Language as Hope: Teaching English to Refugees

They straggle into the classroom, some early, some right on time, some a few minutes late. I don’t hold it against them. This is not the willful laziness of college. My students haven’t opted to sleep late or chosen to stand outside the door talking with a friend. If they are late it is because of their work or because one of the three buses they take to make it to the school was delayed.

I offer bright smiles as I hand out books and give them placards on which to write their names. Some return my smile and offer a carefully pronounced “Good evening.” Others cast their eyes down under furrowed brows.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves—reveal our names and where we are from. The young woman in the second seat, an eager learner with bright eyes and a face that reveals her youth, says that she is from a Thailand refugee camp. She does not claim a nationality, but a camp, a place for those caught in-between. When I ask her where she lived before the camp, confusion washes over her face. “My family has been in the camp for 50 years,” she says. She has been in America for two months.

A gentleman from Iraq, in his 60s if not early 70s, dressed in a dapper suit and addressing me with unnecessary formality, does not stop after his name and his home country but tells me about the work he has done in Iran and Jordan, the positions he has held. He wants me to know that in another time and another place he was someone who knew things, someone who spoke with authority, someone who did not have to grasp for words or grapple for understanding. He is not pompous or boastful, but simply a man whose world has been upended.

Through the course of the class, little things are revealed. One student has been in the United States for twenty years, making her way through the details of days, weeks, and years with only beginner level English. One student has children, though they are not here with him in the United States. One student must stand for part of the class, because of a back injury suffered in Iraq for which he is being treated at the local hospital.

I teach the best that I know how. I introduce new vocabulary. I say words slowly, carefully. I write every word on the board. I ask them to repeat everything I say. I demonstrate where I put my tongue, how I move my lips. I show them how to arrange words into sentences and questions. I give them verbs that will open the door on English. I ask questions and I give them silence in which to think and respond. I encourage them to speak, speak, speak, even when they don’t know exactly what they want to say. I celebrate their successes. I work with them through their struggles.

Having lived abroad and tried to learn languages foreign to my English-speaking tongue, I can sympathize with my students. But I cannot empathize. I chose to learn other languages. I chose to live abroad. I chose to travel to places where people did not speak my language. My travel has been for pleasure. And there is, above all, the simple fact that I always had a home to return to, a place where I could be understood.

My students have not come to the United States as travelers, but as refugees, as people without a home. They are far, far braver than me. They astound me with their courage. I am amazed that they still laugh, that they bother to ask me how my day was, that they mourn for each other’s losses when their own are at least as great. It is because of this courage, this joy, and this compassion that I spend every Tuesday night in the windowless basement room of a church. It is because I have been given so much in a world where so many are given so little that I do my very best to teach my students the difficult language of a country that perhaps one day they will refer to as home.

Not a Drop to Drink: Blog Action Day 2010

On our travels, we’ve seen more times than I can count people carrying water in canisters atop their head. Usually the people we see are women or children, some so small that the jugs they carry are almost as big as them. Sometimes they don’t have to walk far with their load, just from the village well to their home. Other times they have to walk miles—literally, miles—with these heavy containers of water. It’s also not unusual for us to see women squatting aside a stream, their laundry laid out on nearby rocks, or to see children taking a bath in the river.

It makes for good photos, but it makes for a terrible reality.

The horrible truth of our world is that an enormous number of people in our world do not have access to clean, safe water. Unlike me, they can’t turn on the faucet and take a sip. Some because they don’t have the luxury of running water; others because the water that comes out of their faucets is contaminated. Ice makers, washing machines, yard sprinklers, daily showers, and swimming pools are fantasies, not only because many of the world’s people can’t afford them, but because even if they could, they’d be useless without the water to power them.

Did you know that 38,000 children under the age of five die each week due to consumption of contaminated water? That two million tons of human waste are disposed in water sources every single day? That African women spend a collective 40 billion hours each year carrying water, much of which is still not safe to drink?

And here we are in America, turning our backs on the perfectly wonderful water we have coming right out of our faucets to buy bottled water. How ridiculous we are. How frivolous we are. How unbelievably privileged we are.

Access to clean water is not currently a right for all people in our world, but it should be. Really, if you sit a minute and think about it, you’ll be astounded. This isn’t world peace we’re asking for. It’s clean water–something we already know how to obtain, something that is absolutely 100% vital to life. So today, on Blog Action Day, I ask you to take action. I challenge you to take the money that you spend on bottled water—or other frivolities—and donate it to organizations such as or Charity: Water. This is a problem that we can solve.

Aid That Works

Did you watch any of the BCS Bowl Games this year? If so, did you see the commercials asking you to donate $10 toward providing mosquito nets for Africa? If you did, did you donate?

I hope not.

That’s probably not what you were expecting me to say, so I’ll repeat it. I hope not.*

Wow, I must be meaner than you thought. How could I be opposed to providing mosquito nets to Africans, people I talk about with much fondness? Am I not in support of ending malaria, the deadliest disease in Africa?

Well, it’s not that simple. Of course I am in favor of ending malaria, and yes, I think that using mosquito nets is an effective method of prevention. But I don’t believe that handing them out for free is the answer.

As we traveled around the world, we encountered many different types of aid, and what we witnessed over and over is that as an everyday form of charity, handouts don’t work.** Sometimes what is being given is not what the people most need. Sometimes what is being given might work for us but doesn’t work within the recipients’ set of values and beliefs or with their lifestyles. And sometimes what is being given is taken not because it’s wanted, but because it’s free.

Come on, admit it, you do the same thing. Free stuff is hard to resist.

But when you receive something for free, it has no value to you. You didn’t have to give up anything to get it, you didn’t have to decide that that item was worth the price or the sacrifice of getting it. So if it’s lost or broken,  if it crumbles to the ground, if it sits around and is never used, it’s no sweat off your back.

Also, sometimes when you get enough free stuff, you begin to expect that you’ll continue to get free stuff. You start to believe that you don’t have to work hard to get what you need and want, that you don’t have to hold those who are actually supposed to be providing for you (i.e. family, government institutions, etc.) responsible for delivering on their promises, but instead you just have to put your hand out at the right time.

Time and again in Africa, we encountered the case of the free mosquito net. In theory, it sounds like a great idea. In practice, it doesn’t work. Rarely was the free mosquito net being used properly; most of the time, it was actually being used as a net for catching fish, birds, or other animals that could be turned into dinner. I’m not saying that’s a completely invalid use; I’m just saying that using the net in such a way doesn’t help prevent malaria. And as far as I’m aware, that’s what all these charities giving away the nets are trying to do.

So what’s the answer then? Should we deny people the simple protection they need to prevent an often fatal disease? Should we demand that people with little money pay a hefty portion of it for a net?

No and no. What we need to offer people in cases such as this is the skills and knowledge that they might not currently have but once acquired can put to good use themselves (for instance, in regards to the mosquito nets, knowledge about what malaria is, how it’s transmitted, and how it can be prevented). We can also offer them stuff, things that they need but cannot for whatever reason get, but we shouldn’t give it away for free. That doesn’t mean it has to cost much, or even anything. But, those in want or need of the item should have to “pay” for it, whether with money or through barter of goods or services. This means that the “purchaser” will truly want whatever it is on offer and thus be more likely to put it to good use. It also means that they will feel like a valuable person; someone who has something to give, not just someone who takes. I think most of us want to feel this way.

You might now be wondering if this works, if people are willing to pay for things that some charities give away for free. I can tell you that yes, it does work. I’ve seen it firsthand.

One of the most outstanding aid outfits we saw while on our trip was the Bwindi Community Hospital, a place we were invited to tour while staying in Bwindi to trek with the mountain gorillas. Here, a British couple run an Anglican-sponsored hospital for locals (and by local, I mean people who can walk to the hospital in a couple of days). They take in a few foreign volunteers each year, but other than that, all staff is Ugandan–nurses, doctors, janitors, secretaries, AIDS counselors, etc. This hospital is vested in the community. (The couple running the hospital are even drawing up plans to eventually remove themselves from their roles.) And though they offer excellent mendical services–a maternity ward that allows women to stay for their entire third trimester, preventing multi-day walks to and from the hospital; x-ray and surgery facilities; health workers who go out into the community and seek out those in need of treatment–what they’re most proud of, and rightfully so, is their education program.

The “Small Families are Rich Families” campaign has helped lower the birth rate in a country with one of the highest, by educating men on the benefits of having a small family they can take care of and by providing women with access to birth control (which is often literally a lifesaver).  The Village Health Promoter program means that each of 200 villages in the area has at least one trained resident teaching his/her neighbors basic health care practices, thus helping lower the number of cases of easily preventable diseases like dysentery. The Community Garden program teaches mothers not only how to grow food that is nutritious but also how to cook food that is healthy. And the sale of mosquito nets has translated into 15,000 children protected from the disease.

While we were touring the hospital, I specifically asked how the mosquito nets were sold, finding it interesting that they weren’t given away for free. What I learned is that the nets have a set price, a small amount less than $1 that people can pay for them, but that if even that small amount is too much, they can offer whatever it is that they have that they feel is worth the set price. I was laughingly told that they have an entire closet of carved masks and animals that they have accepted as payment. It’s not money; but it is an item of value. They could, after all, probably sell those carved goods to gorilla trekking tourists for much more than $1.

When we left the hospital, I felt uplifted. This, I thought, is how aid is supposed to work. It is supposed to promote empowerment, rather than dependence, to create systems that works whether the aid workers remain or go, to ultimately render itself unnecessary. So many times, we’d seen the remains of projects that simply didn’t work; it felt good to now see one that not only worked but worked well.

Aid is a tricky issue. What works one in one time and place doesn’t always work in another. And for those of us wanting to give, trying to determine what organizations are doing work that works can be nearly impossible. If you’ve been thinking about giving to a new organization this year, or if that mosquito net campaign from the BCS bowl games got you pondering how you could really make a difference, may I suggest Bwindi Community Hospital? There are lots of aid organizations doing good work, but this is one I’ve witnessed firsthand. For more information, or to make a donation that will help the hospital to help others, please visit their website.

*If you did give, good for you. It’s not that giving mosquito nets away for free is bad; it’s just that I think there are more effective ways of providing aid.

**I’m not referring here to the giving of aid during one-time disasters such as the current one in Haiti, but to prolonged aid efforts.

“Volunteer Work”

At 4:15 AM we met, had breakfast, walked outside and promptly waited an hour for the bus (yes, this was the day we waited longer on the return trip). What, might you ask, would compel us to do such a silly thing? Well, the first thing being that since the sun usually rose around 5:30 AM and set around 5:30 PM, we were pretty used to going to bed early and getting up early. The second was that we had Nicaragua’s most active volcano to hike!

Cerro Negro is not the tallest of Nicaraguan peaks, about 700 meters (2100 feet) above its surroundings, but it erupts often. During our ascent, we walked past the crater formed in 1968 up to ones formed in 1995 and 1999. Since it’s so active, it is completely surrounding by loose black lava rock and almost no vegetation, making the ascent harder and hotter.

Our tour group spent about four hours getting up the mountain, weaving our way up the side, then into the large crater filled with fumaroles (Theresa was not a fan).

The view from top was fantastic, allowing all the volcanoes on Nicaragua’s rim of fire to be viewed in a near straight line.

Now here’s the fun part about this hike … the way down. Really, you run. Straight down. All the way down. You can “sandboard” down it too (think snowboard on rocks), but we just ran. It took literally five minutes. All the work getting up the mountain undone in mere minutes. But that said, it was an exhilarating five minutes, barreling down a 45 degree slope. I still maintain a log roll was in order. Or somersaults.

But at this point, you may be wondering why this adventure would have the title “volunteer work.” Allow me to explain. Our hike organizer, QuetzelTrekkers, is a non-profit organization in Guatemala and more recently in Leon, Nicaragua. They arrange hiking tours like the one we did using volunteer guides, local transportation and local markets to supply food. Therefore, they keep their costs lower than other tour operators with their own vehicles and have a positive impact on the community and local commerce. Meanwhile, more of the money we pay for the guide can go to local charities. They work closely with organization providing assistance to street children, but have recently expanded their reach into other areas as well. Check out their website and goals, I find the whole concept to be very cool — even if the bus sometimes doesn’t come.

The Boys of Si a la Vida

“You’re going to get robbed.” That’s what we first thought William was telling us. Then we thought he said that just I (Theresa) was going to get robbed. And then Jeff’s Spanish finally kicked in and we figured out that he wasn’t saying we’d be robbed; he was saying that someone was going to steal me from Jeff. (Awfully nice of him, since the cold showers, crazy humidity, and travel wardrobe aren’t really doing a lot for me.)

At sixteen, William is a romantic. He told us about his girlfriend and showed us the ring she had given him. He quizzed Jeff and I on how long we’d been married and whether we were “in love.” In many ways, he was a typical teenager. In so many ways, however, he’s not. William is one of 15 boys who live at Si a la Vida, a home on Ometepe for boys who were once street kids, abandoned by their parents and addicted to sniffing glue, the drug of choice for those unable to afford anything stronger.

The Si a la Vida boys have seen hard times, harder times than probably any of us can imagine. But spend a little time with them, and it’s almost hard to believe their background because they are sweet and funny and almost uniformly optimistic. They’ve come to the Ometepe location of Si a la Vida on their own free will, after first spending time at the Managua location where they overcame their addictions and gained a support system, often for the first time. On Ometepe, they live together in a wonderful home, attend school, receive counseling, get regular healthcare, and act like typical adolescent boys. For most of the boys there, this is the only home they have ever known, and they are welcome to stay until they are grown up and able to live on their own.

Yesterday Jeff and I spent the morning at Si a la Vida, the objective of our visit being to drop-off a bag of goods we’d transported down here. We’d worked with a group called Charity Begins, which I wrote about in a previous post, to get the donated items, and though carting the bag around on the five million types of public transportation we had to take to get here was a bit of a pain, it was totally worth it.

We ended up spending a few hours with the kids, hanging out through a torrential downpour up until the boys had to head to school (they go from noon to 5 p.m. around here). We watched them play games, answered questions, admired the bracelets they make and sell as a source of income, joked with them, and just hung out. Though I often found myself frustrated with my lack of Spanish knowledge (and thus all the more ready for the language class we plan to take next week), I think I was still able to connect. Language differences be damned…adolescent boys are adolescent boys and with three brothers, I’m pretty well versed in that language.


On occasion, people who hear about our travel plans ask if we intend to do any volunteer work on our round the world trip. I always feel a little uncomfortable when asked this question because the answer is no. Now that’s not saying we’re against it or we wouldn’t do it if the right opportunity arose, but that’s saying that we didn’t plan this trip around the idea of doing volunteer work and we aren’t actively seeking opportunities.

Volun-tourism is huge these days, but I’m going to go ahead and be honest here and say that I’m not a big fan of it. In most cases, I think it’s much more of a way for you to feel good about yourself than for any real difference to be made in the world. Oftentimes, little of the money you pay for your volunteer vacation actually goes into the community that you’re “helping.” Instead it goes to paying for your hotel, your food, your entertainment, your supplies, and the overhead of the company through which you’ve organized your trip (and very rarely are they a local organization with local staff).

Additionally, I don’t think most people have the type of skills or training that are really needed. I certainly don’t. Sure, I could help build a house but really what am I doing but taking a job away from someone who could use it? People all over the world can build, and they can probably do it much, much better than I can. They don’t need me to hammer nails or shingle a roof. What they might need me to do, however, is donate the money that will let them buy the hammer or the shingles or that will allow an organization to hire them on at a living wage. Though just sending money doesn’t make us feel as good as offering our time and sweat, sometimes it’s really the better option.

Finally, I think that really making an impact requires more than one week of your time. Ever wonder why the Peace Corp requires a two-year commitment? You have to get into a community, learn its needs, gain its trust, and help people help themselves. There are some fabulous organizations out there that have already laid this groundwork and allow you to contribute on a short term basis, but take a look around and you’ll see that the organizations that are really getting things done usually ask for a minimum commitment of at least one month. The time, money, and effort that goes into training you to do any work for a shorter period than that often means that the organization is on the losing end of the deal.

Now hold on, before you run off to comment on how wrong I am, let me continue. I’m really not anti-volunteer. I think much good is done in the world by people who don’t ask a dime in exchange for their hard work. And I believe that if you have a cause that you hold near and dear and you want to contribute to it, than you, by all means, should. Additionally, if you have a skill, talent, or profession that’s rare/in demand—if you’re in the medical field and can provide health care to those without it, if you’re a lawyer and can represent those who are voiceless, if you have accounting skills and can help someone start a business, if you’re an artist and can bring the joy of art to someone—than go out there and put your skills to work. But if you’re just a Joe-Schmo like me, take a moment to ask yourself whether it’s really helpful for you to build a school when A) you’ve never hammered anything more than a nail into the wall to mount a photo and B) the community you’re building a school for doesn’t have any teachers.

So am I just offering an excuse for people to say “Well, there’s nothing I can offer here” and go off and do whatever they want without a care for the world? No, of course not. There are plenty of ways to make the world a better place without going on a volunteer vacation. For starters, while you are traveling, do your best to buy local. Support local restaurants, local hotels, local outfitters. Put your money into the community you’re visiting rather than some international business that will take the money right out of the country. Second, if you come across an organization that inspires you, ask how you can help. If they say that they need volunteers, great. If they say what they really need is money, then consider making a donation. And finally, remember that charity begins at home. Look around your own neighborhood and see what needs to be done there. If you want to build a house, I bet Habitat for Humanity can put you to work. If you want to teach English, see if your library has an ESL tutoring program. If you want to inspire kids, become a Big Brother/Big Sister. A staggering amount and variety of opportunities are available, and usually they just want your time, which means you can then put your money to work to actually improve another corner of the world (rather than attack it with a hammer you don’t really know how to wield).

[Jeff will be returning to the topic of how much a round the world trip costs in an upcoming post (hopefully this week), so continue to register your thoughts in the straw poll below.]

On Burma and How We Can Help

I’m sure you all have heard, especially if you’re making it to this blog, of the tragedy in Burma from Cyclone Nargis. As bad as Hurricane Katrina was, Nargis has already killed ten times as many people, and there are many many more unaccounted for. There are stories of entire towns, houses, people and all, being literally washed off the map. Those left in its wake face even more hardship, now having to fend off disease, find food and clean water, and start putting their lives back together.

I think what strikes me most about this tragedy is how “unavoidable” it was. There are some reports that the people were not notified well enough, but first of all, there is no clear way to contact everyone as its not like there is a TV or radio in every house. Even so, I’m sure people are quite skeptical of the state run media by now, not to mention people often don’t abide by storm warnings, as we so often see in this country. The truth is that the only thing that would have really saved lives is better infrastructure, and that does not come without a stronger and more developed economy. That path was carved 30-40 years ago. So say what you will about the regime there (and we have), but there was not much they could have done to prevent this tragedy.

What they can do, however, is address the aftermath with conviction and honesty. Their people need all the aid they can get and there are people around the world willing to give it to them. This is where their actions most offend me. So far, they are making things rather difficult because of bureaucracy. The only place to get a visa into the country is through the office in Yangon, which, as you may imagine, is not very functional at the moment. I imagine this will find an expedient resolution very soon, and there are already a number of amazing organizations already in the country doing their best to provide necessities to the people of Burma. The Network for Good has a great post about the best ways to start helping the people put their lives back together. Please do what you can to help the Burmese people get back on their feet so they can go get their democratic leaders (in 2011 … if it’s not ignored this time).

Want to Help Educate Kids in Cambodia?

Today Jeff and I received an email from a friend of ours from college. Maryann was my roommate during the summer I interned in DC, and throughout college we spent many afternoons together watching Rice baseball. Since graduation, she’s been doing amazing things–teaching English in Japan as part of the JET program, working as staff abroad the Peace Boat, and most recently dedicating herself to PEPY, an organization in Cambodia that merges voluntourism with a mission to improve the lives of young people through education. Maryann is a dynamic person—the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things but gets them done—and PEPY is a fabulous organization. (I’ll personally vouch for it’s credibility, but go ahead and check out their website and look it up for yourself if you want).

Anyhow, Maryann’s email, which I’m going to share below, is a request for help. PEPY is trying to raise money to expand their programs, and if you donate through this link— —by the end of January, you can help PEPY not only through your donation but also by upping PEPY’s chances of winning an additional $50,000 dollars. Imagine how much $50,000 can do in Cambodia. Imagine how much your donation can do.

I’m not usually one to pass on things like this or solicit people for donations, but I think this is a worthwhile project, and I believe some of you may be interested in helping out. (If you can’t give by the end of January, I’m sure they’d be happy for donations any time. Also, be sure to check out their voluntourism programs and consider joining them for what promises to be an amazing trip.) As Jeff and I are especially interested in organizations doing good work in areas which we plan to travel to, we will certainly be making a donation to PEPY.

The email:
Dear friends and family,

Your 10 dollar donation might be able to earn PEPY Programs $50,000…. can you help? No, this is not a Cambodian magic trick, but a contest for whoever can get the highest NUMBER (not amount) of online donations ($10 or more) before the end of the month. The donations have to come through this link to count

I hope you know its not my style nor PEPY’s to bug people for funding. BUT, we really think we can do this and we need your help!

If you have $10 to spare, please help us out right now by going to the above link and shooting your credit card numbers into cyberspace! This contest only lasts 8 more days so it has to be soon!

If you can’t donate right now, you can still be a huge help for us by sending this message to 5-10 of your friends and asking them to donate as well. We need to get a few hundred more donations to be in the running for this, and if half the people on this list can donate $10 and get a few friends to as well, it’s very possible.

Plus, the $10 or more that you donate through this Network For Good link will go to support PEPY’s educational programs in Cambodia, so no matter what, your efforts will be doing good! Just a little catch-up for those who aren’t in the PEPY know. Besides being my new life/job in Cambodia (yes, along with grad school still, don’t worry), its also experiencing some fabulous growing pains at the moment. So many new exciting ideas and programs in our heads! We are in the midst of planning meetings this week for our one, three and five year plans, and to give you some heads up on bigger projects in the pipeline, we have been discussing:

– purchasing land in Chanleas Dai near original PEPY Ride School in order to set up a community based development organization. The office housed there would have PEPY Program Managers working on community and parent education, school educational programs, environmental and health initiatives (designed by, and income generating training programs. They would also work with an extensive team of community leaders hired to disseminate this work into each village. (you are the first to hear this! we have been discussing this week – more to follow!)

– working with RDIC to bring their Sesame Street-esque educational series to 100+ schools across Cambodia. By working with RDIC as they hire and train local educators to visit schools monthly, equipping them with projectors and solar powered batteries with which to show each classroom of students we will help bring social, health, environmental, and literacy issues to light for communities around Cambodia. Each of the 27 minute episodes in the 13 part series (there will be a new series produced each year), also includes an educational workbook and the students are able to do lessons and activities both before and after seeing the shows.

– we are also trying to help RDIC get the $7000 per episode raised to get this first series on TV. We are confident that once these high quality animated/puppet shows are on the air, sponsors will be knocking each other over to get their name and commercial into the allotted 3 minutes of commercial time as, as already proven in testing these videos at schools and communities including The PEPY Ride School, these videos are very popular among kids and parents alike as there is NOTHING like this in Khmer.

….. and more. These are all still on the drawing board, but keep up with us over the next few months as, with our new Cambodian Country Manager, Aline Meas, who brings seven years of experience as the Executive Director of a local NGO, we are on a great path and lots of developments are in the works!

Thank you for supporting our work and please remember to donate $10 through this link, or pass it on to friends if you can!

Many thanks for your belief in me, in PEPY, and in our team and big hugs to all,


Maryann Bylander
Interim Executive Director

maryann (at) pepyride (dot) org

Phone (US): 914-458-4262
Office (Cambodia):023-222-804
Cell (Cambodia): 012 189 2120

Spreading the Holiday Cheer

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our loyal readers (and lurkers)! Yes it’s a day late, but the big day is always a little busy. All in all, it was a grand day with family and friends. Santa must’ve adapted to the internet age and reading our blog, because we got a number of things to help us on our adventure. Sporks, duct tape, silk sleeping bags, a gorillapod, and a new compact digital camera all found their way under the tree at the Dowell’s (I’ve always been amazed at how Santa can find you even when you travel). In other exciting news, we now have corporate sponsorship to go gorilla trekking! Good news gorillas! Thanks mom!

In keeping with the spirit of the holidays, we’ve been putting a bit of money toward our charities of choice. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that we tend to support organizations that are effective in assisting the developing world. We want to share three of them that we strongly support with all of you: Populizing the nobel winning Grameen Bank (another great organization) microloan style of developing world investment, this organization allows you to loan money to entrepreneurs in places as far ranging as Tajikistan, Uganda, Bolivia, and Samoa. Most loans are about $1000 over about one year, though the brilliance of Kiva is that each loan is put together by many lenders loaning $25 each. And the best part is you get your money back (without interest naturally), so you can then send it to another entrepreneur in need a year down the line. We have recently completed our first two loans (a co-op in Ecuador and a soap maker in Sierra Leone) and have reissued the money to a restaurant in Uganda and a shopkeeper in Afghanistan, and added a beauty salon in Nicaragua and a general store in Peru). The site has a lot of social aspects, and you can easily track the progress of your loan and see it at work. The link up there is a referral link, but we don’t get anything else out of it other than the satisfaction of knowing how many people sign up and donate through us.

Doctors Without Borders: Most likely you have heard of Doctors Without Borders. This Nobel Peace Prize winning organization provides health care to those who most need it: people affected by wars, disasters, or simply lack of access. The doctors, nurses, and other professionals have the courage to give up everything and put themselves in harm’s way, and no regard is paid to politics, religion, or other such factors. The need for medical care is the sole determining factor for where Doctors Without Borders goes, and often they’re the only people to go to some of the world’s most needy and dangerous places.

Charity Begins: An organization that we’ve had contact with in the past that coordinates delivery of aid supplies to developing countries. You can help by donating goods, delivery time, or money. We plan on being couriers for them when we travel, so even if you’re not headed anywhere, maybe you can donate something for us or other travelers to transport. Check their website for a list of desired items.

Those are our favorites, and we’d love it if we’ve convinced some of you to support them as well. But we’re always looking for great causes, so what are some of your favorites? Who do you think does great work in the world (or even your local neighborhood)?

Travel That Benefits Others

Traveling is a wondrous experience. It opens our eyes to new ways of thinking and living. We meet amazing people and see breathtaking sites. But we also come across things that are difficult. We encounter poverty, and not just beggar-on-the-street poverty. We encounter poverty that is desperate, that is so entrenched that it seems impossible to overcome. When this happens, we realize just how fortunate we are. At the same time, we often feel so powerless. What can we do to make a difference?

Recently, I came across an organization, Charity Begins, helping travelers to do something productive–deliver needed goods to non-profits in developing countries throughout the world. Here’s how it works: A few months before you take a trip to a developing nation, you contact Charity Begins. They then get in touch with a non-profit at your destination, gather supplies needed by this group, and deliver the supplies to your door. Then you take the supplies with you to the airport, check them with your luggage, pick them up when you arrive, and deliver them to the charity. Kind of cool, right? You literally become a link between worlds.

So consider it next time you’re traveling to the developing world. Or if you’re not traveling, help out by donating needed goods. After all, charity begins at home.