I am thrilled to introduce to you the very first interview to kick off the #littleBIGthings campaign by Megan Arzbaecher, Volunteer & Short Term Programs Manager at Greenheart Travel.
Greenheart Travel is personally invested in providing cultural immersion programs that change lives, advance careers and create leaders. We achieve this by partnering with organizations and governments overseas that empower their local communities through experiential learning and practical development. We provide others with the same positive travel experiences in which we ourselves engage. Through travel and cultural exchange, we help individuals reach their full potential, leading to a more tolerant, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.
Greenheart Travel is a division of Greenheart International, a 501(c)3 non-profit committed to connecting people and planet to create a more peaceful and sustainable global community.
1. For those who are committed to making a difference through volunteering abroad, how can they know if their actions will actually be helping the local community?
One of the best ways to evaluate your impact as a volunteer is to ask! With any project that you’re involved with, you should be an active part of the local community. This means you can have an open dialogue with various people from the area to get a grasp on the challenges and solutions related to the project. For Greenheart Travel, we partner with locally operated NGOs around the world to ensure that the solutions and projects are focused on the needs of the local community, and projects are directed by those that know specifically what is needed to make a difference. It’s also important, however, to be realistic about the kind of impact that can be made as a volunteer in a specific length of time. Setting the right expectations personally for what can be accomplished on a volunteer program are important ways to realistically measure your impact being made at the project.
2. In what ways can volunteers get more involved with their host communities?
It really depends on the project, but I think one of the best ways is to live with a host family while volunteering. You’ll be able to develop relationships with local people and get a better and more intimate understanding of their lifestyle.
3. What is Greenheart Travel doing to change global perspectives?
Greenheart Travel’s mission is to provide meaningful cultural exchange programs that change lives, advance careers and create leaders. When travelers are able to fully immerse themselves in a new culture and are pushed out of their comfort zone, perspectives begin to broaden. Traveling not only opens us up to new ways of thinking and doing things, but it teaches us empathy and understanding. Greenheart Travel’s vision is to offer the opportunities, tools, and support to our volunteers actively engaging with communities around the world, whether it is through volunteering, teaching or studying abroad.
“Travel of any kind is opportunity for cross cultural exchange and it is up to the individual to seize it. This exchange is more than an Instagram feed or learning a few words in a new language, it is a chance to breakdown stereotypes and genuinely connect with real people, individuals, across the globe.”
Greenheart Travel’s role in the process is to ensure that our projects are making a legitimate and tangible impact and provide the volunteer with the skills they need to help realize that impact, all while immersing themselves in the culture. The aggregate experiences of all of our volunteers and the people they touch lead to a more tolerant, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.
4. Thinking back on your travels, share an experience you had that changed your perspective on the world.
I had an eye-opening moment on a trip to India that changed the way I consume fashion products. I was visiting fair trade artisans in Mumbai and Delhi when I met a woman named Sunita, a 38-year-old single mom. Prior to getting involved in fair trade production, she had been working at a factory, producing clothing for fast fashion, multi-national corporations. While she didn’t use the term “sweat shop,” from her descriptions – 16-hour works days, poor ventilation, marginal pay for women, crowded conditions, abusive managers (and the list goes on) – it was obvious that is exactly what it was. Sunita didn’t speak much about her experience; you could tell the scars were still fresh. However, she beamed with satisfaction when she spoke about her new job. Hearing how much her life had improved since getting involved in ethical production (Her proudest moment was being able to single-handedly pay for her daughter’s tuition at an aviation college) made me reevaluate everything I thought about fashion.
5. What makes Greenheart Travel different from other volunteer organizations?
Our differentiators as a nonprofit, cultural exchange organization is not only finding great volunteers to help with projects, but to foster a long-term relationship between our volunteers, partners and diverse travel community. Volunteering abroad is more than just arriving on site, but understanding how this experience fits into the bigger picture. Greenheart Travel also stands out as an organization that truly values that connection with our alumni volunteers, from the moment they begin researching a program to after they return home. We provide participants with robust pre-departure support and resources to ensure they feel adequately supported throughout their journey. For us, it’s not just about helping a volunteer make an impact abroad, it’s about helping our volunteers use that experience to achieve their goals in life.
6. What advice would you give someone who wants to travel more meaningfully but doesn’t know where to start?
Don’t be intimidated by it! You can start small and work your way up to volunteer projects as you learn more and develop a deeper understanding of what’s out there and what types of causes you are interested in supporting. Meaningful travel can be anything – staying with a local person at an AirBnB, taking a cooking class and learning about local cuisine, visiting an artisan cooperative and supporting fair trade – all of these experiences focus on appreciating the impact of your presence on the local community.
7. How do you think travel can be used for good?
I think the most powerful part of travel is interacting with new people and developing your own reality of the world around you. We’re told lots of things about faraway places – true and untrue — in the news media. But once you’re there and living it, you can develop your own sense of the world. It is not some faceless, ambiguous place. It’s real. It has a personality, an identity, a soul. Basically, you learn how to empathize in a way you can’t learn in any other way. I truly believe that this breaks down stereotypes & bigotry, sparks deeper conversations, encourages greater environmentalism and a more ethically minded view of the world.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Megan is a lifelong traveler with her first international trip happening at only 12 years old. Ever since then, she has been fascinated with studying, working, and traveling to foreign countries. Megan studied History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also participated in a 4 month around-the-world educational program with Semester at Sea, which opened her eyes to the need for culturally conscious education and global sustainability. After graduating from college, Megan continued her dedication to life abroad by working in Chile, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, and backpacking through South America and Asia. In total, she has visited 41 countries! You can read about some of her adventures on her personal blog. When she manages to stay in one place, Megan enjoys biking, going out to eat, reading, watching football (Packers and Badgers, of course!) and playing with her two adorable cats.