Exotic. Exciting. Meaningful. Important.
If those words don’t describe your last vacation, maybe you should try Cross-Cultural Solutions.
by Leslie Long, photos from CCS
As the world feels increasingly out of control, whether it be from the forces of nature or terrorism, some are looking to take control of a small piece of it – using their vacation to improve the lives of others. For others, it’s simply the desire to become immersed in another culture in a deeper, more satisfying way.
Cross-Cultural Solutions in New Rochelle offers short-term volunteer programs around the world. Larchmonter Jennifer Reid discovered CCS when she spent a summer working there as a intern. “Their philosophy, mission and general love for their work is what made me realize I had to go on a trip. I wanted to do something different – and I love to travel," said Ms. Reid, now a law student at the University of Michigan. "Cross-Cultural Solutions emphasizes sustainable volunteer work that enables the community to better provide for themselves. They also prepare volunteers to understand that the exchange is truly two-sided. The volunteer is likely to gain as much or more than she leaves behind,” she explained.
Steve Rosenthal, the executive director and founder of CSS, didn’t realize he was laying the groundwork for the company when he left has job as an AT&T engineer and bought a one-way ticket to Nepal. Eventually, he ended up in Kenya where he contacted an old friend who was serving in a small village with the Peace Corps and helping the community build a medical clinic. For just a week, Mr. Rosenthal lived and worked in the village. Although he’d spent a year in locations as far reaching as India, Thailand, Uganda, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, his one week in Kenya continued to stand out.
While there, Mr. Rosenthal felt that he was no longer a tourist, but another inhabitant of the African village. Working with the villagers gave him a feeling of being at home that he hadn’t experienced in any of the other places he visited. He also liked knowing that he’d played a part in helping the villagers achieve their goal. Peace Corps stints have a minimum of just over two years, but Mr. Rosenthal began wondering if this kind of fulfilling experience could be made available to those who don’t have that kind of time to spare, but still wanted this type of experience. “I decided that I wanted to create something that’s short term, but still meaningful,” he explains.
Once he returned to the U.S., he pursued this idea, traveling to India shortly thereafter in search of already existing organizations that would welcome short-term volunteers. Rather than create his own volunteer projects, he felt strongly that organizations already operating within the country were preferable since they were providing services that were truly needed by the community. Through a network of local experts, he started the program in India, marking the beginning of an organization that now offers volunteer programs at 16 locations in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania and Thailand. Since the company was founded in 1995, CCS has sent over 10,000 participants overseas – from college students to retirees.
The company headquarters is located in a colorful loft-like space just off North Avenue in neighboring New Rochelle. They welcome visitors who are planning trips and their experts are happy to work with clients in person or on the telephone. The programs are flexible, allowing travelers to decide where, when and how long they’d like to stay. Assignments are set up according to the skills and interests of each volunteer. They range from working at schools, homes for the elderly, daycare centers, orphanages, women’s centers or medical practices. There are opportunities to teach English, art or music. Those who are good at sports have taught their skills to local children.
I asked Steve Rosenthal what happens when a person wants to volunteer, but feels that he or she had no particular skill to offer. He says that everyone has something to offer, even if it’s holding young babies for several hours a day. Finding the right situation for each volunteer, he says, is never a problem.
While the work is rewarding, there is also time for fun. After a morning of volunteering, there are an array of programs that help immerse travelers in the local culture through orientations, field trips, speakers and participation in local activities. Free time is also built into the program. On weekends, trips are often taken outside the region. The accommodations are at a comfortable home base located in a safe residential neighborhood. The welcoming staffers prepare home-cooked meals and are always available for suggestions and advice since they are actually neighborhood residents.
Larchmont’s Jennifer Reid chose Arusha, Tanzania as her destination. She was intrigued by Africa and had heard about the beauty of the region. While there for three weeks, she taught English to middle-school aged boys and girls. “The kids were absolutely incredible. They came to school in their tattered uniforms and sat four to a desk -- and often eight to a book. They learn, generally, in a very strict manner, so my often unorthodox teaching methods were somewhat of a shock. I taught them lots of English songs, and we acted out verbs. It was so much fun!!” When I asked her what she most remembered about her experience, Ms. Reid said,” It’s the nuances of everyday life that you simply wouldn't see if you simply approach a community as an outsider.”
So often, when you return from a regular vacation, the experience fades as soon as you get back into your routine. I was curious about the long-term effects of a trip like this and asked Ms. Reid to describe her experience. “This is a trip that has grown, rather than faded, in my memory as the years have passed. What I learned from the villagers and the kids I taught will probably never leave me entirely. And I can certainly say that if you go, you will never travel the same way again. It's a powerful experience that carries too many emotions to capture in words. In some ways, it's difficult to even try!”
For more information, contact: Cross-Cultural Solutions, 2 Clinton Place, New Rochelle, NY 10801 ( 914) 632-0022, www.crossculturalsolutions.org
Larchmonter Leslie Long is a writer and photographer.