Monday, August 18, 2008

International volunteering for teens

It all started in 5th grade with my project on Japan. Each of us chose a different country, and we had to make little paper dolls dressed in that country's "traditional" clothing. I was obsessed with Japan - perhaps it was because it seemed so different than my own family and town, which was mostly blond and brunettes, all living in a suburban Boston wonderland.

That obesssion let me to call the number broadcase on Kiss 108: "Do you want to host a Japanese exchange student?"

Why yes, yes I did! No matter I was only in 5th grade.

I think my mom figured "what's one more kid when I already have four?" and a few months later, we welcomed Tomoko into our lives for a month. A year later, we used my dad's frequent flier miles and at 14 years old, I traveled over to Japan alone to visit Tomo and her family.

Since then, some of the highlights of my travels have included a college semester in Spain, being a psychologist in Nicaragua, and traveling around southern India. Apparently, however, kids are not only traveling around the world and doing it at a younger age than ever, they are starting humanitarian volunteering trips before they've even gone to their Junior year high school prom.

Apparently the increase in high school humanitarian trips is not entirely due to an outpouring of good feelings. Parents are encouraging their kids to go on these trips so they have material for a good college essay. Hopefully their essays end up coming from genuine emotion because then we have a win-win situation: the kid learns something that can't be taught in the classroom, and gets into a good school.

However, in yet another example of the increasing class divide, middle and lower class families may not be able to give these kinds of trips to their kids. Hopefully they'll be able to find fodder for their college essays closer to home - after all, volunteer opportunities for persistent and non-commitment-phobe teens are abound.

If you're interested in getting your teen volunteering, send them to the following websites to investigate:
Keep in mind that the organization is more likely to take your requests for information seriously if the teen calls or emails him or herself. S/he will probably feel more invested in it as well. With a little effort, you (or the teen you know) can have a great volunteer experience and some valuable fodder for that college application essay.

Me, at age 14 in Japan. The yukata was actually crossed incorrectly in the front in the way it is done for someone who has died. Tomoko's friend's mother took me into a phone booth and re-wrapped it for me because I was not, in fact, dead. Letters to my mother about the experience included, "it's hard to walk in those things," "I'm taller than everyone," and "they LOVE firecrackers and sparklers here."
Photos courtesy of Casey.


Casey @ OYFP said...

There was an article in the Globe today about voluntourists - people who volunteer on vacation! My favorite option is the one in Spain where you help provide a professional English speaking atmostphere. Not so much "helping the needy" as "getting a free vacation/nights in Spain."

TWSusan said...

GREAT IDEAS, Casey. I think international travel and student exchanges are part of a liberal education and everyone should be required to go abroad.

You left out the part that we sent you around the world, unescorted, to change planes twice en route to Japan! HAving Tomoko as a youthful ambassador was a fantastic experience --even if only for a month.

You're just as cute today as you were in that kimono.

--your Mom