Responsible Volunteering and Travel: Interview with Kathryn Pisco from Unearth The World

Kathryn Pisco is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back. After years of working in sales for large corporations, she took a career break with her husband and travelled the world, doing a mix of personal travel and volunteer work. She returned from the trip inspired her to create her own social venture, Unearth the World, an organisation that focuses on service learning and responsibly pairing volunteers with international nonprofits.

Be sure to join us at 2:30 p.m on Thursday, May 7 for #CultureTrav with Kathryn as our special guest host. Read the interview below to learn what inspired Unearth the World.

Mike making friends in Nepal. All photos in this post courtesy of Kathryn Pisco.

Mike making friends in Nepal. All photos in this post courtesy of Kathryn Pisco.

Tell us about your decision to quit working in the corporate world and start traveling. What inspired you to make this move? Were you excited/nervous?
Kathryn: I was really nervous to quit my job. For as long as I could remember, I had followed the traditional life path: graduate college, get a job, get married, buy a house, etc. The idea of quitting my job for a year with no “backup plan” was terrifying. BUT, my husband, Mike, and I had always wanted to engage in long-term travel and we knew that we wanted to take advantage of the time without children to do it. We had been saving for years thinking that we would get our MBAs but realized that we did not need them to move to the next level in our careers. So, we decided to use part of the money to pursue our dream. We visited 20 countries in 250 days and never looked back.

When you first set out on your excursion, you decided to embark on nine month, 20-country journey and planned five separate volunteer projects along the way. How did you plan this route? Which destination left the biggest impression or impact on you, and why?

Kathryn at Victoria Falls in Zambia

Kathryn at Victoria Falls in Zambia

Kathryn: Mike and I had never volunteered while traveling before. But, on this long trip, we really wanted to travel more like a local and be able to positively contribute to the communities we visited. So, we decided to volunteer in 5 different locations along our trip. Since this was a new concept to us, we had NO idea how to find and plan these projects. We used a volunteer placement company to find our first 3 projects in Asia. While it was helpful to have this guidance, these experiences gave us a glimpse into the problems in the volunteer travel industry. After gaining experience with these first three projects, we were able to find our final two projects – in Africa – on our own. We planned the volunteering into our trip according to where we were already traveling. For instance, we knew we were going to spend a few weeks in July in Zambia visiting Victoria Falls. So, we researched and found a project in the vicinity and blocked a few additional weeks to volunteer.

The projects that left the biggest impact on us were the two in Africa because they were sustainable and community driven. The nonprofits were addressing true needs in the community so – as volunteers – we could actually feel and see our impact.

What did you discover while volunteering abroad, and how did that inspire you to start Unearth The World?
Kathryn: Mike and I absolutely fell in love with volunteer travel. It allowed us to no longer be tourists – or even travelers. We lived more like locals. Volunteer travel allowed us to form amazing relationship (many that we still have today), immerse ourselves in local communities and positively contribute to the communities we visited. But, we also learned that the enormous volunteer travel industry is incredibly flawed. There is a lack of appropriate volunteer training and support, lack of reciprocal international partnerships and lack of financial transparency. The rapid commoditization of international service has led to many unqualified service providers running international volunteer trips that can sometimes do more harm than good. When Mike and I saw these issues, we decided to try to do something to better the volunteer travel industry and allow other people to experience the transformative power of volunteer travel.

Unearth the World is different because we
– Take a holistic approach to the traveler providing in-depth pre-trip training and post-trip coaching
– Form mutually beneficial international partnerships
– And are completely financially transparent

What challenges did you face, and are you facing, with Unearth The World? How do you deal with these?
Kathryn: Launching a startup is challenging no matter what industry you are in. So, we face many of the same challenges that most new companies do. But, I think that being a social enterprise in such a controversial industry – like volunteer travel – poses its own set of challenges. For instance, we launched Unearth the World to try to fix some of the problems in the volunteer travel space. And, while we are constantly trying to articulate what makes us different from other volunteer travel companies, it is often challenging to educate travelers on our key differentiators.

Why do you feel someone should volunteer, either locally or abroad? What advice do you have for those who are reluctant to make the leap into full-time travel or to volunteer?
Kathryn: Volunteering – either locally or abroad – has so many amazing benefits for both the communities being served and the volunteer. And, the wonderful thing is that everyone can volunteer his or her time. I always say that volunteering is simultaneously the most selfish and unselfish thing I do because it makes me feel so good! But, if feeling good and contributing towards positive change is not enough, I always point the myriad of proven benefits of volunteering. Among other things, it has been shown that volunteering makes people happier, healthier and more marketable in their jobs.

Right now, you offer five different volunteer opportunities. Can you please briefly describe them and why each one is important? How do you create awareness for these volunteer opportunities online and offline?
Kathryn: Sure! We partner with 5 amazing grassroots organizations that are doing important work in their communities. Each partner is working towards solving an issue in their communities and we provide human and financial capital to help them reach their goals. Unearth the World creates awareness for each project through online promotion (via social media and our website) and by forming relationships with universities and companies in order to access their students and/or employees. I have provided a brief description of each project and partner below:

*Sustainable Tourism in Nicaragua – In Nicaragua, we have partnered with a non-profit Spanish school and eco-hotel, 40 minutes away from Managua. The project’s goal is to bring responsible tourism, jobs and sustained income into the community and collaborate on various local initiatives like school libraries, a women’s cooperative, an organic farm, reforestation project, afterschool programming and a school working with children with disabilities. Volunteers engage in one-on-one Spanish classes for half the day and lend their skills to a community project in the afternoon. Over 100 jobs and $500,000 of revenue has been generated for the community.

*Permaculture Farm in Nicaragua – This project involves a partnership with an educational organic farm that uses permaculture design to support the rural economy and environment on the Isle of Ometepe in Nicaragua.

Permaculture design is a way of designing your farm to mimic nature and natural ecosystems as much as possible. So, instead of having rows of similar crops next to each other, you will intersperse different crops and plants in order to “farm” as naturally as possible. This method of farming is beneficial because farmers can produce more food using fewer resources. So, for small-scale farmers (which produce 70% of the food globally), it can improve yields and soil fertility while reducing input costs. Ultimately, many believe that this kind of farming is essential to empowering developing nations to become more food secure.

Supplemental Education in Peru

Supplemental Education in Peru

The project’s goal is to promote food security locally and regionally. Volunteers live and work alongside locals and get “hands on” at the farm.

*Supplemental Education in Peru – In Peru, we work with a nonprofit on the outskirts of Lima that addresses the issue of education. Peru is consistently rated as having one of the worst education systems in the world. So, our partner provides supplemental education to the women and children of the community through free workshops and classes. Volunteers co-teach these classes with long-term volunteers and live within the local community. Over 10,000 classes have been taught contributing to better test scores.



Mike constructing homes in Zambia

Mike constructing homes in Zambia

*Home Building in Zambia – In Zambia, we work in a small fishing village about 90 minutes outside of Livingstone. This project works to address the issue of unsustainable housing by building homes for and with local people whose families have been affected by AIDS. Over 140 houses have been built to date.

*School in Ghana – In Ghana, we work with a school in a small village outside of Accra in order to address education disparity. This school provides education and shelter to 75 local youth!

How can people become volunteers? What qualities do you look for in volunteers? Perhaps you have a few tips to share or links on the process.
Kathryn: This is a great question. At Unearth the World, we try to match the skills and interests of our volunteers with the needs of our international nonprofit partners. But, I would have to say that the most important quality I am looking for in our volunteers is humility. I love working with empathetic people that are approaching their international volunteer experience by looking to learn something from the communities they visit. To travel with Unearth the World, we have laid out this 10 step process as a guide.

How do you help volunteers overcome cultural barriers? What tools do you use to promote cross-cultural learning?
Kathryn: I think it is so important to be prepared for cross-cultural learning. So, at Unearth the World, we immerse our travelers in an in-depth pre-trip global service-learning curriculum. Prior to the traveler’s departure, Unearth the World facilitates 5 thematic training modules in the form of emails, videos and phone calls.

Each module touches on different important topics and we have built in opportunities for critical reflection.
– Module 1: Reflection, Service Learning Plans, Global Service & Travel
– Module 2: Global Citizenship
– Module 3. Country Specific Information
– Module 4: Volunteer Travel, Service & Culture Shock
– Module 5: Worldview: Power & Privilege

We also schedule a pre-trip call with every traveler to answer any final questions and discuss their learning goals so that they are well positioned to overcome any cultural barrier they may face while traveling. And, after our volunteers return home, UTW works with them to continue to reflect on learning. In a post-trip call, we guide them through reflection and coach them on how-to continue to learn and make their abroad experience a part of their day-to-day life.

What suggestions or tips do you have for someone looking to volunteer but maybe does not have the funds at this current moment?
Kathryn: When we first decided to volunteer abroad, Mike and I were shocked at how expensive it could be. Some companies charge travelers thousands of dollars for just one week. So, we have tried to keep our fees low (starting at $600/wk) to allow more people to be able to afford this type of travel. But, I realize that sometimes even that amount is out of people’s price range. I always recommend that interested volunteers plan out a comprehensive saving plan prior to their travel. And, I think that fundraising is a great option. In fact, I work with many of our travelers to build crowdfunding campaigns to help get their trips paid for creatively.

Why do you feel Unearth The World is making a difference? What mark are you hoping to leave on the world?
Kathryn: Unearth the World is making a difference because we are improving the volunteer travel industry and allowing for more people to have transformative international experiences. We take a unique and responsible approach to volunteer travel. In addition to forming mutually beneficial relationships with international organizations and being financially transparent, our holistic approach to our volunteers (the pre-, during and post-trip support) fully prepares travelers to engage in global service.

Personally, running Unearth the World has been incredibly rewarding because I have been able to work with amazing people and local communities to break down cultural barriers and raise social consciousness. Unearth the World’s vision is to help contribute to a more peaceful and equitable world. And, while that may sound like a lofty goal, we are excited to see the impact that our experiences have on every person and look to continue to change the industry – one volunteer traveler at a time.


Kathryn and Mike with fellow volunteers in Nepal

This article was originally published here. Follow Kathryn’s travels at Unearth The World. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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