There are two critical things we recommend every family focus on in order to make a truly meaningful and rewarding sabbatical experience: purpose and service. Purpose is the why (what do you hope to get out of the experience?), and we’ll cover it in more detail in upcoming articles. Service, even if it’s not part of your sabbatical purpose, is a very simple way to learn about the world, other people, and yourselves. Structured programs are a great way to do service, particularly if this is your first sabbatical rodeo, because they’ll take care of lots of logistics so you don’t have to. This week’s contributor, Roman Yavich, has some personal experience with it.
It is one of the beautiful compensations in this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ever find yourself singing that Rolling Stones track Satisfaction? You wake up early, work hard all day, go out on the town, and still…just can’t get no satisfaction. The problem is too much routine and not enough spontaneity and adventure. You knew what was going to happen today, and you know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Take a trip to a developing country and I promise, you won’t know what’s happening in any given moment, much less what tomorrow holds. You will be confused and outside of your element, but guess what, it will be more fun and more educational than you could ever imagine.
“Sure,” you might be saying, “but how do I know that I won’t die.” Well you don’t, but you don’t know that whether you are sitting in your armchair watching the ball game or hacking through the jungle with a machete. That’s why you should live every day like it’s your last. If it’s your last day, do you want to spend it fighting off jungle vermin or clicking your remote?
Luckily, a sabbatical experience can easily give you the adrenaline rush you so desire and you don’t even have to go to the jungle—unless you want to of course. Getting out of your routine, out of your comfort zone, and out of your country, and doing it all with your family, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…until you decide to do it again. Upon returning—if you ever choose to come back—you will view your life in the States from a completely different perspective. The luxury, the ease and quality of life, the minutia, the rat race—all will be in better focus.
Once you decide to do it (and I hope that after the previous three paragraphs you already have) the big questions are: where do we go? and what do we do while we’re there? Based on 10 years of travel throughout the world, my answers are simple: go to a place as different from your home as possible and volunteer while you are there. By “different from you home” I mean less industrialized and economically developed. By volunteering I mean do stuff for free.
Here’s why: the more different your destination from your point of departure, the more you will learn. It’s that simple. You will be able to contemplate the differences and see the benefits and the detriments of life in both places. (Blissfully ignorant, we often forget to notice the low-lights of our easy living in the US.)
I propose volunteering instead of work for three reasons: you are not likely to make a lot of money in a developing country even if you have a specialized skill that is in demand there; the wages are not the same. You also don’t want to be taking a job away from a local. Finally, volunteering is an awesome way to experience a community and its people in way that is completely impossible through employment or vacation.
To get back to that Stones song, volunteering is one of the most satisfying things you can do. If you haven’t tried it at home, you are missing out on one of the best ways to spend time with your friends, discover your community, and feel like you’re contributing to something important. This is true regardless of what you are doing when you volunteer—whether building houses with Habitat for Humanity or tutoring kids at a local school. Volunteering is also a gateway to new communities and organizations, new friends, and new knowledge. When abroad, it is your gateway to authenticity. The more time you spend with the locals, the better you learn the language, the more you appreciate the cultural differences, the more memorable the experience will be.
Why do I think volunteering is better than just living abroad? How often do you get to work towards a common goal together with your entire family? When can you teach your children and learn from them at the same time?
Comunidad Connect, a nonprofit I co-founded in Nicaragua, arranges sustainable tourism and sabbatical experiences for families. Among our past placements we have the Nanins, a mother-daughter team that combined their passions for teaching, crafts, and sports to create hands-on, dynamic and active English classes they taught for two weeks. The Wetherns, a family of two parents and their two teenage kids, worked together to paint a mural and plant a school garden together with Nicaraguan school kids. Different members of the family took on leadership roles in projects they knew most about. The mother led the garden project and the father and daughter were the leaders in the mural project. Yet another family, the Edmonds, a mother and her son, were both passionate about soccer and other sports, and organized two weeks of sports clinics. At first the 15-year-old boy was extremely taciturn, but his love of soccer and the experience of being a leader with clinic participants led him to become active and dynamic in the project and later motivated him to become a mentor after he returned home.
Even though volunteering can seem an additional challenge in an already difficult excursion, the organizations that arrange these experiences are a great source of information and support. Comunidad Connect can customize the entire duration of the sabbatical or simply facilitate the placement and provide some tips of where to travel and what to do the rest of the time. Families choosing the complete package have to only arrive to the airport and Comunidad Connect staff will take care of the rest.
Here are some tips from the Comunidad Connect staff for making the most of your volunteer sabbatical:
- Ask lots of questions before, during and after, but especially before. Ask about the things that matter to you (e.g. air conditioning, favorite food, safety). The more your host knows about you, the better they can customize your experience. Also share with your provider any health issues or phobias. It doesn’t rid the country of spiders but it helps us warn you that you shouldn’t use certain bathrooms.
- Be aware of cultural difference in cleanliness, timeliness, and gender expectations. Nicaraguans are always as tidy as possible with their personal presentations and are often surprised by our sloppier vacation selves. U.S. standards of time are not universal. Be prepared to wait and enjoy the different pace of your international experience. Finally, do not be offended by the division of men’s work and women’s work on more physical projects. Just put forth your best effort and don’t take gender stereotypes personally.
- Engage your entire family in the planning and brainstorming process. Developing expectations together will help you stay on the same page during the sabbatical.
- Don’t schlep anything you don’t have to. Find out if you can get granola bars, a certain type of toothpaste, or medication at your destination before you pack a year’s supply.
- Be realistic in how many hours you want to spend together and what different activities and interests you have. Everyone having a little private time deepens the experience and allows for growth as individuals as well as bonding as a family.
Whether through Comunidad Connect or another similar program, a volunteer experience is a great way to give some structure to your family sabbatical, ease you into your experience, and finally get some (you knew it was coming) satisfaction!
[Ed. Note: Roman Yavich is the co-founder of Comunidad Connect, a project in Nicaragua to match social, economic and environmental opportunities with local and global resources.]