get away with!  Have we been so duped?  NNAAHH, that logic couldn’t be right. Milk’s gotta be good for you.  We’d be way too smart to get brainwashed like that right??  You wish.

I don’t write this to try and convince you to see things my way but more because it’s become so clear to me that people don’t question things enough.  I often see children being fed glass after glass of milk “because they need their calcium” and see people scowl at the thought of drinking soy milk “because it’s gross” and I can’t help but wonder how easily manipulated we all have been.  We drink cow’s milk not because it’s the healthiest for us or because of any genetic similarities between us and cows but simply because it can be produced in the largest quantity.  Because of this we’ve been told that it’s good for us, we need it and it’s totally normal to drink it and everything else is weird.  But how could drinking something pumped from a sick chemically injected tortured animal of a totally unrelated species be considered “delicious and healthy” but something from a natural plant source such as soy be considered gross?  That’s when I realized, as independently minded as most of us like to think we are, we have been given an agenda. And the people dishing out that agenda are way more concerned about their own profits than our health.  Don’t take my word for it but do your own research and decide for yourself what should be considered healthy and delicious and what should be considered gross.

One thing I have realized on my journey to healthy vegan eating is that the way your mind views what you’re putting in your mouth directly correlates with how good you think it tastes.  People think soy milk tastes gross because it’s foreign to them.  As a child I loved cow’s milk, I couldn’t get enough of it, but now I think tastes and even looks absolutely repulsive because I know all that goes into it.  Just watching other people drink it makes my stomach turn.  I have undone my previous programming.  Your brain is a powerful weapon in your food choices.  So use it responsibly and don’t be afraid to challenge the norm.

Here are 5 things you may want to keep in mind when it comes to drinking milk (for me, #5 is the most important):

1.  You are not a cow. Stop and take a look in the mirror.  What do you see?  Chances are you don’t see a baby cow, unless you have some serious self image issues.  If you happen to not be a baby cow, why are you drinking it’s mother’s milk?  If you really needed milk your entire life and there were no other sources of the vitamins it provides, then why do we only produce it for a very limited amount of time right after we have a baby?  Have we strayed so far from common sense to not realize that this might have been nature’s way of telling us that we can actually survive as adults without it?  As pointed out in Skinny Bitch (the book that kick started my switch from being a vegetarian to being a vegan), we are the only species on the planet that drinks milk from another species and that drinks milk during our adulthood.  Doesn’t that tell us something?  As the authors point out, cow’s milk exists to grow a 90 pound calf into a 2,000 pound cow over the course of 2 years and allows calfs to double their birth weight in only 47 days.  Do you really think that we were meant to be filling up on that?  Maybe if you want to be a 2,000 pound cow I guess.  How can it be that something so simple and full of common sense can be so overlooked by the masses?  Again, we were given an agenda and we drank it.

2.  You can get every vitamin found in milk from these sources. If you are worried about your calcium intake, how about just eating some veggies!  You can get everything you need in leafy greens (i.e., broccoli, kale, spinach), nuts, seeds and beans.

3.  Dairy cows are pumped with a lot of crap and suffer from a lot of diseases and infections.

Crap:  Dairy cows are pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics.  How else could they produce so much milk and how else would they stay alive in the deplorable conditions they are subjected to?  As documented by the Humane Farming Association, milk from hormone injected cows is likely to contain residues of more than 80 different drugs, many of them antibiotics, which contaminate baby formula, milk, cheese and other dairy products.  You are what you eat.  You are what you drink.

Cow Diseases and Infections found on Factory Farms:  Mastitis (a painful bacterial infection in cow udders that creates puss and bacterial secretions resulting from the affects of growth hormones), Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, Johne’s disease, Milk Fever, pneumonia, manure scald, ringworm, pinkeye, parasites, respiratory distress, pussy abscesses, etc., etc.

4.  There are so many yummy & healthy non-diary alternatives! There are an abundance of healthy, crap and disease free, natural alternatives — soy milk, almond milk and rice milk are my favorites.  If you’re feeling really aggressive, there’s even hemp milk (save this one for the dairy-free pros).

5.  Cows suffer unimaginable cruelty. My words would never do justice to the misery that diary cows experience at factory farms.  So I will leave you with this video footage.  They are disturbing but if you haven’t seen them already I challenge you to watch them from beginning to end because these cows deserve that much from you.  They are subjected to a miserable insufferable existence for the few years of life they are given before they are shipped off for slaughter.  All this to supply our world with endless amounts of their milk; milk that was meant for their babies, who they never get to be with (most of whom are turned into veal), but who they search, bellow and grieve for as any mother would for their young.  So while these videos may make you upset, you should be upset, and you should be educated about the price these cows pay for the milk they supply us with.  The abuses documented in the below videos have proven to be the norm NOT the exception for animals at factory farms.  Don’t let yourself be brainwashed by greedy corporations with images of happy cows who only care about their profits and who could give a crap about your health or the animals they exploit. You’re way too smart for that right?  Prove it.

Instead of contributing to this exploitation, visit a farm sanctuary and see what it’s like for these unique animals to live freely as nature intended.

Some highly recommended resources:

  • Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin (& their whole line of Skinny Bitch/Bastard books)
  • The Kind Life by Alicia Silverstone
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

If you liked this post, you may also like You’re Too Vegan!! You’re Not Vegan Enough!! Ay!!

Taking Action for Animals Conference

I had the privilege of attending the Humane Society of the United States’ weekend conference Taking Action for Animals held in Washington D.C. on the weekend of July 24, 2010.  This was my first weekend animal welfare conference and I was bursting with anticipation.  Having a passion is a wonderful thing but it can leave you a bit isolated if you’re not often surrounded by like-minded people.  I was psyched to spend an entire weekend with people who devote their lives to reducing animal suffering.  Characteristically, these folks rallied and nearly 1,000 people showed up.

Me & my roommates

The weekend was spent attending lectures and workshops and visiting exhibitors in the exhibit hall.  To reduce costs I arranged for a room-share with two other female advocates.  They were both wonderful and it was great having people to attend events with.  The weekend kicked off with an emotional presentation by radio personality Jerry Cesak on the victories made in the animal movement.  Being passionate about animals usually involves spending a great deal of time learning about their suffering, which often seems like an immense black hole of despair, so it was nice to be reminded of the many positive accomplishments that have recently been achieved.

On Saturday morning we also heard informative presentations by authors Meg Daley Olmert (Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond)
and Jonathan Balcombe (Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals).  The last, but surely not least, Saturday morning speech was by the amazing Nigel Barker.

Nigel Barker

If you’re ever lucky enough to see Nigel Barker in person you will truly discover the meaning of “tall, dark and handsome”.  For those who don’t know, he’s a photographer and judge of America’s Next Top Model.  Well not only is Nigel insanely good-looking but he is an amazing, dedicated, passionate and inspirational animal advocate.  He gave a moving speech which covered the plight of baby harp seals in Canada who are brutally bludgeoned to death after each breeding season and stripped of the soft white fur that covers their bodies for only the first few months of their lives.  This fur camouflages them against the ice and snow to protect them from predators until they are old enough to spend most of their time in the water.  People strip away the armor mother nature has given them so their pelts can instead be seen on “fashion” runways.  The lucky babies die before their fur is peeled off their bodies, the unlucky ones do not.  It has been documented that as much as 40% of the baby seals killed are skinned alive.  Nigel has been to the ice bergs in Canada several times now to document the baby seals after they’re born and to then document their slaughter.  What he has witnessed no human should ever see and no animal should ever suffer.

As a side note, I’ve now seen Nigel speak in person twice and each time after his speech I’ve been within 2 feet of him with perfect opportunity to introduce myself and thank him for his work, simple everyday conversation, and each time my darn nerves have gotten the best of me and I’ve bailed. I’m very well aware of how much I suck!

The weekend then went on to present over 20 workshops offered to help fine tune your animal advocacy skills.  I attended the following workshops: Harness the Media to Communicate Effectively for Animals, Emergency Animal Preparedness and Response, Building an Effective Campaign, and Building a Better Future for Farm Animals: Where We Need to Go From Here (which included a presentation by the amazing Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary!).

Me & Leanne

There were 72 amazing exhibitors and I got to meet a vegan designer I’ve been wanting to meet ever since she launched her line of fantastic vegan coats, Leanne Mai-Ly Hilgart.  If you haven’t seen her clothing line you must check it out – Vaute Couture.  Leanne is as nice as she is animal friendly!  I bought her “let’s widen the circle” tank and I will absolutely be buying a vegan coat from her new line this winter!

I also got to hear a speech by and meet Karen Dawn, founder of the animal advocacy media watch and author of Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals.  I purchased her book which she autographed with good good wishes for my actions for animals – very cool!

Wayne Pacelle

On Saturday night there was a banquet dinner with a speech by Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society, or as I view him, a living breathing Superman for all animals.  Wayne gave nothing less than the riveting speech expected of a man of his caliber.  For those who are unaware of this magnificent human being, I encourage you to read his blog A Humane Nation, I don’t go a day without it.  Wayne’s speech was rudely interrupted by insanely loud music coming from a neighboring gathering that couldn’t have been planned better if it was the pork and beef industry grooving to merengue beats themselves, although I don’t picture those folks having much rhythm…

Another side note, Wayne happens to be yet another amazingly handsome animal advocate – ladies if there’s ever a movement for you to join, it’s the animal rights movement!  I had the privilege of meeting Wayne last October at a HSUS NYC Town Hall Meeting.  It took me about 30 minutes and 2 friends yelling at me to finally build up the courage to introduce myself.  I was SO GLAD I did!!  It’s not everyday you get to meet your hero so that was a truly amazing day for me.  Unfortunately my cell phone camera didn’t do the best job of capturing the moment but this pic will have to do!

Me & Wayne

Hal Sparks

Saturday night at TAFA was wrapped up with a fall off your chair laughing performance by actor and comedian Hal Sparks.  Our table was laughing so hard Hal gave us a personal shout out mid-performance.  I am officially a fan.

This year’s TAFA conference also had the first student summit they’ve ever held and from what I’ve heard it was a raging success.  Over 60 students attended from all over the country.  They learned how to advocate for animals and even got to write letters to their legislators.  What an amazing way to involve our youth.  I wasn’t able to stay until Monday but for those that did, they got to attend Lobby Day on Capital Hill and have one-on-one meetings with their legislators to personally advocate for stronger laws for animals.  As far as I’m concerned, the HSUS is nothing short of amazing.

I would encourage anyone who’s interested in the animal welfare to attend this conference.  You will learn so much and meet so many accomplished people and leave knowing that you are a participant, not just a bystander, in one of the most necessary movements of our time.  Fingers crossed that I’ll be an exhibitor there next year!