Text and Images Courtesy Melanie Sue Hicks
The smell of fresh tortillas and homemade refried beans wafted through the air. The scorching sun beat down on us as we made our way to the center of the town square. As I turned to stand in my appropriate place on the small stage, I was enthralled by the site of the crowd gathering around us in anticipation and curiosity. I was 12 years old, in a country far away, and I was there to serve.
This is my earliest memory of mixing travel and service. As a child of the theatre, my talent to entertain and teach was the most precious commodity I could offer at a young age. And so, a small band of eager preteens from across the US loaded on an airplane and set off for rural Mexico to entertain, to educate, and to serve.
Over the next three decades, I would continue to find joy and meaning in giving of my time, talent and financial resources in this way. From building houses in Nicaragua to teaching financial literacy in Sierra Leone; from planting urban gardens in Baltimore to sorting books for Africa in Atlanta—the volunteer travel destination rarely mattered, it was the connections that made all the difference.
I find giving back to be as selfish as it is selfless. What I can give to others pales in comparison to what I gain from others and, even more, learn about myself. While I still enjoy the frivolity and relaxation of a simple vacation, the more I turn my travel into service work, the more addictive it becomes to my soul.
Service, or volunteer travel, also known as voluntourism, has proven to be a priceless commodity to who I am as a human, teaching me culture and traditions, vulnerability and openheartedness, creativity and solitude. I have been privileged to witness the best of humanity and the evil remnants of the worst.
I believe each and every experience I have used my precious capital to provide is an investment in my future self, albeit of a different kind— the intrinsic kind that can neither be fully explained nor fully appreciated by anyone but me and those working beside me. It is my literal take on my favourite Robin Sharma quote:
Life is a mirror. And life gives us not what we want, life gives us who we are.
Ready to take the leap and see how you like the intertwining of service and travel? Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Find What Lights Up Your Soul
Do you stop to pet every dog you meet, or do the elderly pull at your heartstrings? Do you enjoy using your hands in physical labour, or do you prefer to use your intellectual or emotional talents to help others?
To find causes you really believe in, look within yourself and at your natural inclinations. Even if you have never embarked on giving back through volunteer service, somewhere in your heart, you already know where you would find joy in contributing.
2. Volunteer Travel Where You Feel Connected
One of the best aspects of travel, in general, is the connections we make with those around us if we are open. Aside from the cause itself and the way in which you give back, find ways to surround yourself with the right kind of energy. If you are strongly connected to your religion, perhaps a church or faith-based nonprofit could be a good fit.
If you prefer a gender or ethnicity-based group, find those. The more connected you feel to the energy around you, the better you can give of yourself.
3. Embrace The Uncomfortable
Let’s face it, service trips are not cushy, comfortable tourist experiences. Often, they involve hard work, scant accommodations, and challenging environments. However, those conditions are precisely why they have such a lasting impact.
In Western societies, we are privileged to have hundreds of creature comforts at our fingertips. But that privilege can also have the consequence of muting our sense of gratitude. Placing ourselves squarely in the uncomfortable allows us to reconnect with that sense of appreciation for all our blessings.
4. Release All Expectations
There is no way to know what your volunteer travel experience will be like when you take the leap into the unknown. It could be filled with Instagram-worthy moments of beauty or backbreaking heat and travel delays.
You might be moved to tears regularly or simply take home a few memories. We cannot force emotional connection any more than we can force spiritual enlightenment. So release any expectations of a life-altering experience and just enjoy every moment as it is.
5. Breathe In The Adventure
In my book Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, I illustrate my personal mantra: When you see life as an adventure, it is never unrequited. Viewing life as an adventure means you cannot be disappointed. Adventures might have unexpected twists and turns, but they are all a beautiful part of the ride.
Using your time and talents to give to others is a special kind of adventure. The kind that leaves lasting memories and imprints on your soul. Embrace it. We have only this one life to leave our mark.
And so, I challenge you to think about your life adventure and how you can intermingle it with impacting others. You might change someone’s life—and that someone might just be you.
Melanie Sue Hicks, author of Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, is an adventure-seeking, social impact advocate dedicated to helping others overcome fear and live their dharma. She has led or participated in more than fifty service projects internationally and is dedicated to creating an impact and amplifying the impact of others every day.
As an empathy-driven author and education, nonprofit, and workplace expert, she has been featured in Forbes.com, Marie Claire, Authority Magazine, See Beyond Magazine, The District, Doctor’s Life Magazine and more. As an experienced motivational speaker and master facilitator, using her custom 3E Method of Change©, she offers training to organizations focused on helping to navigate the future of education and work for increased retention, productivity, and revenue.
Order her book at melaniehicks.org.