Amy Robertson has been passionate about volunteer vacations since she was 13, when she took her first service trip with Habitat for Humanity. Since then, she’s traveled far and wide, visiting more than 60 countries.
She has a background in international development and nonprofit management, and has worked in both private and nonprofit sectors.
The volunteer experiences she has had – from monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, to working with youth in Bolivia on the creation of social documentaries, to collecting and distributing aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon – have helped her to better understand the people she met, and enriched her as much as it did those she supported.
She recently launched her new book Volunteer Vacations in Latin America (which includes an interview with Serena!) and so we took some time to interview her about the project…
Q. What inspired you to write a book on volunteering?
Amy: For me the best travel should include:
(1) authentic experiences
(2) person-to-person connections
(3) thoughtful choices so that a positive footprint is left behind.
Volunteering while traveling is one great way to do all this.
Q. What is distinct about a “volunteering vacation”?
Amy: Volunteering while on vacation offers the chance to interact with the people you meet in a way that up-ends the usual dynamic between “traveler/consumer” and “local/service provider”.
Some volunteer opportunities, such as building a house or restoring a natural habitat, allow the visitor to work shoulder to shoulder with the locals. Others, such as teaching English or playing with children in a day care, allow for a complete role reversal, where the traveler provides the service to the local community.
This altered dynamic allows the traveler to experience a slice of daily life in the local community. This gives a better understanding of how local customs and ways of life exist and are followed.
This insight is especially valuable when we travel to places that have a culture very different than the one to which we are accustomed. And isn’t that what we are looking for when we travel – a chance to experience a different environment and gain a new understanding? For me, the more fully I can do that, the better.
Q. Who is the book for?
Amy: Anyone who wants to enhance their vacation with an authentic and mutually-beneficial experience will find something in this book to pique their interest.
The minimum time commitment for volunteering ranges from just a few hours to one month.
There are experiences for solo travelers and for groups (as well as for single travelers who want to join up with a group), for backpackers, families and seniors.
There are opportunities across a broad spectrum of activities, working with animals or plants or people, providing anything from basic labor to specialized services such as medical care or graphic design. There are also many opportunities that can be combined with formal language-learning programs – in Spanish, Portuguese, or one of the indigenous languages of the Americas.
The guide includes basic travel information about each country covered, as well as questions for would-be volunteers to ask both themselves and the organization they will potentially support. This helps travelers discern the best fit for them based on climate, culture and cost, as well as activity and impact.
Q. Why have you focused on Latin America?
Amy: Between country guides, “spotlights” (on a city or region), living abroad guides and thematic guides, Moon already has more than 50 titles on mainland Latin America (not even including the Caribbean), so I think you could say it’s a specialty of theirs.
The same could be said for me – while I’ve visited more than 60 countries across the globe, I have lived in Latin America for eight years, and traveled in every one of the thirteen countries included in Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.
Moon also has guides covering Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Canada and the US, so I hope that we will see more volunteering guides from them in the future.
Q. What tips do you have for people for making the most of a volunteering experience?
Amy: Read up on where you want to go and what you want to do, so that you have the best chances of finding an experience that meets your expectations. Think carefully about what those expectations are. Travel with a flexible mind and an open heart.
Deepen the impact of your volunteer work by sharing your experience with others, and by continuing your commitment (to those people, that organization, or that cause) once you return home.
Understand that the life that will be most changed, is likely to be your own.
Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America is available at retail bookstores across the United States, and through Amazon.