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Volunteering offers tourists a feel-good vacation

By Sucheta Rawal
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
Volunteering at Bali children's project
Volunteering at Bali children's project
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Go Eat Give has volunteered more 2,000 hours of service in more than 20 countries
  • Founder wants to raise awareness of different cultures, give back to communities
  • She finds on her travels that spending time and talking to people are greatly appreciated

Editor's note: Sucheta Rawal is founder of Go Eat Give, a nonprofit organization that encourages people to learn about different cultures through travel, food and community service. For information or to make a donation, visit www.goeatgive.org.

(CNN) -- How often have you been on vacation and barely left your resort? It's all too easy to stick to the tourist trail when you have little time available and are in unfamiliar surroundings.

I love traveling, but after visiting more than 30 countries, I found myself feeling like I'd missed out on experiencing the real places. It seemed like most people see the same sights, take the same pictures and come away with more or less the same experience. I wanted to have a more authentic experience.

Only after I got off the beaten tourist path did I realize how people truly lived, what they believed in and how rich their cultures were. The experience led me to volunteer in countries such as Russia, Morocco, Nepal, Spain, Indonesia and Cuba; I worked at places such as women's empowerment centers, orphanages, farms, day care centers and facilities for the elderly. I taught English, women's rights, proper nutrition, art, crafts and sports. Sometimes I found that just spending time and talking to people was appreciated, such as elderly women in Yaroslavl, Russia, who have few visitors and who interrogated me as if I were their granddaughter.

I found these experiences so rewarding, and out of a desire to share that, and to give something back to the places I was visiting, Go Eat Give was born.

Go Eat Give champions a concept that I call "voluntourism" -- aka volunteer vacationing. The idea banks on travelers looking for a short-term holiday that includes cultural experiences they will find meaningful as well as a chance to give back to the community. Go Eat Give has volunteered more 2,000 hours of service in more than 20 countries.

Teaching English in Segovia, Spain
Teaching English in Segovia, Spain

Here is how the concept works: We support local businesses by staying at hotels and eating at restaurants that aren't part of international chains but rather locally owned. Some of the fee for the trip goes to a local charity. Travelers also bring a bag of items the neighborhood charity requests -- for example, suitcases full of toothbrushes, dental floss, soap, clothes, office supplies and over-the-counter medical supplies.

The best part of Go Eat Give is that travelers get to volunteer in the community they visit. One of the places I take travelers to is Indonesia's Bali. The beautiful island is popular with divers, sunbathers, yoga retreats and honeymooners. Many people don't realize that abject poverty is just blocks from the fancy resorts. Possibly even fewer stop to think about the people who work in the resorts, how they live and what opportunities their children would have. These hotel workers have no running water in their homes and no beds on which to sleep. They eat and clean up after themselves with their hands and get sick often due to lack of proper sanitation.

On our first trip, Go Eat Give volunteers taught hygiene and nutrition to the kids at village schools through a local organization called the Bali Children's Project. We realized the reason they were not washing their hands is they had no sinks with running water. Fund-raising is under way to enable the next group of travelers to install sinks and plumbing equipment, with the help of villagers, at 40 schools.

Another project we support is a women's safe house in India. This home offers a refuge for women who have survived sex trafficking or teen girls who may be at risk. The women receive housing, food, counseling and job skills training so they can get back on their feet. The volunteers teach skills such as typing, cooking, knitting, cosmetology, etc., so these women can eventually have the confidence and expertise to become working professionals and escape the cycle of abuse.

Our hope is that once travelers witness projects for themselves, they'll become invested in supporting them going forward. It's one thing to get a postcard in the mail saying you are sponsoring a kid to go to school somewhere far away. It's another thing to meet the children, visit their schools, walk through their villages and then support them.

Through Go Eat Give, I hope to accomplish my mission to raise awareness of different cultures with travel, food and community service. I want to pave the way for all travelers to be able to make a positive impact on the places they visit as well as enrich their own lives.

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