The Ross Family of Minnesota
By Tammi Deville
The Ross family is a busy one.
Margy - mom, wife, and international IT consultant - spends three weeks a month traveling, both domestically and abroad, for her job. Scott - dad, husband, and general counsel for a tech company - endures a rigorous training schedule for Ironman triathlons. Katie - daughter and student - is busy with schoolwork, athletics and social activities.
Needless to say, quality family time is hard to come by. So vacations together are very important, as are challenges that can help the family grow together. "We live in the suburbs," explains Margy. "It's a nice life, but there's not a whole lot of 'heavy lifting' in our lives."
So when Scott didn't have much vacation time back in 2004, Margy planned a mother-daughter trip that involved manual labor along with a cultural experience. In searching for international volunteering opportunities, she found Global Volunteers, which organizes group "volunteer vacations" in nineteen countries.
Together, Margy and Katie took part in a building project for a high school in Costa Rica, clearing a plot of ground, mixing cement by hand, and digging the foundation. They really loved being part of the tiny local community and part of a team with like-minded people from different countries and walks of life. Six months later for their Christmas trip, at Katie's insistence, they went back, taking Scott this time.
Since then, the Ross's have made seven trips to this community on their annual family vacation - two weeks each year that have become nonnegotiable within their work, travel and school schedules. As Margy says, "It's almost like summer camp for the family."
For Scott, this kind of volunteer work is unique not only in its opportunity to give back but also in the personal satisfaction it provides.
"You can really see the fruits of your labor, doing a tour in the community, and you can see all the projects-school dining room, irrigation ditch, community center," he says. "It's work that you feel good about emotionally, mentally and physically. It has a tangibility. It's very rewarding. And one of the attractions is maintaining contact with a particular community; it's great to see ... the community transform into a better place."
Katie especially values Global Volunteers' operating principle called 'match labor.'
"It has to be one-to-one - volunteers and community members - working directly with volunteers on projects. The community determines what and how it will be done. Even if you're a civil engineer, you take direction from the community. You're in close proximity with someone who has something at stake."
There was an especially memorable experience for the family one year when they made a bedside visit in Costa Rica to their "go-to guy," the local volunteer leader they'd gotten to know as the organizer of their onsite volunteer programs. Now he lay sick, struggling against terminal stomach cancer.
"Roberto was about a third the size he was when we'd seen him in December," recalls Margy. "He was very withered and confined to his bed, but he wanted us to visit. Katie and I visited every day for fifteen minutes. On the last night of our trip, he told us that some of his favorite memories were working with Global Volunteers and how appreciative he was and thankful that he was leaving his community in such a better place because of the work he could do with Global Volunteers."
Reflecting on the experiences, Scott recommends that families explore volunteering together on vacations for many reasons. No, there are no 300-count sheets and fancy hotels, he says, "but it's a great way to model some great behaviors for your kids. I never expected this to have the impact it's had on Katie. She's now taking two language classes in high school and exploring international development as a potential major in college."
About the Author
Tammi Lynn DeVille is the author of Changing the World on A Tuesday Night, which features profiles of 50 people from around the country who work full-time jobs or have otherwise busy lives, but find time to volunteer for a cause they are passionate about. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/tammideville.