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A 4-Person, 6-Month Volunteer Adventure Around the World

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

John Marshall wanted to travel with his family before his two teenagers left home. Along with his wife Traca, the foursome went around the world on a 6-month, unforgettable, volunteering escapade.

Introduce yourself!

I’m a 49-year-old father of two from Maine. For years I’ve worked in the TV business, writing shows and commercials, using my creativity to tell stories for advertisers. But lately, I have a new focus.

After a big trip that took my family and I around the world, I’m now writing books, working on behalf of orphaned children, and telling their stories. It’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been involved in. I love it.

JM

What inspired you to travel?

My wife Traca and I had been talking about taking a trip around the world ever since our son Logan was born. Seventeen years later, when Logan, and our daughter Jackson, were in high school, we realized our window for family travel was closing fast—and all we’d done was talk.

We couldn’t afford the typical hotel-restaurant-museum kind of trip. And then, I had an “ah-ha” moment: What if we volunteered our way around the world? What if we worked with local organizations on all kinds of interesting projects? We wouldn’t just be sightseeing, we’d be helping.

It was an idea that changed the course of all of our lives and set us off on an incredible and transformative adventure.

How did it change everyone’s life?

Taking this trip has put every member of my family on a new, inspired course in life.

My son Logan has spent years volunteering and surfing his way around South America; he’s now fluent in Spanish and blogging about natural fitness. My daughter Jackson is studying to be a doctor, planning to work in the developing world. My wife Traca has gone back to school to get her masters in Yoga Studies, another long-standing dream of hers. And I have started working on behalf of orphan projects worldwide.

But even more than these career and life-path changes, our inner lives were changed by the trip as well. We’ve all had the chance to meet the world face to face, to see some of the challenges people struggle with on a daily basis, to put our own fortunate lives in perspective, and to be touched by the need and generosity of the people we had the privilege to meet.

We were not changing the world for them. We went to learn, to pitch in, and to be changed along the way.

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Tell us about an encounter fresh in your mind.

Volunteering in the developing world is a jolt of reality. It’s easy to sit at home and talk about global poverty and to be sad in a general sense about world hunger. But when I actually met real people who were poor and hungry . . . they were not what I was imagining.

That was certainly true for orphaned kids in India. Before leaving home, I thought of them as some general, faceless mass of regrettable humanity, but these kids were not like that at all. They were so full of life, so loving, and they poured their love into me day after day as if I was the one who was empty.

All at once, the 150 million orphans in the world right now are overwhelming to think about. But when I got to know them, one on one, as children, it’s been impossible for me to return home and live as if they do not exist.

How did that experience change you?

Living at the Indian orphanage really changed my life, and I could see it changing my children as well. Before the trip, my kids were very self focused, worried about American teen “problems.” But at the orphanage, they really began to focus outward; working alongside orphaned kids their own age in the laundry or the kitchen, forgetting about the internet, really trying to make a difference.

My family and I would split up during the day and gravitate to the people we most connected with. Then at night, we’d sit on our porch, watch the huge fruit bats flap through the air, and talk about our day’s adventures. I loved seeing my daughter come back late from the girl’s hostel, drenched with sweat with a huge smile on her face after a night dancing to Bollywood songs.

Those times of sharing, of connection, are something I will never forget.

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What was it like to experience this trip with your family?  

While we were volunteering our way from country to country, I got a chance to see my kids working. At home, like a lot of kids, they weren’t crazy about hard work. But on our trip, they needed to work as part of the deal, and they really stepped up. It was all labor-intensive, challenging stuff, but they did it.

On farms in New Zealand, they worked for three to five hours a day, which they rarely did around our house back in Maine. They also taught their own English classes in Thailand, three classes a day, five days a week. They worked alongside the orphans in the orphanage laundry and kitchen.

Nothing made me more proud than seeing how capable my kids were. It was one of the best parts of the trip.

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Were your kids willing participants in your travels?

The trip wasn’t always easy for my kids. Both of them missed their friends, their teams, their bed, their hot showers, their phones, their rooms, their clothes, their privacy. And living mostly in one room with Mom and Dad for six months can be a challenge.

There were a few tears at times, and requests to go home.

But mostly it was a huge education for them. Hand-feeding baby monkeys, teaching their own English classes, making friends with orphans, and simply seeing how another part of the world lives. Meeting new people, rising to real-world challenges, immersing in cultures, enduring difficult moments…these are the things no classroom can offer.

How did you pay for your around the world trip?

We took out a home equity loan to pay, rolled it into our existing mortgage, and due to a phenomenally low interest rate, our monthly mortgage payment actually went down!

After that, we tried to stick to a budget of $8/day per person for food and accommodations (that’s $1000/month for all four of us). Not all volunteer organizations are so affordable. If one was too expensive, like an elephant preserve in Africa that wanted $2000/per week per person, we’d keep looking.

To find opportunities, we usually just typed the name of the country we wanted to visit along with the word “volunteer” into our search bar.

For the record: It cost less for us to volunteer our way around the world for six months than it would have cost us to stay at home and live our regular lives.

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What surprised you along the way?

It almost seemed like the less money people had, the more generous they became. We saw this all over the world, especially in the rural villages. Take Stok, high in the Himalayas on the Tibetan border.

In Stok, the people are mostly farmers, extremely poor. And yet, every house we passed wanted to invite us in for tea, every child was eager to give us little gifts. One evening, three young boys cornered me on the street and insisted I take the dirty apricots they pulled from their pockets. It was all they had.

When I accepted the filthy fruit, the boys were overjoyed. They ran off laughing and so happy. It was a great reminder of how much joy you can get from giving to others.

What moment can you not forget?

I met a man in India who had the worst job I’d ever seen.

He had no legs and couldn’t work, so each day, he dragged himself down the middle of a congested street, begging for coins. Through the dust and heat and indifference, this man crawled from one end of the street to the other and back again all day long, waiting for a few coins to drop from the passing windows. I always gave him a little money and wished him well.

Whenever I think my life is difficult or my problems are challenging, I just remember that man in the street and think…I’ve got it pretty good.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Aisle. My long legs demand it.

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Best travel tip, go:

Don’t feed the monkeys.

They look cute and I know it’s an exotic thing to do, but monkeys can be aggressive and territorial. Trust me on this one. I have lots of monkey bites to prove this point.

Don’t buy bottled water.

I know it’s more convenient, but the world is absolutely buried in discarded plastic. If you can, bring a pump, pump your own clean water, and leave not a single plastic bottle behind. It will save you a bunch of money in the long run, too.

What did we miss?

More than anything, I just want to stress that if my family and I can do this, you and your family can too (if you want to). We weren’t rich and bored. I didn’t have a book deal before leaving home. But we were motivated and we made the decision to go.

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Dreaming of taking a trip around the world is not the same thing as deciding to do it. We talked about taking a trip like this for years. We dreamed of it. But once we decided to go, once we told people, once I gave my notice at work, once we bought non-refundable plane tickets, once we informed our children’s school that they would not be coming back for the second half of the year, once we rented our house…there was no turning back.

With action, dreams come to life. For us, that started with a fully-committed decision to get out the door.

Whereto next?

My book about our experience, Wide-Open World, is out. Now,  I’m hoping to head back to the orphanage in India this summer. I lived there most of last year and the children have a big piece of my heart. I can’t wait to see them again.

Stay up to date with John at John Marshall.

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