A relatively recent development in tourism, socially conscious “voluntourism” is quickly gaining popularity. So, what is Voluntourism? Basically, it unites the best of travel with giving something back to society in return. Travelers get to enjoy the art, heritage sites, and the recreation of a destination, but also have the chance to immerse in the local culture while serving both the people and places visited. In my Holy Week journey through Jordan, I experienced this practice firsthand at the Al-Hussein Society for the Habilitation/Rehabilitation of the Physically Challenged (AHS).
Located in the capital, Amman, a visit to AHS offers the chance to volunteer in their everyday schedule of activities. I was quite impressed by the gentle and caring support given by the staff, and the family atmosphere offered there. The facilities are state-of-the-art, and the funding is totally provided through private sources, undoubtedly from the Islamic tradition of compassion for those in need. During my visit, I helped teach an English course for a 1st thru 6th grade class, while others helped in the physical education and music classes. It was such a joy to spend time talking with these children, all of whom had such an indomitable spirit and keen desire to learn. They were every bit as interested in me, an American, as I was fascinated by them. At times it became as much an Arabic class for me as an English class for them.
In addition to providing a solid education, the center also has an on-site clinic where orthotic aids are made, wheelchairs modified, and rehabilitation care is given. As I toured their machine shop, one “Voluntourist” traveling with me helped a young girl to walk with a prosthetic leg for the first time. The willpower shown to accomplish this feat of mobility was simply amazing. My friend later told me this child had captured her heart forever, and she was so glad a place like this is available for that young girl to blossom.
After leaving the center in Amman, I traveled 30 miles southwest into the mountains of Gilead. On the summit of Mt. Nebo, where the promise of a new life was given to Moses’ people, stands an ancient church marking the spot where a new life for the physically challanged is given. Inside this Byzantine Church are the famous Mount Nebo mosaics and down the road from the Madaba Mosaic School. The school was established in 1992 as a center for training in mosaic art and stone restoration, and this year it was upgraded to a college awarding degrees in Mosaic Education. With the assistance of AHS, students and graduates of this school use the skills they’re taught to preserve the Mount Nebo masterpieces. Since a limited number of graduates are involved in the restoration efforts, those that are not create new masterpieces that are sold at the nearby Al-Mukhayat Handicraft Center, which provides a much needed infusion of cash into the local economy.
For those curious about getting involved in voluntourism, the simplest way is to sign up for a group experience with a tour operator specializing in it. The International Volunteer Programs Association estimates that 50,000 to 75,000 Americans will to do just this in 2007. That leaves the corollary of this question unanswered, “Can I experience voluntourism on my own?” The answer to that is a qualified, “yes.” While unplanned and independent volunteer service is more commonly available in developed countries, the unplanned opportunity is possible but not as available in developing countries. I suggest contacting one of the agencies below as a great place to start.
Whichever way to you choose to do it, in a group or independently, the experience can forever alter a visitors connection with a destination and its people. This is travel with a purpose, a journey that replenishes the soul.
http://www.voluntourism.org Information on Voluntourism
http://www.i-to-i.com Tourist Agency
http://www.karmahousejordan.com Tourist Agency
http://www.seejordan.org Jordan Tourism Board
http://www.alhusseinrehab.org.jo/ Al-Hussein Society