There are people who love to travel. And there are people who derive great meaning in life from volunteering. The Mindful Word co-editor Jane Olivier has fused the two together by living abroad as a volunteer in a number of countries around the world. Jane writes extensively on the perils of sustainable development (read her articles about rethinking child labour and how to sponsor an orphan effectively). Here are some of her thoughts on travelling and volunteering.

Why did you choose to pack up everything and go travel-live the world?

I was born with itchy feet. All my friends wanted to be doctors and lawyers—I wanted to be a gypsy. They became and, once I had done all the “society” things, so did I. During my working years I travelled extensively throughout Africa on business and as a journalist. Other places always called me; there’s simply so much to see and learn from other countries and other cultures, I had to do it. But I wanted to do it in a special way—by volunteering as much as I could wherever I was for any extended period of about one to three months.

How many years have you lived abroad? Where have you lived and for how long?

I have been seriously travelling since 1997, spending a lot of time in a small village next to Lake Malawi and then for about seven years sailed, dived and lived the Indian Ocean along the east coast of Africa, finally basing in Mozambique for two years. As a solo nomad, I’ve travelled for the past six years, going to a number of countries, but spending most of my time in southeast Asia and Africa.

What are a few of your volunteer experiences?

In Thailand I did a lot of writing for a magazine that catered to tourists and attempted to create a drug awareness program. I also began an island clean-up program while there. In Cambodia I volunteered at an orphanage. In Mozambique I set up a clinic for the villagers as well as a very small monkey and baboon rescue centre. In Kenya I went to volunteer at an orphanage and after seeing what was happening set out to get the children safely moved and close the place down.

Travel-living: Q&A with Jane Olivier

With the children at Who Will Children’s Village

Can you tell me about your experience volunteering at the orphanage in Cambodia?

I went to Cambodia for a month to volunteer at an orphanage that cared for 73 children. I saw the horrific circumstances the children were living in, while the management and owners drove around in luxury cars and lived in big houses. The children were underfed, ragged, ill and often left completely on their own. The money that was being sent to them by volunteers and handed out by visitors, was definitely not being used for the children.
I decided I was going to make an attempt to rescue them—remove them from where they were and build a place where they would be safe and well cared for. It started out well, and with some negotiation even had the approval from the directors, until they realized they would be losing their “income” and refused me all access to the children and the property.

Together with two friends—Gerald Trevor and Georgie Walsh—I had already registered an NGO called Who Will, managed to find property outside of Phnom Penh to build an orphanage and a donor who purchased the property and donated it to the NGO, but now we had no children.

While rethinking everything that had occurred we decided to start a soup kitchen in a very poor part of Phnom Penh, rent a tiny house for $30 per month and cook a solid meal for about 50 people every Saturday—it was something we could manage on our own.

The first Saturday there were 50 people, the next 100 and it just kept growing. Eventually we were asked if we would take in some children to live with us and, after much thought, I took six, hired a caregiver and an English teacher. We still continued with the soup kitchen. But eventually I had 17 children, and I couldn’t afford to care for them—I was already editing an online newspaper early in the morning, then going to teach English at an international school then editing a daily newspaper at night—and still do the soup kitchen so, with the approval of the local community, we stopped the kitchen.

Now we had children and no home! It became vital to start building the orphanage and I set out to find donors to not only fund the building, but also take care of the monthly costs of the children—food, schooling, clothing, caregivers, teachers, medical bills. I sent out about 1000 emails a month to various institutions and organizations to try and raise money with no success. Then we found one—that’s all it took, only one. Enough money to build the first house and fence the property and from there it snowballed.

By the time I left Cambodia, we had built four houses, had 53 children, five caregivers, four assistant staff, four English teachers, two other staff, a manager and had also built a school in the local village for 300 children from grades one to four.

I was also given approval by the owners of brick-making factories in the vicinity to give me a space in their yard where I could teach the children working there during their off hours—on one condition, I taught the adults too.

What did you learn from the experience?

Children are a commodity—a source of income—and as long as the commodity holds any value, you have to be extremely careful when dealing with those that control them. Make one error and the child disappears—either to be sold or used in other ways.

I learned, most importantly of all, what the purity of love for another human being can achieve. It moves mountains; it casts giant shadows. It calls with a voice of such power that it cannot be ignored. It moves others to awareness and action. It illuminates the world and creates miracles.

For would-be volunteers wanting to help out in the developing world, how can they best contribute?

Probably the greatest need of all is for teaching English, math and computer skills. But there are many areas they can be of help: installing wells and pumps in villages, building homes, caring for animals, assisting in farming projects, implementing self-sustaining programs such as fish farming—there are many.

Any words of caution?

  • Do NOT give money to anyone—person or organization until you personally know what is going on. Go to the country and find out where the need is and spend your money there by buying what is required either in the country or in your home country—e.g. if school uniforms are needed, first make sure they are needed, then buy them and deliver them yourself; do not give the money. Studies have shown many times that rarely does more than four percent of donated money to any institution actually reach the children—most of it will be used on “administration costs” which could mean anything from paper clips to four-wheel drive vehicles for the management.
  • Do proper research before you get involved in any organization whether it’s to volunteer or to raise funds. Make sure the organization is legal and has a good reputation.
  • Don’t spend your money on organizations that place volunteers. Very little of the money you spend actually reaches the organization you will be volunteering at. There are many websites that offer free volunteering abroad and give the contact details of the actual charity—“free” will mean that you spend perhaps $100 per week for your food and lodging, that’s it.
  • Keep your eyes open—just because you’re a volunteer it doesn’t mean that if you see something wrong you shouldn’t do anything about. It is because you are a volunteer and are looking at things with fresh eyes that you notice things. If you see something wrong, report it. To whom? Well, a start—and probably the safest place would be your own embassy—it will know where to go.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced while living abroad?

Visa runs! Making sure you are always legally in a country can become a monumental pain in the butt as countries have different visa requirements. An example would be Thailand—when flying in you get one month, if arriving by road only two weeks then you have to renew your visa every three months by leaving the country. In Laos PDR it is a monthly trot across the border. India you have to leave and stay out for two months before returning.

And your best experiences?

Meeting people—not only in the various countries I visited, but other travellers along the way and learning the different cultures. A friend of mine once said, “Countries are all the same—a mountain is a mountain, a sea is a sea. It’s the people that make the difference.” And this is true. I have met so many people along the way and have friends around the world, have learned so much from them and perhaps been able to teach them something in return too. It’s been an awesome ride.

You just settled back in Canada this past month. What made you decide to move back?

After 52 countries across the years, I decided enough was enough. Visa runs really started palling. I am going to settle now—it’s my homecoming.

Now I’m concentrating on my writing, both magazine articles and poetry. It’s something I have always done and I can help and reach far more people through writing than I ever could by placing myself in situations. But I can do this from a place of personal experience, and that is extremely important. I can really say, “I understand” and mean it—I’ve been there!

How has the transition been for you after spending all those years in Asia?

Funny enough, quite easy. I thought the icy weather of Quebec would be my downfall; rather it has been exactly the opposite. I love the snow—the sheer beauty of it—I spend many hours watching it fall and walking in it. And the people here are really great. It’s all a matter of attitude and choice—of intent. I made the decision that I was going to enjoy it, and I will.

image: heart earth via Shutterstock