I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

18 July 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Getting home in Cambodia

My mother would yell at me if she had seen me this morning, climbing into the back of a pick-up truck and squishing onto the back corner, careful not to lean back as we sped off to find yet another passenger. I had been waiting in front of our office, hoping to hop in a car that was heading to Siem Reap, but none with any space had come by in the last fifteen minutes. I knew the pickup would take much longer, stopping many times along the way, and that maybe I’d be late for my 8am meeting, but I also didn’t know how long it might be until a speedy car came by…. so I hoped in.

Seven in the front cab and 13 of us in the back…. 14 now. Another woman gets in, smiling and saying hi to another girl in the truck. Maybe their cheerful greetings are because they have known each other for a long time, or maybe they are because they can see their own joys and concerns in the other – both pregnant and heading into Siem Reap to visit the children’s hospital to check on the progress of their unborn babies.

The older man next to me turns and asks:

“Where are you going? Where are you from? How old are you? Are you traveling alone? How long have you been here? How did you learn Khmer?”

A nun, with short white stubble on her nearly shaved head lets me know my Khmer is “chi’bah”. “Not SO clear,” I say, “I’m still learning.” It’s easy to know the few words to answer his questions as I get to practice often with this Cambodian sing-song of introductions.

He used to speak French, he says. Before the Khmer Rouge, before the war, when French was taught in schools.

“Do you speak French?”

My high school French teacher would be sad to hear it, but I don’t really, I say. Sorry Dr. Rodgers.

“Do you know where Pailin is?”

He asks and points. He knows exactly which direction we are going in and where each other major town is in relation to us, pointing in each of their directions and telling me a bit about them.

“I used to live in Pailin.”

Before I can stop it, my brain starts judging. “Perhaps he lived in Pailin as a Khmer Rouge solider,” I think, remembering it was one of the last strongholds. His smile is so wide and he’s so eager to make friends with the “barang” on the truck, I say to myself “Well, even if he was a soldier I am sure he didn’t want to be… and either way, as a soldier or as a laborer in the regime, he would likely have seen many loved ones and neighbors killed….”

The attention moves away from me and my thoughts of the deaths of the past and on to a more recent one. The man across the bed of the truck, with RAY BAN written in large letters across his plastic sunglasses, is showing a picture of his daughter who has recently died. The photos were of her funeral… she’d died in Thailand. They had likely gone over to work as day laborers. I couldn’t understand well enough to understand more… I wish the old lady was right and my Khmer was indeed perfect.

15, 16, 17. I didn’t think we could fit more people, but now the final three are sitting on the wood that is protruding from the back of the truck. A moto goes by with a basket full of more than a dozen piglets, pink tails sticking out to wave at traffic. The driver has his helmet resting on the front of the motorbike. It’s too hot to put it on, perhaps, but it’s there ready in case he passes a police checkpoint. I’m sure my mom would suggest I should be wearing one of those, especially if we add more people.

18. We’ve turned down a dirt road. It’s unfortunate you see, as I’m meant to be back in Siem Reap in a meeting starting in 10 minutes. That said, I’d just done a training with our team the day before about how we can’t always control what happens around us, but we can control our emotions and reactions. I decide just to forget worrying about the call and enjoy the bumpy ride. As if knowing I needed a distraction, the man turns back to me and says:

“How many cows do you have at home in America?”

Hmmm…. “I don’t have any cows,” I say, wondering how that will go over. At first, a bit of shock, but that quickly fades into understanding.

“Of course! You use a tractor to plow your fields, yes?”

Ummm….. “I don’t know how to drive a tractor, actually!” Disappointment. “I really should learn,” I think, as if the judgment of this older man and others like him was enough to justify the desire to prove that I too can grow things from the earth. Well… maybe I could. Probably not well to be honest, I think as I watch the man in front of us, tilling his field. Two cows pull the small but very heavy plow and the mud-covered man pushes down on the top of it to keep it digging into the earth.

“Do you have fields like this in America?”

I describe that we do, just not so many near where I grew up. We are looking out onto an endless expanse of green. Like patchwork, each plot of land is a slightly different color, planted at a slightly different angle, making the land look like a large quilt. Dotted throughout, as holes in the pattern, are coconut trees. I notice the similarity in the landscape to the clothing of many of the passengers, holes here and there, or patches covering over where holes had once been, like the patchwork on the boys knees next to me – small cuts and scares from previous scrapes.

“He’s heading to the doctor.”

The old man points out. The boy is meticulously plucking each kernel from an ear of corn, one by one and popping them into his mouth slowly as his mother hugs him close.

As we’re gradually making our way down the dirt road, an older woman in the bed of the pickup starts making a betel nut packet. She takes out the leaf, puts white paste on it from her carefully opened container, and places some seeds into the mixture before placing it in her mouth.

It turns out that we’ve taken this detour to stop at a Wat. There is a celebration going, and I notice that most of the passengers in the cab are also nuns. Half of the truck piles out at the Wat which is full of music and people dressed in their most respectful clothing.

“Come visit some time! I live over there, we have coconuts and many fruits.”

He points in the direction of his home. We smile goodbye, and I hop into truck bed to grab a seat on the floor, no longer worrying about being late.

16 July 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Voluntourists at Home

She and her family had been forced to evacuate their home when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. They hadn’t been back to New Orleans for more than two weeks, and when they were finally told it was safe to return, they packed up some of the belongings they had salvaged and started the long drive home. When they pulled into their driveway, they saw that many trees had fallen, some on their roof and many across the property.

Her mother walked around the house and returned looking shocked. There were people in the backyard!

The family walked around the house to find a group of volunteers cutting down their trees. They had traveled to Louisiana with a visiting church group and proclaimed that they were here to help. They had already cut down a number of trees and were currently cutting down one that had only a few branches missing and the top had fallen off.

The family got together to chat, to figure out what to do. They were a bit annoyed as they realized the volunteers had been dragging away wood they could have saved for firewood, and they were currently cutting down trees they could probably save…. plus it was stressful to have uninvited people in their home when all they wanted to do was settle in and assess the damage on their own as a family.

But they realized these volunteers had good intentions! Plus, they didn’t want to offend them and tell them to leave, since they’d traveled all this way to try to “help”.

The volunteers had already removed most of the trees that had fallen on the house. While the trees had damaged the house, they had also prevented additional water and debris from entering their home as the trees had been stoppers, filling the holes they had created.

When they pulled trees off of the roofs there wasn’t always apparent exposure to the elements but inside it led to additional leeking. The family was so glad that they had returned home just when they did, as the volunteers had just removed a tree from their house which, unbeknown to them, actually had some branches protruding through the roof that they couldn’t have seen just by looking at it from the outside, only from the inside. (There CERTAINLY in another analogy in that!)

They looked over at other houses on the street that the volunteers had already cleared and realized that some neighbors, who were not scheduled to return to their home for more than a week, now had holes in their house exposed to the elements.

“But how do we tell them to LEAVE?” the family asked each other? Instead they politely asked them to keep the rest of the firewood rather than drag it away, and waited as the volunteers marched off to the next home.

A woman who was just on a course I instructed in Cambodia told me this story about her experience living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and I am sharing it here with her permission.

27 June 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Learning Service – Video 1

The first in our series of Learning Service videos was just released….. check it out!

Also, we have just a few more hours to go to reach our $10,000 fundraising goal for the rest of the Learning Service videos and book!  Please help us out by supporting or spreading the word on our campaign if you can!

27 June 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Straight to Junk

Ugh. Gmail has been my hero for nearly the last decade. That “ever growing” capacity didn’t grow fast enough for my email volume, and for the last five years I’ve even had to pay a bit of money each year to get more space in my email. My brain “auto-archives” or searches based on “from:(insert name)”. I’ve sent a ton of people an email intervention. I’ve been Gmail’s biggest fan. But, for the first time, Gmail has failed me. (Fade to lowercase.)

I’m not sure if it’s that my gmail was hacked in the China Eastern Airlines lounge a few months ago on a layover in Shanghai when my computer started doing weird things, or if my gmail caught bird flu, or rabies, or what….. but my gmail is now going straight to junk. Or, in a few cases over the last few months, people can’t even find the email at all, not even in their junk. Straight to space perhaps. It’s like a drunk and confused newspaper delivery man – sometimes getting the paper to the right stoop, sometimes straight into the trash can, but a lot of the times, over the back fence and into the neighbor’s yard with the big dog, and the news is never to be seen again.

So that’s my news. My emails are being eaten. And it’s not like a 4th grade “the dog ate my homework” excuse. With the homework, you didn’t really do it – and you certainly didn’t want to! These are emails I not only wanted to write, but also took a long time TO write!!!  And they are MISSING IN ACTION!

So, I’m writing all this because today, I FINALLY finished writing back to all of the great emails, questions, thoughts, etc that people sent after the BBC piece I wrote on international service went live. But a lot of you probably didn’t actually receive my emails as they could now be hanging out with viagra ads in your junk box. It seems gmail is more likely to throw my words to the dogs on emails to people I don’t normally write to. (Understandable for the confused postman, but very sad when it’s my once-heroic gmail!).

So, if you wrote me a note on my blog in the last few month and you DIDN’T hear back from me, check your junk mail. Or drop me a note again and I can try to re-forward the email. Because I really did write to you (a looooong email to a girl who is working with friends to fund a school building in Cambodia in an orphanage they are concerned about, others asked for advice etc….). Check your junk, because I’d rather you get to feed on my emails than the dogs! And my poor email certainly doesn’t like being squished between a casino advertisement and a lady saying you need to wire her $10,000 to help save her from Guatemalan kidnappers. I’d like to think my email’s more valuable than that junk, so please dumpster dive into your own trash pile, and save my little note! Thanks, and apologies to all this applies to!

21 June 2013 ~ 0 Comments

A Tale of Three Teachers

I just heard a fantastic story and I had to share. I’m in the Sierra Mountains, doing a training with Where There Be Dragons before heading to Cambodia to lead a development education course and the Director, Susie Rinehart, just shared this story with me that she said I could share with you.

Susie showed us photos of when the 80 year-old Jane Goodall recently came to visit her daughter’s school. Susie was even more excited to see her than the students were, as she remembered how influential Jane Goodall’s story had been in her own childhood. When she was in 5th grade, the teacher showed a short documentary about Jane’s work using one of those film reel projectors. Susie was mesmerized.

“I want to do that with my life! I want to be like Jane Goodall!” Susie swore to her teacher when the film was done.

“Well, what do you think you need to learn in order to be like Jane?” her teacher, Madame Spear, asked young Susie.

“Well…. I’d have to learn to sit still! I don’t think I could sit for that long watching animals!” Susie decided.

Her teacher gave her an assignment, setting up an experiment to give Susie the practice in “sitting” she would need in order to become the next Jane Goodall. She was told to sit by the water fountain with a notebook and pen, tracking each time someone came to the fountain.

For three school days she sat there, writing down the name of each student that came for a drink, noting their behaviors and keeping a time log. After 3 days she returned to her class and told her teacher she was giving up. Being Jane Goodall was WAY too hard, and sitting by the water fountain was way too boring!

Susie might not have become a gorilla tracker, and rather than stillness she cultivated a love of motion, running ultra marathons around the world. But what she did learn from the impressive Madame Spear, was how to be a great teacher. Susie went on to help direct a school, and is now the director of an exceptional global education travel company.

And there she was just a few months ago, eager as her 11 year old self, about to go meet Jane Goodall, and tell her her water fountain tracking story herself. And what did the wise Jane say, when she heard Susie’s story? She smiled and laughed and then said:

“And how did the people react when they saw you sitting by the water fountain?”

“They acted funny,” Susie said. “They looked at me or behaved differently when they were drinking from the fountain.”

“Well, then you certainly didn’t sit there long enough,” said Jane.

And I, for one, am so glad Susie didn’t, and Jane did. Both are certainly doing what they were designed to do – and making the world a better place for it! I wonder which teacher Jane Goodall would look back on who inspired her, as I’m sure there is at least one. Here’s to exceptional teachers inspiring young people to go out and teach exceptionally.

23 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Why I don’t have a “list” of places you should volunteer

Over the last few weeks, since the BBC Four Thought talk I gave on volunteer travel went live, I have gotten a lot of requests for a list of places to volunteer. Below is a link to a post I wrote on WhyDev about why volunteer rating systems might not work for exactly right for YOU!

http://www.whydev.org/whats-wrong-with-development-volunteering-rating-systems/?utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Buffer&utm_content=buffer4b6af

15 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Can Marketing Your Social Impact Harm Your Social Impact?

When I was last in Cambodia, I was speaking with Rachel Faller, of KeoK’jay about their marketing – and how they weigh decisions about whether or not to market the impact of their work on their employees. The counterbalance of marketing their “impact” vs their “products/service” is one DDD, a Phnom Penh based data-entry company employing “disadvantaged people” faces as well. Here is a piece I wrote for the Ashoka column of Forbes online about this tension involved in marketing your impact:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/15/can-marketing-your-social-impact-harm-your-social-impact/