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Volunteering Abroad: On the Road with Shannon O’Donnell

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

I’ve been a fan of Shannon O’Donnell for several years. The posts on her site are always well thought out, and she’s also known for her work on international volunteering.

We recently caught up while she was traveling in Kenya.

Introduce yourself!

I am a native Floridan (a rare breed) and I left the States in 2008 to travel around the world for a year while working as an online consultant. I ended up loving the process of traveling slowly, sharing the stories of the people and places I encountered. I’ve continued to be on the road for years now, helping other travelers learn how to get involved with global volunteering – donating your time to people or issues that need support – and raising awareness about how to be a responsible tourist and not hurt the economies you’re visiting.

Where are you right now?

Throughout the spring I’ve been traveling in East Africa; I spent last week at a Maasai camp in Kenya learning about their cultures and traditions. This has been my first adventure in Africa, and I’m loving the experience of traveling this region.

How did you become interested in volunteering abroad?

Service has always been part of my life. I volunteered regularly before I left to travel and it seemed like a natural extension to continue this practice on the road. From the start, though, I was overwhelmed by the number of costly volunteer opportunities with questionable positive impact on the projects they support.

What made you decide to raise your voice on this issue?

On the road, I’ve seen many highs and lows within the “voluntourism” industry, and decided that beyond merely volunteering, I wanted to use my voice to help de-commodify the conversation. Volunteering isn’t the only way to travel ethically. Responsible tourism choices such as spending money at mom-and-pop shops and social enterprises can also make a huge difference to local communities.

Why volunteer (as opposed to just traveling and seeing the world)?

Forms of ethical volunteering and responsible tourism have the ability to be the greatest equalizer and exchange of money between developed and developing countries. Travelers with a service mindset take away a deeper understanding of the consequences their actions can have on the local communities and environment, and they’re sensitive to using their skills to support community-driven projects.

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How did you earn the Frequent Flyer Miles for your trip?

Despite traveling heaps, I only recently started taking advantage of airline miles. All told I’ve earned less than 100,000 miles across three airlines.

I used my Chase Sapphire card to offset about three quarters of the cost of my airfare to Africa. I also used the AmEx Bluebird Card to reach the minimum spend.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Window!

Where do you usually stay when on the road?

I like the amenities hostels offer, and as a solo traveler it’s nice to meet others. Once I find a spot I love though, I usually stay 3-6 months. I rent an apartment so I can settle in a bit more.

Tell us something that has surprised you while traveling.

Each day on the road I marvel in the kindness and genuine welcome from the cultures and communities I have passed through over the past years. Though the media paints much of the world as a dangerous place, the realities on the ground are often much different. There are definitely regions to approach with caution, but by and large I have found new friendships and an inherent kindness in each new place.

Have you met any fun or interesting people on the road?

With the work that I do, I often meet creative entrepreneurs who have started their social enterprises as a way to create change and address social issues in their own communities.

For example, in Thailand, I shared months of conversations with Lee, who was the first of his village to attend college. He used his education to market and sell the coffee produced within his village collective, Akha Ama Coffee. He has found incredible success over just a couple of years, and I had the chance to not only watch these changes happen, but also visit his hillside village and see the inner workings of this project.

Best travel tips. Go:

Volunteer!

In exchange for their time, volunteer travelers are given a unique lens through which to dig more deeply into the nuances of the culture, to ask questions, and to really learn more about this country they decided to visit. Some great places to get started are the resource list at Grassroots Volunteering or Go Overseas.

Where are you headed next?

I will continue exploring East Africa, with Uganda and Rwanda up next.

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Follow Shannon’s travels and work on her blog, A Little Adrift, or via Twitter @ShannonRTW.

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