Volunteer Vacations: A First-Person Account


Melissa Long

This spring, CNN.com Live anchor Melissa Long spent a week volunteering overseas. She recently shared with us her story—plus some helpful tips.

Q: When many people think of vacation, they think of sunning themselves on a beach. What prompted your interest in "voluntourism"?
A:I've been a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America since 2000, and philanthropy has always been a part of my life. But my volunteer experiences have all been in American cities I've called home. I've been curious about volunteering overseas, and since travel is my passion, it only seemed natural.

Q: How did you pick a placement organization?
A: I searched for volunteer opportunities online, but programs can be quite pricey. I was delighted to stumble upon an agency that had a small placement fee, and after corresponding by e-mail, we were able to arrange an opportunity in Asia. At first, the agency's representatives guided me to make sure I was able to navigate the buses and trains in Singapore and make it to the Chen Su Lan Methodist Children's Home on my own. And after that, we checked in daily and became fast friends over lunches before I went to volunteer in the afternoon and evening.

Q: Please share with us some of the memorable moments from your trip.
A: Singapore is one of the most developed nations in Asia, but an undercurrent of extreme hardship exists. Many of the children at this home had experienced terrible heartbreak. Some are orphans. Some have parents who are serving time in prison or are too poor to raise them. And some of the children are developmentally disadvantaged. While a few of the kids had an aura of sadness or frustration, others still had that sweetness all children deserve.

Q: Did you bond with any of the children during your week's stay?
A: There was a 15-year-old whom I bonded with the most. We started working together on the first day. Due to confidentiality, I'm unable to share his story; however, he has experienced more in his short life than any adult should have to endure. Despite the difficulties, he still possessed the kindest nature. On the very first day, after our daily "tuition," or homework, session, this young boy pulled out a chair for me and invited me to snack time. By the second day, I was greeted with a brilliant smile and a friendly wave to join him and work on math homework. By the end of my assignment, we exchanged email addresses, and he asked when I would be back to visit. It was so difficult not to have an answer.

Q: What is your fondest memory?
A: I have many positive and important memories that helped color my experience. One of them was a moment in which few words were exchanged. During a regular afternoon downpour before the brilliant sun came out, I was caught darting to the end of a dead-end street to the children's home. A young girl in her school uniform, whom I later learned was 13 and a resident of the home, spotted me and quickly scooped me up under her beige Snoopy umbrella. I tried to carry on a conversation with this teenager while we avoided the raindrops together, but she was too shy.

Q: Do you have any advice for others on how to evaluate the best program for them, and the best program for effectiveness locally?
A: I think you have to consider the same factors as when you research volunteer programs in your hometown. Do you want to work with kids, adults, animals, or the environment? Do you want to volunteer directly with the people who may benefit or at the administrative level? Ask yourself, "Do I want to teach my skills and share my experiences or work in an area outside my expertise?" Consider if you want to be in a city or a rural environment, and research which immunizations might be required. Once you tackle these topics, you'll find something that suits you.

Q: What about cost?
A: I did everything with a small budget in mind. Once I was in Singapore, I could have taken cabs, but I relied predominantly on trains and buses so I could cut costs. (In my experience, mass transit is the best way to get the real flavor for a community anyway.) So my biggest expense was the flight. Another suggestion is to check with your employer. Many companies will support employees as they take time to do volunteer work, which was the case with my opportunity.

Q: Do you have any practical advice for other travelers?
A: I did bring some academic goodies for the kids, which they very much appreciated. They started using everything immediately during homework time. I wrestled with bringing the children candy from the U.S. and opted not to. I thought the counselors might be irritated if I got the kids wired up on sugar! In hindsight, the candies would have been a hit after homework and during playtime. I know the kids would have cherished American candies since they were so curious about my life in the U.S.

One more tip: Remember your hosts as well! Whether you bring something from the U.S., purchase something small but thoughtful during your travels, or take them to lunch, it's an appreciated courtesy.

Q: Can you offer any suggestions on what to pack?
A: I'm glad I had a travel journal to document my observations, hand sanitizer, running shoes for basketball and badminton matches during afternoon recess, and my favorite well-traveled, wide-brimmed straw hat to shield the sun. While in Asia, I was reminded that it's important to carry a small pack of tissues. You may need tissues in the ladies' room, to serve as napkins or even to save a seat! At many Singaporean open-air food stalls, called hawker centers, residents use the tissue packets to reserve seats.

Q: What are the chances you'll return to this place? Or if you opted to do voluntourism again, might you choose another location (for the sake of variety, perhaps)?
A: I would definitely consider volunteering at this children's home again and visiting the friends I've made through the volunteer agency. In addition to bonding with the children, I enjoyed getting to know other volunteers. One man in particular impressed me: a senior pilot, he was a longtime volunteer and brought the kids goodies from all over the globe. The children obviously looked forward to his visits. But I am also considering a volunteer experience elsewhere, and I've already started casually researching for 2009.

Q: Last question: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, for readers who aren't familiar with your background?
A: I'm a news anchor for CNN.com Live, CNN's cutting-edge, multi-stream live video service. With CNN.com Live, if you're at the office, at an airport or school, you can still get news from around the globe, via CNN.com! I also serve as a substitute anchor for CNN, CNN International TV, and CNN Headline News. I've always been fascinated by other cultures and my career allows me to learn about the world. Now, international volunteering is a perfect compliment and an adventure I look forward to next year!

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