Give Back

What an International Aid Adventure Taught Me about Volunteering at Home


This post is brought to you on behalf of Reward Volunteers and does not necessarily reflect the views of the sponsoring organization.

Immediately following my high school graduation, I bought a one-way ticket to Beijing, China.

I’d only been on an airplane once and had never traveled internationally before, so this travel excursion was quite the adventure. I learned enough Mandarin to greet others, say “Yes” and “No”, and communicate about basic navigation. I’d received a slew-full of additional vaccines from my county health department, and leafed through a few travel books on China’s capital province. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I knew it was going to be exciting.

Seeking a more meaningful experience than my peer’s Greek rush weeks, I decided to spend the summer volunteering at two poorly-funded orphanages located a few hours outside of the capital city. I was still pretty clueless at this time about what I wanted to do with my life and whether or not I wanted to go to college. I hoped this summer of philanthropy would provide me some direction. Maybe I’d realize the nonprofit sector would be a good fit for me, or I’d make some international relief work contacts; either way, I wanted to help others and understaffed orphanages on the other side of the world seemed like a good place to start.

An international aid adventure to remember.

The two orphanages I worked in that summer were quite different, proving me with a more informed perspective regarding the unique needs of nonprofit initiatives.

One of the orphanages was located in an old house and was home to around thirty disabled or chronically ill toddlers. The orphanage staff shared their frustrations over lack of adoption interest in the young children due to their health concerns and international adoption red tape. Missing the nurturing of their parents, the children craved any type of attention and physical touch; as soon as I would walk in the doors of the day nursery, multiple toddlers would latch onto my legs, screaming at the top of their lungs until I reached down to hug them.

The second orphanage was located in a former spice packaging warehouse. Its industrial functions had been rather crudely repurposed to accommodate the over 100 school-aged children housed on the premises. During my stay, the rent-hiking landlord cut off the water and electric supply to the building, demanding more money from the orphanage directors than previously agreed upon. The children and staff were forced to live for weeks without necessary utility access; thankfully, a Singaporean lawyer volunteered to mediate negotiations with the landlord and succeeded in getting the utilities restored.

Towards the end of the summer, I had a tough decision to make – I could stay overseas in a volunteer capacity or I could return stateside and care for my grandmother who was quickly losing her battle with Alzheimer’s. My stay in China made me realize that I lacked in two key resources to make the difference these orphanages so desperately needed – education and financing. I decided to return stateside to care for my grandmother and pursue my bachelor’s degree from a local college.

We often overlook needs in our own backyard.

Freshman year was quite the contrast to the poverty and suffering I’d seen in the orphanages.

Social sharing platforms like Facebook and MySpace had just launched, and I was struggling to see the relevance of such first world luxuries and their subsequent concerns.

Then more life happened – my grandmother got sicker, many people within my community lost their jobs, healthcare access was an increasing struggle, mass foreclosure swept through our neighborhoods, and the American poverty line just kept rising. That’s when I realized that giving back wasn’t limited to international missions – our communities were deteriorating, families were hurting, and the destructive ripple effect of the Great Recession wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Juggling caregiving, work, and school, I looked for ways to plug-in within my neighborhood. Sometimes, this meant volunteering to tutor at-risk youth, others times, it involved picking up litter along a highway. I later became involved in the founding a non-profit ranch that provided free riding lessons for traumatized youth and was able to gain first-hand experience with fundraising and grant writing – two very much-needed skills for today’s aspiring philanthropist.

Within a few months, the ranch’s outreach expanded beyond our small community and began providing counseling and support services to low-income families within a tri-state area. It was so exciting to see such initiatives manifest within my hometown, and experience the community-building effects of connecting local philanthropists with non-profit organizations.

Start where you are with what you have.

While I did not return to China as an orphanage volunteer, I did continue to find ways to give back to my community, wherever I was living.

Throughout graduate school, I volunteered at a local orphanage, assisting high school age students involved in an equine-assisted therapy program. I planted a memory garden at a local nursing home, working alongside residents interested in horticulture. I assisted a local veteran organization with fundraising and public relations and was invited to join multiple community boards.

Today, I run a business, teach college, and volunteer my time as both a military family advocate and a startup mentor providing business consultation to new entrepreneurs. It’s so inspiring to be able to use my skill set in ways that help others achieve their dreams. By mentoring new business owners, I’m able to provide critical business expertise to men and women that are rebuilding our economy one job at a time.

Ready to make an impact?

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s possible to give back to our communities in whatever life stage you find yourself in. Thanks to digitally-based volunteer organizations like Reward Volunteers, it’s easier now than ever to find local volunteer opportunities that will work with your schedule and align with your interests. The Reward Volunteers site allows you to log your volunteer hours and win prizes while giving back to your local community.

By volunteering within our local communities, we can collectively make our world a better place. While helping your neighbors clean up an overgrown park or providing event assistance at a regional fundraiser may not seem as earth-changing as an international aid project at first glance, these opportunities allow us to help others and build communities.

Without philanthropically-minded volunteers like you and me, thousands of much-needed programs would fail to succeed. Our communities need us, and we need them; so whether you’ve got one or one hundred hours a month to give, consider volunteering in your hometown by signing-up on . Together, we can change lives and make our world a better one volunteer hour at a time.

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