Erin Hempen, the inspiring founder of volunteer organization With Change In Mind, helps you face the fear of serving in a foreign country.
Change In Mind founder Erin Hempen pushes an orphan on the playground her organization built in 2015. Volunteers also built a community learning center. Photo courtesy of Phillip Mastrella
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” is a saying that really speaks (or actually, screams) to Erin Hempen, 41, looking back on her time spent volunteering in Africa over the last nine years. Prior to her first volunteer trip to Malawi, Africa, in 2007, Erin had transitioned from a full-time corporate career to becoming a stay-at-home mom in Trenton, Illinois. “I loved taking care of my two young daughters, but I wasn’t feeling totally full,” says Erin, who currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “For some reason, I was always drawn to the children of Africa and wanted to explore this curiosity of helping orphans there.”
Making the decision to join a non-profit’s two-week volunteer journey came with hesitations. Erin’s husband, Patrick, was concerned about his wife’s safety and Erin feared that something could happen to her kids while she was in Malawi. “In the end, I really went on faith, and told myself ‘It’s going to be okay’,” says Erin. She arrived home more than just okay. The experience transformed her life. She returned to Malawi every year for two weeks (“the decision to go back wasn’t scary for anyone,” says Erin), eventually leading the trips.
Hempen checks in on the children while delivering some classroom materials during a visit in January. Photo courtesy of Taylor Hodges
In 2011, Erin took another leap and founded With Change In Mind (WCIM), an organization that guides two-week volunteer trips to Malawi. Twice each summer (plus any privately-arranged trips), WCIM volunteers live in a culturally-immersive environment, working on sustainable projects that often benefit local children. A safari is built-in as well. “It’s emotional thinking about my whole journey because if I allowed fear to run my life, I would’ve missed out on all this,” says Erin. “You realize that your comfort zone starts to get bigger and bigger when you challenge yourself.”
Admittedly, volunteering abroad isn’t for everyone, and the quality and programs vary between organizations. But if you have the yearning, Erin says figure out whether you’re holding back because of fear, or if your decision is based on information and reality (How far is it, really, from the volunteer site to where the Ebola cases were reported? Is terrorist activity an issue in the area where you’ll be?). “Before trips, I’ve received frantic emails from volunteers about scary things in the news that they relate to their upcoming travel,” says Erin. “Usually, once we break it down, they see that these things aren’t true reality, or they’re a reality that’s happened once in the last 25 years. In my experience, volunteers always realize their fears were nothing compared to what they gained in the end.” Here, Erin provides perspective on some common fears she’s felt and fielded.
Will I be safe?
Safety is a concern for the majority of travelers, especially women. There are many places in the world that are incredibly unsafe. It goes back to gathering good information to know if your destination is safe. Learn as much as you can about the country, including the history and current news and events. On social media, see what locals are saying about current situations in real time. Contact the organization for emails of recent volunteers, who can provide insight. Our organization is constantly monitoring what’s happening in Malawi and we’ll email volunteers with any need-to-know updates. Ask your organization what safety measures are in place for volunteers. Our volunteers stay on private property with round-the-clock security and we have access to an emergency phone and on most days, internet service if needed. A big part of your safety will depend on being a smart traveler. A few rules I follow:
• Don’t bring expensive things (jewelry, luggage, handbags, fancy clothes)
• Ask the organization if there’s a safe place to keep your passport, money, and credit cards while you volunteer. If you must keep these items with you, put them in a money belt worn underneath your clothes.
• Blend in as much as you can with locals. By that I mean, be respectful of their culture and customs. Any good organization should be able to guide you on what’s appropriate and how to be a responsible visitor (what you should wear; whether it’s okay to take photos or give food to a child). We actually teach our volunteers to use some phrases in the local language, which shows Malawians a level of respect and builds trust.
What if I get sick?
There should absolutely be medical facilities available and find out what those are. Ask questions like: If I break something, where would I go and how easy is it to access that medical facility? Have you had emergencies on other trips and how did those play out? Is the water safe? What type of food will we be eating? Will we ever be going out to eat in local restaurants or is it always prepared on-site? You have to be comfortable with the answers you’re given, but keep things in perspective about how likely a worst-case scenario is. I do recommend people purchase travel insurance that includes medical care as well as medical evacuation. You just have to be extra careful. When volunteers first arrive, I tell them, ‘You are your own top priority. You need to eat well, rest, stay hydrated, and be extremely cautious with food or water.’ Things you normally do at home, like buying food sold on the street, shouldn’t be done in this situation. Running at night can lead to a broken ankle. Injuries considered textbook at home can be a much bigger deal in a developing country.
Do I have the strength to see people who may be sick, hungry, and living in conditions of extreme poverty?
Honestly, some people may not be strong enough. The depth of poverty you’ll see differs. In my nine years of volunteering, I’ve never seen a person completely break down or bail. It can be emotional. Your comfort zone will be tested, and you’ll be forced to cope with things that are uncomfortable. I once had an 18-year-old volunteer tell me he didn’t think he could handle touring a local medical clinic; he wound up doing it and walked out with tears in his eyes and the decision to become a nurse. You can never predict how you’re going to react. Knowing you are there helping and contributing eases the discomfort some. With some programs, you’ll stay off-site, but in my opinion, an immersive program, where you’re living close to the people and culture, can get you comfortable more quickly; you’re seeing and interacting with everyday life. Emotional support can also come with a group experience; volunteers tend to bond and become a family.
With so many financial obligations at home, should I really spend all this money on myself?
Volunteers are usually required to cover the cost of their airfare, food, and accommodations. Some programs offer sightseeing activities, which might be an additional cost. A two-week With Change In Mind trip, including a three-day safari in Zambia, costs about $4,000—half of that is airfare. Once people afraid of the expense commit, they always seem to find ways to raise the money, without causing any hardship. Think about what you can cut back on and pop the money you would’ve spent in a jar. Try to get a free flight using a credit card that accrues airline mileage and that offers a big bonus for signing up. Our organization works with a travel agent, who offers slightly discounted humanitarian fares … look into it! To make the experience more meaningful, volunteers should make their own financial investment, but many fundraise for a portion of their trips. I’ve had volunteers host pancake breakfasts, sell bracelets, make homemade candles, and do presentations at church. One couple asked for trip donations in lieu of wedding presents. Don’t be afraid to approach people you know have the desire to serve, but will never take the trip. Often, they would love to donate to feel involved in the journey. A lot of organizations can give you a sample fundraising letter to send to friends and family.
Will I be too freaked out being out of touch and away from my family?
Remember there are few places in the world where a person is totally out of touch. You will most likely be away from your cell phone and internet. The discussion with your family should probably be: no news means things are going smoothly. Ask the organization how they handle making contact during emergencies. If there’s a problem on your side, the organization should have an emergency plan that includes a way to reach your family. In turn, they should have a way for your family to get through to you. The first time I traveled to Malawi, I was worried sick about being away from my two daughters without regular contact. It turned out to be an incredible learning experience for everyone. My daughters learned that Mom isn’t the only one who can help them. My husband, who travels a lot for work, loved the opportunity to be the go-to parent for my girls, and by living my everyday, he appreciated me in a new way. I learned there are other people besides me who can take care of my children and keep them safe and happy.
Do you know another Heart in Action who is helping to change the world? We would love to consider him or her for an article in our magazine. Please write to us with your suggestion at firstname.lastname@example.org
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