From helping the teacher at school to caring for children in an orphanage, volunteering can last for decades and reach across the world.
Lisa Hanssens started volunteering when she was 12, assisting in recreation programs for children with special needs while she was a student in the Lower Mainland. She has been volunteering ever since. She brings her experience and enthusiasm to her volunteer placement agency, Volunteer Travelventures.
“I want people to have the opportunity to have the same satisfaction I have had, and continue to have, in volunteering,” she said. “I saw things on TV about people living in terrible conditions in Africa when I was young and realized that not everyone lived the way we do in Canada but didn’t imagine how I could ever travel to help people in other countries.”
Hanssens was drawn to social work and got certification in counselling. After she moved to Vernon in 1989 she worked with NOYFSS, the North Okanagan Employment Enhancement Society and NEXUS, while volunteering with Hospice House and the Red Cross. She took her four children on volunteer trips to Guatemala and brought donations to organizations in need on family trips to Mexico.
In 2008, her marriage ended and with the children grown up, it was time for a change.
“I had a calling I couldn’t ignore. I chose to let go of security. I sold the house and everything I owned. I went in search of opportunities where I could be a helping hand of service in some way. Friends told me I was brave but I didn’t feel brave. We employ bravery when we are afraid and have to do something anyway. I just trusted that I needed to take this step.”
Hanssens found herself getting off a plane in Australia with only her backpack and spent a couple of years in the South Pacific, including in Samoa and Fiji, through various volunteer placement agencies. She recommends that people do careful research when going through volunteer agencies.
“What I did, including wallaby conservation, helping with elephants in Thailand, taking care of orphans in Thailand and at a Montessori School in Samoa, was enjoyable and satisfying and I met interesting people who shared their culture. But sometimes the conditions were difficult and it made it hard to do our best work.”
At one place she lived alone with limited access to public transportation to buy food and had to carry water for 20 minutes. At another, she and other volunteers had to wait between shifts under a tarp in hot sunlight.
“I learned a great deal but I am mindful of these uncomfortable surprises while developing my volunteer programs,” she said.
She spent more time volunteering in Mexico and Hawaii and decided on Guaymas, Mexico for her program Volunteer Travelventures, started in 2014. Guaymas is a city of 140,000 on the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). It is a fishing port with some industry and agriculture. Nearby is San Carlos, the ex-pat community that is home to people from around the world.
“Guaymas is a very poor city with a number of service organization supported by international charities and individuals and run by Mexicans who have the desire to help their own people but not the resources,” said Hanssens. “There is little government support for anything and difficult to keep the children in school so they can get higher education and better jobs. I saw the need and interviewed the agencies to see how volunteer tourism could help them, to find out what they knew they needed, not just what we thought they needed.”
She found that volunteers could work in Club Jerry, founded by a Canadian, which provides recreational activities for children and youth; Agua Mas, a shelter for women and children; a trades school; and on construction projects. There is also the opportunity to teach English.
“Volunteers do not have to have any particular skills, just a readiness to share what they have and a willing to learn. People volunteer for many reasons and I encourage people to be clear about what they hope to experience so that it can be meaningful to them and helpful to those they want to help.”
Hanssens makes sure that volunteers have comfortable accommodations and time to experience the community and culture.
“I am there as the host most of the time and ready to answer questions and take care of any concerns. If I am not there, someone else is. Volunteers are not left on their own,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. By helping others volunteer I am doing far beyond what I could do as one person. I facilitate an experience that helps the people in Mexico and changes the lives of the volunteers, whether they go on to do more volunteering internationally or at home or find other ways to be involved. We need to be open to how we can help wherever we are. This is not about being a hero and rescuing, it is about supporting people to make the changes they want.”
For more information, contact email@example.com or see VolunteerTravelventures.com