California couple hopes their voluntourism films inspire others
A LITTLE MORE than three years ago, Steve and Joanie Wynn were looking to get out of a rut. Their video production company, Bayside Entertainment, was in a slump along with the rest of the economy.
So when Joanie Wynn stumbled upon Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy, a fledgling business started by a former New York Times war correspondent, she thought, here's a chance to do something different — document six women volunteering at a school for AIDS orphans in Tanzania while also enjoying a trip abroad and scaling Mount Kilimanjaro.
The experience was "life-changing." The Muir Beach couple returned with a lot more than a sense of adventure and some great footage; they discovered a new purpose and passion.
"We both traveled extensively before and to Africa before on various projects," says Joanie Wynn, who worked in Hollywood for clients such as Disney, Sony and Dreamworks. "But we were amazed by the transformation by the people who were on the trip, and we came back and thought, wow — these are the stories we really want to tell."
They launched Journey for Good (http://journeys4good.com), a website that lists voluntourism opportunities in hopes of inspiring others to participate. Their documentary, "A Journey for Good: Tanzania," which aired on public TV stations around the country, garnered four Emmy nominations and two Telly Awards. Now they're in talks with KQED to turn "Journeys for Good" into a series.
"Travel programs resonate with our audiences" says Scott Dwyer, KQED's director of programming. "'A Journey for Good' was the first travel show I've seen that expanded the definition what a vacation can be when you include 'doing good' at the same time. I think the producers are on to something."
The Wynns and their 9-year-old son, Ryan, a third-grader at Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito, left for Cambodia on Dec. 26 with Global Aware to document their second voluntourism trip together. (Last spring, Steve Wynn traveled with a group of women who built a playground at a school in Nicaragua.) This time, the family is joining others in building wheelchairs for land mine victims, teach English to Buddhist monks and a well at a home for the disabled.
Their focus is not only on the projects, but also on the people who volunteer — what motivated them, how it changed them.
"Our goal is to show people that this is a great way to travel differently," she says. "You can still go and experience a different culture, a different country and have an even richer and deeper experience by working side-by-side with local people."
Working with locals is an entirely different experience than arriving in a village or community to donate books or schoolbags, she says.
The Wynns got close to the teachers, students and local laborers as well as the bibi — the Swahili word for grandmother — who started the school as they built desks, refurbished classrooms and installed a water filtration system among other improvements together.
"We felt so honored to be invited into her home and share lunch each day," Joanie Wynn, 48, says. "Those are experiences you don't get to do just by being a tourist."
"The connection was not just with the people we were serving but the people we were following," Steve Wynn, 52, says. "It was really neat to see how they changed and how their view of the world changed. You could see the potential ripple effect."
Neither had done extensive volunteering before, although Steve Wynn, a Marin native and longtime cameraman who has worked with the Discovery, History and Travel channels, has been a Muir Beach volunteer firefighter since 2009 and the chief for the past year.
Voluntourism has been one of the fastest growing forms of travel, according to volunTourism.org, which follows the industry. Last year, global guidelines were developed for the first time to help voluntourism organizations focus on sustainable projects, community needs and responsibility.
That's important to the Wynns, too, who only establish relationships with nonprofit groups that embrace that philosophy for their series.
"It's really important that the trips that we do and the trips that we cover, to go with well-vetted organizations who have been around for a while, who focus on sustainable projects and that really have good in-country relationships with nonprofit organizations so you know that it's a good project that will actually benefit the local people," she says.
So far the Wynns have had to raise the money for the series themselves. "It's still a passion project," she says.
But the stories need to be told, they believe.
"If more people do the smaller projects, bit by bit, it can make a bigger impact," says Steve Wynn.