“So generation of the 21st century, think more on the global level and try to create a more peaceful world. This means a more compassionate world.”
– Dalai Lama at Tulane University’s Commencement, May 2013
The Dalai Lama “is committed to the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, and self-discipline.” He is symbolic for spreading the greater message of peace and harmony throughout the world.
In 2013, I heard the Dalai Lama speak at my sister’s college graduation and his speech struck a chord in me. My mind raced to the first time I was in Nicaragua for a medical mission trip. It was an eye-opening experience that was so raw and unfiltered. It was a mega dose of reality that hit me extremely hard, harder than I could have ever imagined.
At the time, I was studying Spanish and biology with the intent of eventually becoming a doctor. This trip perfectly aligned with my long-term goals. Plus, I was extremely curious to connect with the locals in Spanish.
Our group, 20 students and 3 faculty members, met a few times throughout the semester leading up to the trip in order to “prepare.” We covered basics such as the country’s economy, population, and currency, and how to say a few rudimentary phrases in Spanish. While helpful, the main goal of these sessions was to prepare us for what we were going to see and experience. This was not going to be Pennsylvania, and for a majority of us, this was our first time in Latin America.
But the truth is that these meetings didn’t prepare me. I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for the first time the six-year-old girl I was working with jumped into my arms, looked into my eyes and gave me a shy smile. My heart melted. How can you be ready for that? It’s impossible. You have to experience it.
This trip to Nicaragua is known as “voluntourism.” This word entered the Oxford English dictionary in 1991, meaning the “blend of volunteer and tourism.” But the concept has been around for years, offering altruistic do-gooders the opportunity to give back while abroad. It’s often seen as a philanthropic practice, although there has been some criticism about the follow-up after these sorts of programs.
Flying down to developing nations, it’s common to see mission groups on the planes, giddy to visit some place foreign while connecting with the locals. What’s even more meaningful is to hear their long-term follow-up plan. It’s one thing to visit for a few days to fulfill your goals, it’s another to teach the locals sustainability and how to progress without you.
After a hot and tiring day in the field, one of the locals thanked me with a juicy, ripe mango right off the tree! Delicious… and sticky!!!
You’ve probably heard the quote about teaching a man to fish (below). And the reality of it is significant.
A couple of years after my college trip to Nicaragua, I moved to Managua indefinitely. And some of my closest friends were internationals who were in the country volunteering. Some were there a week, some for 6 months to a year, and others for an indefinite period. But they all shared the same goal – to educate the locals in order to better their current state of life. And not by handing them the latest iPhone to play BeJeweled, but rather through support – whether in education, developing their skills, or teaching them a trade.
One friend, Kara, felt so moved after her 2008 internship in Nicaragua that she permanently moved down to Managua to start a non-profit. She has selflessly devoted her life to enhancing the lives of the children in the trash dump area of the city and hosts volunteers to assist with projects including the feeding program, toy drive, and more.
You don’t have to move somewhere full-time to make a difference. Donate the time you have, and you may be surprised just how much you accomplish. There are many needs that must be addressed throughout the world, and perhaps even in your own backyard. Determine what speaks to you and take action.
If you’re looking to mix some fun in an exotic country while giving back, consider saving the turtles in Nicaragua. Every year thousands of endangered turtle eggs are laid along the Pacific Beaches near Gran Pacifica, and you’re able to assist by creating a sanctuary for these eggs. More information about the upcoming dates can be found here.
Heading to Ambergris Caye, Belize, soon and have some extra space in your suitcase? Bring school supplies with you to donate to the Holy Cross School. This school’s vision is to provide the highest quality education to the disadvantaged children of San Pedro. Anything from pens to notebooks to erasers can truly make a difference in a student’s education.
Social responsibility is ingrained in many of us, and even on a corporate level I witness my colleagues’ passion for giving back. Through meaningful events including wheelchair distributions, silent auctions, and fundraisers, it has been tremendous to continue giving back to the people who have welcomed us in their home countries.
There are so many opportunities to do something during your visit to Latin America, and if the two above don’t work for you, please reach out and let’s see what best fits your goals.
Your gestures, while to us may seem small, have an incredible impact.
Remember, “Our prime purpose in life is to help others.” – The Dalai Lama
Interpret that as you please and keep bettering the world.