Welcome back to our interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Today we’re speaking with Shannon O’Donnell, a travel blogger, speaker, and author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. She regularly volunteers and in 2011 launched her passion project, a community sourced database of local, sustainable organizations all over the world. She is the founder of the website ALittleAdrift.com and tweets at @ShannonRTW. Please check back later this week for part two of our interview with Shannon.
How did you first get involved with volunteering?
My earliest volunteer experiences were domestically, within my own community. I volunteered at animals shelters and fundraised for the American Cancer Society throughout high school and college. Then, after two years living as an actress in Los Angeles, a time when I lost focus on service, I decided pack up my life (I sold everything I owned) to leave the U.S. on a one-year trip around the world.
It’s during that trip that I re-focused on volunteering, and I began to focus on giving support at the local level to grassroots organizations and businesses within the communities through which I traveled. In that initial year-long trip, I volunteered teaching English in both Cambodia and Nepal. My travels have now become an open-ended journey around the world spanning nearly four years, and I have continued to volunteer regularly throughout Asia and Central America.
Can you talk a little about one of your favorite volunteering experiences? What made it so memorable?
My first long-term volunteer experience, teaching English at a monastery in rural Nepal to young monks, held such a special place in my memories. And while this is certainly still the case, more recently I traveled and volunteered with my 12-year-old niece, Ana, at the We Women Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My niece and I were able to volunteer together tutoring a Shan refugee from Burma (Myanmar) over the course of several months. I enjoyed watching my niece absorb the experience.
As the weeks progressed, Ana began to personally connect that her time—that the small amount of effort she was putting in each week—was having a life-long impact on another human being. The woman we tutored had such a diligent passion to better her life, and she worked so hard each day to learn our language. Ana on the other hand was handed the right to a free education at birth, and as we tutored she saw that this is not a right afforded to all, that many others have to work hard to obtain the same basic rights. In the weeks after we left We Woman to return home to the United States, Ana articulated to me this perspective shift that she saw within herself.
It is difficult for a single person to change the world, and for me that is not the point of volunteering, rather it’s the ability to build a pyramid of good that stacks up to lasting change, and that each volunteer learns more compassion when they leave the experience. Seeing this occur through volunteering with my niece was heartening and something I hope to continue on our future travels.
Are there particular causes and/or organizations near and dear to your heart?
My volunteer efforts tend toward helping women and children, and particularly through education. In some places, this is a trickier area to volunteer within because of the safety issues that crop up when international volunteers are given carte-blanche access to children. But since I travel slowly, I have found many projects over several weeks and months that fit with the skills I have to offer, and the needs of local communities. Educating women in developing regions empowers them to raise the level of living, healthcare, and opportunities for their entire family. Similarly, I feel the legacy we leave behind is imprinted on our children, and for this reason, I have focused my attention on bettering their lives—they are our future leaders and every child deserves the best opportunities we can bring to them.
Please check in later this week for part two of our interview with Shannon O’Donnell.