You may remember we had a day in Thailand that had a profound effect on me. After spending a day touring some popular tourist sites on Koh Phi Phi, I found myself with a nagging feeling in the back of my mind and it was all to do with responsible travel and volunteer tourism.
In particular, a visit to Maya Beach and another to Monkey Island made me wonder what on earth we were doing. We were just four of literally hundreds of people all doing the same thing. They would all look for the same picture.
Pictures I’ve seen hundreds of times.
They might make a comment in the description about the shocking nature of the crowds and the amount of rubbish littering the shoreline. But they wouldn’t let the reality disturb their picture perfect Instagram feeds.
The distorted reality portrayed on social media seems to be that way.
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I couldn’t do it
I nearly didn’t take any photos at all but I changed my mind, thinking that there needs to be more of us spreading this word. After some thought, I posted a picture on Instagram of the zoo that Maya beach has become. I was surprised to see it quickly become one of my more popular posts. It ignited a discussion about sustainable and responsible travel in it’s many forms.
And it introduced me to an incredible lady called Valentina Algeri.
A new connection
Being the person I am (that is, nosey), I’m always interested to find out who is liking my posts and commenting on them. So I headed over to Valentina’s profile and discovered she has a company in the growing market of volunteer tourism.
The timing was perfect. I was still reeling from the day on Koh Phi Phi. Valentina and I messaged back and forth for a while and the more we chatted, the more I thought I needed to share her story with you, my lovely Wanderlusters.
So here it is.
Valentina’s an Australian who started her working life as many of us did, working in the corporate world. She worked in banking for 8 years which was a feat in of itself given she started right at the start of the global financial crisis. It taught her some valuable lessons but she found herself constantly doing different hobbies on the side to fulfil her more creative side.
Having always dreamed of volunteering, she faced a similar dilemma that most of us do: As a young person she wanted to volunteer and travel but couldn’t see how people could volunteer and give their time for free but also earn money.
Valentina’s chance came when she was in between jobs. A month of paid leave gave her options she had only dreamed of! Through Facebook connections she found a volunteer tourism opportunity in Cambodia and decided to go for it. It didn’t matter that she knew nothing about the country or the project. She followed her instincts, got on a plane and ended up building a house with an NGO.
Although she went back to banking, it didn’t last long. Valentina learned things on that first trip literally that changed her whole outlook. She went home and told everyone she knew about her experience. She wanted to spread the word about not just about responsible volunteer tourism but also about each and every one of us can make a difference simply by travelling more intentionally.
18 months after she went back to work, Valentina quit her job. Sheknew that the risk she was taking was the right one. She and her fiancé went travelling together for 9 months and it was at the end of that trip that she hosted ran her first 2 volunteer tourism and wellness trips (around the middle of 2017).
Unsurprisingly, they were really successful. The trips combined teaching volunteers about child protection issues and responsible tourism. Another house was built and work in a school started. Valentina also added the element of wellness which was really well received.
She knew she was on to something.
She says: “I’d always wanted to help people and packaging these sorts of experiences made the most sense to me. And that’s why I started Statera. My priority now is to run as many Changemaker trips as I can. I figure there’s millions and millions of people out there who are wanting to travel with purpose and who are conscious about their impact on the environment and on society. With so many potential customers out there I just need to connect with them and get the messages out. So that’s my primary focus at the moment.”
Volunteer tourism with Statera Collective
With exciting plans to grow, Statera Collective has already expanded its 2 annual projects in Cambodia and is now also hosting a new trip to Laos in 2019.
At a week long each, they’re called “Changemaker Trips” because people are essentially making change.
If you’ve read some of my other posts you’ll know I place a high value on balance in how we structure our holidays. Too much kid stuff and the adults get bored. Too much grown up stuff and the kids get mutinous. A week on a beach and we are all twitchy, looking for something else to do but sightseeing every day leaves us in need of R&R.
Now this is the bit where it starts to get a bit spooky in the connection to my outlook.
Statera means balance in Latin and the reason Valentina chose that word is she believes balance is such a real part of life with darkness and light, giving and receiving.
And balance is at the core of the Changemaker trips.
Both trips combine the concepts of volunteer tourism with health and well being. The philosophy is to combine volunteering and giving back with filling yourself up and replenishing in a way that it is also a holiday. She offers people the chance to relax and enjoy beautiful food and cultural activities so it’s not all one sided. The aim is that people feel relaxed and replenished at the end of a week where they have also achieved great things and given back in a way most of us can’t say we have done on a holiday.
To achieve the balance Statera aims for, volunteers participate at their chosen project every morning. In the afternoons they can either relax back at the hotel or go to do one of an organised activity. Such activities include vegetarian cooking classes, yoga classes, meditation sessions and massages.
What do you do on a Changemaker trip?
Statera’s 2 trips are quite different to each other. One is volunteering at a privately run community school called Treak Community Centre and one is a house building trip.
Treak runs education classes for children from 3-4 to 19-20 year olds such as English and volunteers help to support these classes. They may read books or play games such as Monopoly which helps with maths skills and with money handling. Valentina has also introduced yoga stretching sessions into the school curriculum which she runs during the Statera week.
House building project
The house building trip is the same one that Valentina herself participated in in 2015 and literally involves building a wooden house from scratch using manual labour. They’ve done their research – this isn’t like those gap year projects that you read about where the constriction is so poor that they house is torn down as soon as they leave. These houses are built based on a proper CAD design. They use good quality treated timber to make sure the structure will last. The build runs from Monday to Thursday (mornings only) and on the Friday the house is blessed in a ceremony run by local monks. All the villages in the surrounding area participate in and the volunteers are also invited. The ceremony is followed by lunch with the people from the village.
While Statera’s 2 projects are very different to each other, they have a few of things in common.
- Both Statera projects are run and founded by local people which is something that’s really important to them. While there are always expats and other people helping the organisation to build up their brand and marketing and social media, the control remains with a local person.
- All Statera’s trips have a huge child protection focus. There’s a lot of documentation on child protection that people must abide by and complete. Valentina is passionate about making sure that they are being diligent in their processes to protect the people they are there to help. There are also certain rules and codes of conduct for the volunteers when they are working. For example, no volunteer is to be left alone with an individual child and none of the volunteers are can take footage of children in class. Valentina doesn’t encourage relationships to develop either. “Not because I’m mean but because these children could start to build up an attachment and then develop separation anxiety when we leave.”
- Both projects maintain the focus on balance. Half of each day includes volunteering aspect and the other half is for other activities.
Who can go?
The Treak project is designed for anyone to participate in! I was really excited to learn that even families can go as long as the kids are over 4.
For Health and Safety reasons children aren’t allowed on the house building trip. Teenagers from 16 years old can go as long as they’re able bodied. Valentina was keen to stress to me that they’ve had range of people of different ages and fitness levels / abilities working with them.
While Statera only runs 1 trip per project per year, if you can get a group of 10 people together then Valentian will customise a trip just for you! You could be a small business or a sports club or just a group of family that wants to get together.
Things you can do if you can’t join a volunteering holiday
With restricted dates and locations, it’s not always practical for people to go on a volunteering holiday. They’re definitely not for everyone and I totally get that. But there’s so much more to responsible travel than giving up a week of your annual leave to build a house.
Valentina’s work has opened her eyes to a darker side of the growing tourism market in Cambodia. She wants people to really think about how their good intentions could have a much darker impact on local society. A very relatable example is when you see kids selling postcards to tourists. She says people might think they are helping the child and its family, just as she once did. The reality is that the child has probably been pulled out of school and that the postcard selling racket is part of a much larger organised crime ring.
There are 2 impacts for the child: firstly that they are involved in a criminal circle from young age. And secondly that they’re missing out on an education that could give them a brighter future.
Valentina puts it like this: “Good intentioned people go on holiday and do things unknowingly that’s actually quite damaging and often to children who are quite vulnerable. If you were in your own countries and you wouldn’t be ok with an 8 year old being on a busy street, on their own, late at night then you shouldn’t be ok with that on holiday.”
Do your research
Another example that she uses is about the orphanages in Cambodia. They doubled in number between 2013-2015 even though the number of orphans stayed the same. It turns out that in many of these institutions, children are shared around and presented as “orphans” to sing and dance for tourists. The tourists often leave money or donate clothes, toys or school items. They think they’re helping these children directly because they think they’re living on the premises but they’re not. Not only that but many have at least one living parent who has been promised that the child will have access to education prospects or other opportunities to be able to work.
“They see that as an opportunity,” explains Valentina. “They don’t see that the child is potentially in danger, which they could be.”
She explained to me that orphanage operators can actually receive an income from each of these institutions / orphanages making the whole thing a money making network. “No matter how you look at it,” says Valentina, “they’re using vulnerable children to generate commerce. And to me that’s not right.”
Not all orphanages and charities are the same
As with any situation where you are donating your time, money or gifts to a cause, it’s always worth making sure that you are donating to a reputable organisation where you will be directly helping the people you want to. If you’re looking to spend more time with the organisation through some sort of volunteer tourism arrangement then it’s even more important.
I’ll leave you with my favourite part of my conversation with Valentina. When we got to talking about what’s in it for her she said:
“Even for me it’s an an amazing experience. I love to watch people from the day they arrive and then the day they leave.. I just see such a huge difference in people and it’s really beautiful. They go home and they’re just better people in a way. People generally feel softer. I suppose they open up as well with the experience. After volunteering and doing yoga every day there’s this beautiful softness that people gain and then they go home and take the magic back to their family and friends and its just really gorgeous to watch.”
You can find more details about past and future change maker trips by visiting Statera Collective’s website.