“These interactions are critical in creating a world that is tolerant and peaceful”, Megan Arzbaecher of Greenheart Travel on volunteering abroad
Greenheart Travel is the travel abroad branch within Greenheart International, a non-profit founded in 1985 and based in Chicago: their mission is to connect people and the planet to create global leaders. Since Greenheart Travel’s first traveller in 1996, thousands of students and adults have travelled studying, volunteering, teaching and working abroad. Offering meaningful travel experiences in over 30 countries, Greenheart Travel hopes to change lives, advance careers and create leaders.
This year Greenheart Travel won the Outstanding Volunteer Project Global Youth Travel Award thanks to the Rescue Paws Programme in cooperation with Xplore Asia.
WYSE Travel Confederation talked to Megan Arzbaecher, Volunteer Programs Manager at Greenheart Travel, about their victory and their future projects.
What do you think sets you apart amongst the organisations that offer volunteer projects in the youth travel market?
Greenheart Travel’s volunteer programs stand out among so many organisations in the support we give our volunteers before, during and after their travel experience. We emphasize the opportunity for personal, professional, and cultural development in every volunteer experience, and ensure that every traveller gets ample support. We also want to make sure each volunteer receives all the tools they need for meaningful reflection upon their experiences, encouraging them to share their stories with others, apply for Greenheart Grants and connect with our alumni community to further utilise their experience abroad and at home.
Every one of us here at Greenheart Travel has lived, volunteered, worked, or travelled abroad for an extended period of time. We know intimately the roller coaster of emotions that people go through when considering and committing to travelling abroad and the life-changing experiences these travel experiences provide. This is why we are passionate about not only helping our volunteers have a positive ripple effect on communities abroad, but also encouraging them to use meaningful travel experience to grow personally in their own lives.
What are the highlights of the Rescue Paws Programme and what brought you to this collaboration?
Rescue Paws started in October 2013, in Prachuap Kirikan Province, Thailand, initially as a stray dog feeding programme. Greenheart Travel has been working with Rescue Paws’ parent organization, XPloreAsia, for several years, which is how we found out about the program. We found it to be a sustainable grassroots initiative with exciting and achievable goals, which is why we began partnering with the project in 2015.
Rescue Paws was founded by a group of passionate educators and animal lovers to address the increasing epidemic of stray animals across Thailand. Most of these animals are in poor health and reproducing at an alarming rate. Since these dogs are rarely neutered or spayed, there is no breeding control, resulting in a stray population that has risen over the past decade. Rescue Paws now operate 12 kennels, a recovery area, and a clinic to perform surgeries to increase the quality of life for these animals while also monitoring the population.
At the project, staff and volunteers provide veterinary care and treatment for abandoned, mistreated and stray animals; sterilization of strays across the region; stray and pet education for foreigners and locals; meals for thousands of animals; adoptions for hundreds of strays; and last but not least, tender love and care.
Rescue Paws’ unique approach to tackling the stray animal epidemic is to care for the stray population on the street instead of housing them permanently in cramped kennels, and also to emphasize education and stakeholder engagement. This allows Rescue Paws to put their limited resources to their most efficient use and educate those in the community to increase our impact on the problem.
What would you reply to the claims that volunteer travel is bad? How can volunteer travellers positively affect the communities they visit and work in?
Volunteer travel can be a very positive experience, for both a volunteer and host community, as long as the correct expectations are set. A traveller going for a week to help at our animal rescue project isn’t going to be able to complete large-scale efforts, but they will be able to get an insight into a new culture, the issues that affect the area and possibly even share a bit of their own culture with the community.
These interactions are critical in creating a world that is tolerant and peaceful. Unfortunately, there are projects out there that don’t have the good of the community in mind and it is the responsibility of each organisation and volunteer to do their research, ask the hard-hitting questions about sustainability and where the funds go, and also reflect on personal goals for wanting to volunteer abroad.
The more educated a traveller can be on the impact they will be making, and the footprint their travel will leave, the more projects and people will be held accountable in providing meaningful support in global communities.
Would you like to briefly share something about Greenheart Travel’s future projects or other initiatives?
Greenheart Travel offers programs beyond volunteering, and we provide meaningful cross-cultural experiences in a variety of formats. From gaining work experience through teaching English, to studying in a high school abroad, our focus as a non-profit organization has always been to change lives, advance careers and create leaders. Service learning is a core component of that mission and we are proud to offer Greenheart Grants to those who want to further their impact at home and abroad. Suffice to say, any project of ours, present or future, will lend itself to bringing cultures a little closer together through social good. Our partnership with Rescue Paws is one of many examples of that mission.