Globe Aware founder and executive director Kimberly Haley-Coleman wrote an article for Everyday Ambassador's “Wednesday Wisdom”, a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador Partnerships Manager Anjana Sreedhar. In her article, Kimberly highlights central values such as empathy and patience, and how they all relate to building a comprehensive cultural understanding about our environment.
As a high school student in Dallas at Hocakday, I was fortunate to be able to travel internationally and to be involved in many local community service projects from candy striping at hospitals to working in women’s shelters. I was interested in other cultures and languages from a young age, and perhaps most specifically how cultural conditioning dictates such a great amount of our behaviors. It is something we don’t often examine, that our actions are often largely LEARNED. It may be something as simple as how much free time is considered a humane and normal amount to have in one’s life. The answer is hugely divergent even based on the country in which one was born, or the culture to which one is attached. I find this important because it also shows how a person can change their perspective. The kind of message that has the ability to completely change your life – to be happier, healthier and to have a greater impact helping others achieve their goals – which in itself has a coronation to happiness.
After high school, I went to Emory University and continued education in international cultures and held many jobs that required multi-cultural skills. I then went onto receive my Masters in French and Art History and my MBA in international business then worked for a variety of corporations. Like many, I saw my pocket book expand, but felt my soul shrinking. I would find myself in a country like Brazil over the weekend on business, and looking to fill free time. Beyond tourist activities, I wanted to connect to the local communities by volunteering. I found that most organizations simply do not want to accept anyone short term, as the amount of time and resources it takes just to organize fro or train someone for a few days is more trouble than its worth. I did understand. But my appetite grew. I called every organization I could and kept coming up against the same response. Eventually I started organizing my own short term programs and found there was a huge response by others to join me. Once I was able to live on the income from my spouse, I left prior work and set about creating these experiences full time.
Globe Aware’s objectives are two-fold. One is to promote cultural awareness; essentially to allow the participant to get a more complete understanding of the real beauties and challenges faced in a different culture, rather than just a tourist, post-card view. The other goal is to promote sustainability, which is to say to help people stand on their own two feet. To that end, we work side-by-side with locals, as equals, working on projects that are important to them. They choose the projects, the materials, and how we go about doing it. The experiences are all one week. not because that is the ideal amount of time to spend to get to know a culture, but because it is what is feasible for most North Americans. I am frequently asked if working with the Peace Corps for 2 and a half years might not be a better experience. Of course that length of time will give you a much deeper comprehension and allow significantly more time to make a meaningful contribution.
My hope is that our one week experiences light the lamp of inspiration for participants to want to come back and discover and give back to more and more cultures. We have programs in 17 countries around the world and are always expanding. In Cambodia we assemble and distribute wheelchairs for landmine victims, in Peru we build adobe lorena stoves that greatly reduce deforestation and decrease smoke inhalation inside the home, in Guatemala we install concrete floors in the homes of single mothers, we have built schools, homes, hygiene stations, the spectrum is large and each program is very different. We spend about 40 hours a week working, and still have 3 to 5 planned but optional cultural excursions. We purposefully do not work in orphanages. A quick google about “orphanage tourism” will explain why. We do, however, work with and for needy children in many of our programs. It’s a wonderful, organic learning process.
Occasionally people will ask if it’s really a good thing when volunteering abroad benefits the volunteer. Our feeling is that is a full 50% of why we exist – YES! To expand the minds of the volunteer so that they understand the real challenges of the world and return home reinvigorated to make a difference and continue giving back. While we definitely want to provide for those in need, we are not heroes. We are not coming in to save the world. Usually the locals are faster and better at every activity we take on, which in itself provides a wonderful learning experience. The goal is that our work benefits the community where we are working and the volunteer doing the work. I think it’s critical that in order to be a really involved, successful person, one should also be a globally aware. citizen. We want more people who are able to care about the globe, who are trying to help find resolutions, on a global scale, to conflicts that are important, whether it’s political peace or bringing groups and different nationalities together to find a solution to problems that we all face.
Last but not least, participating in a travel abroad program can be a huge source of joy for someone for their whole life, to have those wonderful moments of cultural understanding.