The first image in the photograph to emerge was the ghost of figures, pale outlines on glossy paper, developed in a dark lab among hundreds of other snapshots of birthdays and couples beaming in front of scenic landmarks and babies taking first steps. Plunged into its chemical bath and then saved from drowning, the photograph was pulled out dripping, like a wet laundered sock, and hung to dry.
And in its chromatic, magic way, the ghosts became alive: eyes to peer in to, lips that curl a hungry happiness, hands that are almost, but not quite, moving. A photograph to prove an existence.
Perhaps it was the gingered hair of the young boys that made the photograph unforgettable. Or the rounded stomachs that belied nourished bodies. Or the clothes, worn day after day, that stretched ripped across torsos and framed startlingly snap-thin legs.
Whatever it was, Colin Salisbury, pictured then as the blond-haired 18-year-old in flip flops surrounded by five Papua New Guinean youth, was never able to shake the way his thumbs-up to the camera promised a future where everything was going to be okay.
Fifteen years later, the photograph is hanging in Colin’s office, and when he’s asked how he got into the business of people helping people, he points to it. Like the photograph with its quiet and sustained birth, so, too, was Colin’s idea for the Global Volunteer Network (GVN).
Of the six weeks he spent in Papua New Guinea, Colin says, “For a young guy from New Zealand, it had quite an impact.”
Such an impact, in fact, that GVN, a non-governmental organization born out of a compassion for people that gripped Colin like an island vine, is connecting volunteers with communities in need all around the globe to deliver on his wordless promise all those years ago.
Although Colin had been fascinated with finding a solution for the poverty he had witnessed during his travels the next decade after his first overseas experience, it wasn’t until he took a trip to Ghana in 1998 that he had his epiphany.
Colin, who has a Master’s degree in International Development, was working for WorldVision doing a literacy study in Ghana when he made an alarming discovery. Schools, lacking books and teaching materials, were also lacking the most precious resource: teachers. In a majority of classes, teachers, underpaid and overburdened, were outnumbered by a ratio of 150 to 200 students to two teachers. Colin was compelled to leave the trip with more than just empty promises.
“Long term, it’s obvious we need to train more teachers,” Colin said. “But in the short term, these kids would really benefit from an education now. International people coming in to help fill those teaching gaps seemed like the next step. So that’s when I went, ‘Wow, there’s actually a real need for volunteers.'”
Upon returning home, Colin continued working his full-time job while, with the help of his wife, Jo Salisbury, began laying the foundations for GVN during everyone else’s happy hour.
“It took me a year working nights to figure out how I could make this idea work,” Colin said. “I didn’t share it with anyone until I got it going.”
In his research, Colin found that other organizations charged high fees to volunteer, and vowed to make his organization as accessible as possible.
“I got frustrated with the fact that a lot of organizations just wanted people’s money and nothing else,” he said. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to get their body there, as opposed to just paying their dollar a day.”
Colin was also adamant that his organization would align with the idea of “local solutions to local problems,” working at the grassroots level to achieve their goals.
“Local people are the ones who live in those communities, so they know their needs and how best to address them,” Colin said. “What they need is support in doing that, not someone else coming in and setting up an infrastructure when a lot of those infrastructures already exist.”
Colin and Jo officially launched GVN in 2002 with a web site that now brings snickers in the increasingly computer-savvy office. And with help from the first hired staffers who worked out of Colin’s spare bedroom, GVN began sending volunteers to programs in Ghana, Nepal and Ecuador. With growth that would surprise even the staunchest GVN supporter, the organization leaped from sending just 240 volunteers its first year to 1,520 volunteers two years later.
“I had no idea how well it would go,” Colin said. “It was kind of like, let’s set it up and put our marketing in place and hope it will take off. And it really did. As demand grew, we added more programs, and we’ve basically been doing that ever since. It was good timing with the Internet becoming available; it meant that we could provide lower cost volunteer opportunities than other organizations that were around before the Internet that have different cost structures.”
And with the growth of GVN came a proper office and an expanded staff team of 20 people to help administer volunteer applications and coordinate country programs. The map on the wall of the meeting room now has 19 pushpins denoting GVN’s programs in Alaska, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Honduras, India, Kenya, Nepal, New Zealand, Philippines, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam. Volunteers, who work anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months, are involved in programs at orphanages, schools, wildlife sanctuaries, nature reserves and refugee camps.
And the GVN network continues to expand. The GVN Community Fund was established in 2004 to support the work of GVN’s partners with resources so they are able to continue and enhance their work in their local communities. The Community Fund plans the fundraising treks to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Everest base camp, Machu Picchu and New Zealand’s South Island. The treks, a mix of adventure sport and humanitarian aid, add a new twist to the “sponsor my walk” fund-raiser, with every dollar earned going to support a project in the foothills of the peaks, such as a new school in Uganda.
It’s an odd day if Colin’s four-year-old daughter isn’t riding her tricycle around the office, weaving in and out of desks as if they were traffic cones. Staff members enjoy Ping-Pong breathers, take hot drink orders and get infuriated during Sudoku competitions.
“Our partner in Vietnam just sent us pictures of his baby,” Program Coordinator Graham Fyfe announces to the office, who crowd around his desk and croon. Out the window, only a few feet away, young guys work lackadaisically on a line of cars waiting to be washed and waxed. The office, like a best-kept-secret noodle shop, is tucked among several non-descript warehouses and a car wash.
“People often think we’re a big American conglomerate and that we have offices in every corner of the world,” said Anna Wells, the program coordinator for Nepal, China and Romania. “I think if people realized that we were in the back blocks of Lower Hutt, they’d be quite surprised.”
It isn’t all sack races and bean bag throws in the office; GVN gets over 400 e-mails a day and program coordinators are busy sifting through travel questions-Should I take Malaria pills?-to taking phone calls from worried moms.
Most of the program coordinators have been volunteers themselves at one time, so their exclamations of volunteerism are genuine.
“Volunteering really shows you what a huge difference one person can make in a relatively short period of time,” Anna said. “You can learn so much about a culture by working alongside a community. It’s something you can’t experience any other way.”
Erin Cassidy, GVN’s office manager, volunteered in Uganda for three weeks last year with her five-year-old son.
“I saw firsthand what volunteering does and how it helps communities,” Erin said. “It really opens your eyes to how much you have and how much you don’t need. It’s impacted even the way we operate at home. I don’t run the water when I clean my teeth at home. I know that’s just a small thing, but I’m now aware of just how precious that resource is.”
For Charisse Gebhart, the program coordinator for Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, the six months she spent volunteering with GVN in Nepal changed her worldview.
“I was barely aware of the poverty and suffering that was out there,” Charisse said. “I’d see the commercials by Sally Struthers, but that was about the extent of it. Witnessing it for yourself is very different from just knowing it’s out there.”
And GVN offers a variety of ways to witness it for oneself, from standing up for the first time in front of a classroom filled with giggling Ghanaian students, to giving dinner to a rescued gibbon at a wildlife sanctuary in Thailand, to baking a cake with an orphan in Romania.
“No matter what your skill sets are, there are places where you’re needed and you can contribute,” Graham said. “Volunteering is not a one-way thing. It’s not just going to change the people you’re working with. It’s also going to change you. You’re going to gain more awareness of yourself, of what you’re capable of and what you’re passionate about. It’s worthwhile to put yourself in that position.”
A Catalyst for Change
Volunteerism isn’t all journal writing and introspection. The communities where volunteers work are often deeply affected by their presence. After all, it isn’t everyday that someone gives up the comforts of their daily life to pay to work long hours in a new and often demanding environment.
“One of the main factors of development is self-esteem and national pride,” said Hanna Butler, an administration staff member and fundraising trek organizer. “When I volunteered in India, sometimes it felt like I really wasn’t doing that much. But in some places, where we were the first foreigners to come there, people realized that they weren’t forgotten. They thought, ‘We’re worth being helped.'”
It’s often this feeling of self-worth, of recognition during a time of hopelessness, that can jump-start a community into action. When volunteers arrived in India to work in a community gutted by a swift reach of a wave-children separated from parents and homes exploded by a salt-water bullet in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee-they found many people still stunned and unresponsive.
“A lot of people were still in shock,” Colin said. “There wasn’t a lot of action happening. But [the volunteers] just got in and started rebuilding the wells and ensuring that there was good water and everything. And as soon as they started, the locals just came and joined in, and in some places, took over because they were better at it than the volunteers. The point being is that volunteers often act as a catalyst. Local people often think, ‘If these people are going to fly half way around the world and pay all the money just to help us, than I think we can help too.'”
If GVN considers the organization a success, it’s only because of the difference they’ve been able to make in other communities.
“In Nepal, we’ve been able to take them from basically zero in terms of volunteers for their projects to 20 or 30 a month,” Colin said. “What that’s meant for them is they’ve been able to have a fantastic impact in providing teachers for the schools and the orphanages. So part of our success is the success that’s meant for others.”
Colin continued, “In Ecuador, GVN supplies half the number of volunteers that the organization has. Since they’ve started working with the volunteers-it’s not always all better instantly-it has had an impact on the environmental policy on the country and the local attitude toward conservation.”
And while volunteerism creates many tangible changes for communities, from new school buildings to cleaner streams, it also helps to bridge a divide left behind by decades of Western imperialism, colonization and exploitation.
“Quite often you hear about developed countries taking advantage of developing countries,” Michelle said. “But volunteerism allows developing countries to see that there’s another side to people, and how people want to be in the world.”
The GVN Difference
Asking a GVN staffer to tell you the difference between GVN and another organization doing similar work is like asking a child what they want for Christmas; they just can’t stop listing things.
“I think that one of the best things about GVN’s programs is that volunteers have a lot of space to use their own initiative,” said Michelle, the program coordinator for Kenya and Tanzania and the administrator for GVN’s travel insurance option. “I think our programs work for someone who has a lot of enthusiasm, energy and wants to see things get done.”
While GVN doesn’t just send volunteers out with a map and a compass, they do allow volunteers to make many of the decisions about how they want to spend their time volunteering.
“Other organizations send a guide out with their volunteers and it’s all very set and concrete,” Graham said. “And while that ensures a certain consistency in the program, it’s also really limiting in terms of what you can get done. With GVN, you’re given support but there are no prescribed guidelines.”
Although GVN is a relatively small organization, Graham believes its tight-knit office is actually one of its strengths.
“We’re quite responsive and can turn around and gets things done if changes need to be made,” he said. “We don’t have ten layers of administration that you need to go through to get things done.”
And unlike other organizations, GVN’s programs don’t require a second mortgage to take part. Volunteering in Thailand for four weeks costs only $650.
“Volunteering is expensive,” Michelle said. “You’ve got to take time off of your own life, but still keep it going. Things just don’t stop when you go overseas. So you want the best value for your time and money.”
Choosing a Partner
Being popular isn’t always easy. GVN gets at least two queries a day from organizations that want to partner with them. The task of deciding which partners to invest in is a long one.
“We look at the impact that those projects are making,” Michelle said. “We make sure that they’re worthwhile projects, that they’re up to GVN standards and that they make a good impact on the local community.”
Understanding that business practices, cultures and even ethics run the gamut when working with international partners, GVN instituted The Ten Steps of Quality to ensure consistency. The steps, actually a checklist, help GVN set standards as they work toward excellence in all of their programs.
“Sometimes partners we work with are really eager to help but they’re not used to running a business the same way we are,” Graham said. “So the Ten Steps of Quality just gives them the tools to be able to do it effectively.”
There are times, however, when opinions differ and partnerships become more exacting rather than symbiotic. GVN, always careful about whom they’re working with, sometimes has to make the tough decision to cancel a partnership.
“We had a previous partner in Nepal in the beginning,” Colin said. “Things changed in regards to the way they were working and there was some question as to the use of finances. We had to decide that we couldn’t be involved if that sort of thing was going on. We had to pull the plug.”
Volunteer Expectations: Where’s the Air Conditioning?
“I need to change the Info Pack for the Philippines,” said Annika Lindorsson, the program coordinator for India, Philippines and Vietnam. “I think it’s confusing for people to find the taxi from the airport using it.”
Annika had just returned from a five-day trip to the Philippines to meet with one of GVN’s newest partner organization and assess the program. Following the path that a volunteer would take, she discovered a glitch in the directions.
“Going to the Philippines has made all the difference in my ability to do my job,” she said.
GVN isn’t shy about sending its employees to investigate their programs. For Annika, she brought back more than just a suntan: first-hand knowledge of how her program runs, what accommodation looks like, what volunteers are fed and the general logistics of getting around a country most volunteers have never been to before.
“It’s really helpful to see the logistical things, like the airports where the volunteers arrive,” said Graham, who traveled to Vietnam, Ecuador and El Salvador last year to check on his programs. “It’s a lot easier to give advice when you know where they’re going.”
Sharing a meal with a GVN partner also helps to build a relationship that had been solely Internet and phone based.
“It really makes it a lot more personal,” Anna said. “You have quite a close relationship with the people you’re working with over there. So to actually meet them makes it a lot more real.”
By seeing the country the way a volunteer would, program coordinators are able to ensure volunteers’ expectations are realistic; there really is no air conditioning in Uganda. Program coordinators also try to relay to volunteers that their trips will be nothing like a backpacker’s excursion to a dude ranch.
“Some of the volunteers will think the trip will be a real adventure,” Colin said. “Others think that in the month that they go, they’re going to dramatically change the place. Some views are naïve, some are more realistic and some view it as a holiday. So we try to get people’s expectations in line with reality without deflating them too much.”
Unlike some travel holidays where tourists can view poverty like a circus tent-circling around, pointing, but never joining in-volunteering with GVN makes acclimatizing to the environment a necessity.
“For the India program, for instance, accommodation has been selected that is not luxury accommodation,” Michelle said. “You’re actually learning to live another way without the comforts that you’re used to. At the end of the day, we want volunteers to gain a true experience of the country, rather than a tourist view.”
And while volunteers will have the opportunity to explore the country, there’s no mistaking that they work hard.
“I think a lot of people think it’s going to be really nice, like wiping sweat off people’s brows,” Hanna said. “But its long, hard work. Sometimes you feel like you’re not getting much done. And some days you think, ‘And I’m doing this for free? What am I doing?'”
Would she do it again?
“Yes,” she said.
Making the Big Leap: Just Go For It
“I was terrified,” said Charisse, of her first days volunteer teaching in Nepal. “I had no teaching experience. I was scared about having a classroom full of kids to myself. I didn’t know if I would be able to fill up all the class time and if I would be able to keep them under control.”
And how did it go?
“The way you’d expect it to,” she said. “There were some rough days, but it was great.”
The fear that gripped Charisse-How do you command a class full of children who don’t speak the same language?-is universal among volunteers stepping into situations that would make even the most experienced travelers blanch.
“Other volunteers have gone feeling the same way,” Charisse said. “In fact, every volunteer will have felt the same way. And you probably don’t always get that from the journals on the web site. But that shouldn’t be a reason to stop you.”
It’s this fearlessness, this nerve and heart and patience that a volunteer embodies that helps to push against a global current of hopelessness, despair, inequality, greed, racism and xenophobia.
“There have always been people in need, and unfortunately, I think there always will be,” Anna said. “You just have to help people one person at a time. I’d like to say that the end result is that GVN helps so much that they make themselves obsolete. But all throughout the history of the world, there has always been people who have nothing and people who have something to give.”
The act of giving, of taking on a responsibility for humankind, of declaring that a person whom you have never met has the basic and fundamental right to a life free of suffering, is incomparable to any other gesture.
“Yes, it’s tough,” Erin said. “And often there is culture shock. No one can ever prepare you for that. I don’t think you can be totally prepared for it. I’d seen pictures, watched videos, but in the end, the reality was different. But after the first few days, when you get over the jetlag and the change, I can’t see how you would ever regret it. I just can’t.”
And in the passing of a brick, in the chalk-dusted writing of a word, in the gentle rocking of a lonely child, a new world is forged where the universal truths are love, compassion and generosity; a world where photographs-a glimpse, an eye blink-become inspirations become ideas become endeavors become legacies.