Inspire…Inform…Connect…Celebrating volunteer travel experiences around the world.
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The Ripple Effect: Shannon O’Donnell, Volunteer Superstar, Part Two

Shannon at the Great Wall of China

Image source: Shannon O'Donnell

Welcome back part two of our Ripple Effect interview 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.

On your website you mention how amazed you’ve been by the new perspective travel has brought to your life. In what ways?


Travel has humbled me and expanded my perception of my place in the world. I grew up in the United States and was insulated from truly experiencing a strong sense of any other culture. Once I left my bubble in the U.S., I was thrust into situations outside my realms of previous experience, and I was perhaps even more surprised by the nuggets of similar truths found in every city, town, and village I passed through. There is a commonality of shared experiences–common theme, common hopes and common fears, within each person’s story. Witnessing this, hearing the stories and feeling the inherent kindness of communities all over the world, has broadened my sense of self, and my understanding of the threads of connection that bind us all. It’s these stories that I hope to express on my travel blog, and that have shifted my perspective.

Travel recalibrates the point of view through which I approach problems and situations in my life, it has given me a sense of gratitude for what I have in my life through nothing more than circumstance of birth, and I’m even more grateful for my ability to share that message with others. In its simplest form, I feel now more able to take the proverbial step into another person’s shoes and imagine their struggles, feel their hopes, and respect their successes and failures. 

Shannon and Ana Washing an Elephant

Image source: Shannon O'Donnell

Do you think volunteering enriches your experience of a place?


There is no doubt in my mind that volunteering has enriched my experience of each place I have traveled through. And beyond volunteering though, I think we have that same ability to connect and serve even in communities we pass through as we travel. Volunteering is not an ideal option for everyone, nor is it practical on every trip. But that doesn’t mean there are not ways to support. Social enterprises are organizations that are advancing a social mission though more traditional business means. These enterprises earn income and operate as businesses, but implement a social, environmental, or community-driven mission. Beyond volunteering, I also seek out these locally produced efforts. I believe that if we connect at the local level to the places we visit in a way that makes us comfortable, that we have a better ability to understand the culture. For me, I find travel most interesting and enriching when I am able to hear the stories of a place and a people.

Shannon's Niece with Khmer Dancers in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Image source: Shannon O'Donnell

Do you have any volunteering plans for the future?


When I left to travel four years ago, I made myself a commitment to volunteer regularly, and yes, I still plan to volunteer domestically and abroad when I travel. I homeschool and travel with my 12-year-old niece now, so my volunteering efforts have shifted some. There are some projects on which she cannot work, but I hope to continue to find opportunities open to family volunteers. Right now, our tentative plan is to travel through Latin America in January 2013, and I have already made contact with several schools and animal conservation projects in the regions.

The Monastery in Petra, Jordan

Image source: Shannon O'Donnell

What is the ripple effect of volunteering on your life?

The ongoing relationships and friendships I have built through volunteering continue to affect my life in positive ways. Ongoing communication is so much easier now than it was in decades past, and the internet has given me a way to continue supporting my past volunteering efforts even once I leave. The people I volunteered with extended me the privilege to become a part of their lives for the weeks and months I was in their community. And though I have returned home, I exchange emails and support for these causes. There are friendships I built with other volunteers that continue to this day. Each time these ripples of the past experiences make their way into my current life, when they give me an ability to continue supporting and working with the people I connected with into the future—well that is the ripple effect bringing positivity full circle for me.

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