Tim Cunniff and Keith Kresge are Global Volunteers “veterans.” Between them, they’ve served on 44 programs in 18 different countries – from Tanzania to the Cook Islands. Despite the obvious contrasts between these societies, they say one truth is common to all: People are more alike than different on a basic-needs level. But, how people approach life’s difficulties is what sets us apart. At a time of severe struggles for everyone around the world, we asked them which lessons they’ve learned through 22 years of service have special relevance to them now.
Although the number of Americans traveling abroad has increased by 15 percent since 2007, the U.S. Department of State reports that only 44 percent of Americans hold a valid passport. That means that just under 60 percent might not possess the broader field of vision obtained through international travel. 17-time volunteer Tim Cunniff says that volunteering worldwide has informed his understanding of global events – most immediately, lending perspective to the devastating impacts and uncertainties brought about by COVID-19. And more, what he’s learned from people in other countries has helped him define his own place in the world.
“Resilience is Key to Survival Around the World.”
“I think most of us as Americans haven’t had to develop resilience on the scale that others around the world have,” Tim offers. When you think about the communities Global Volunteers serves, they face pandemic-like challenges every day or maybe every month. “For them, resilience is a way of life, a necessity.”
“It takes natural resilience for people to be able to survive with what they don’t have,” 27-time volunteer Keith Kresge adds. “And there’s an innate spirituality that underlies their life at whatever level they’re at. They have this infrastructure of a strong, faith-based existence. It’s something that we’ve experienced in most of the places we’ve been in. I wonder,” Keith reflects, “if we were to be put into these communities in a different framework – other than as volunteers – would we see something different?” Would we see the opportunities in our limitations? he asks.
In Tanzania for example, where he and Tim served in 2017, “It was amazing to see the increasing numbers of local families participating in the Reaching Children’s Potential (RCP) Program once they understood what it was about. That was evidence right there that they’re eager to learn as much as they can,” Keith asserts. Community leaders in the Ukwega Ward welcome volunteers to work alongside them on the RCP Program. Together, they aim to halt childhood stunting in participating villages by providing families essential services and knowledge about proper nutrition, protection from disease, and early childhood education. “Going out on the home visits, you could see the relationship, the communications between Global Volunteers’ (staff) caregivers, and the families,” says Keith. That connection, he says, has convinced him that short-term volunteers can catalyze local people to shift the trajectory of their lives by providing resources the community is missing. In return, volunteers gain invaluable insight to elevate their own lives.
Tim expands on this point: “Despite living on the lowest rungs of economic stability, their willingness to be open-minded, to accept outsiders, to try new approaches to effect change in their community is what demonstrates their resilience. When you realize that you don’t get any outside assistance, even from your own government; when you can’t depend upon anyone else, you have to be resilient to survive.” That’s not the same reality for the “average” volunteer serving with Global Volunteers, he points out.
In this stark contrast is an important lesson, they insist. In a materialistic existence, where many Americans live, Keith says, one can end up focusing on “trying to acquire as much as you possibly can.” That can make us closed-minded and fearful. But meeting and working with local people through service-travel changes that. “You see that they just want to be happy. They want to be able to feed their kids and give them an education. It makes you think.”
The difference, Tim quickly adds is: “We also had committed parents, and we were educated. But with our education, we were able to secure jobs that provided us a comfortable living. And when we started traveling and we saw what the rest of the world looks like, it really impressed upon us how fortunate we were, and instilled in us a commitment to give back. I think we have a responsibility to do that.”
“From Respectful Interaction Flows a Realistic Global Perspective.”
“I will echo very strongly what Tim said about us quickly learning how fortunate we are,” says Keith. I think what volunteering abroad does is, it gives me a sense of how fortunate I am, that I don’t have these levels of worry or need.”
When you’re in a community viewing the struggles – integrated into the experience – you can’t help but be inspired, he continues. “But it also gives you a sense of empathy, and also a feeling of pride to be around people who are so committed to following whatever the program is. Being exposed to that determination gives you that perspective. It’s stuck with us for 22 years. And, it makes you want to reach into those moments of empathy that you experienced on the programs and bring that home to our communities.”
“It makes you want to reach into those moments of empathy that you experienced on the programs and bring that home to our communities.”Global Volunteer Alumnus Keith Kresge
“And you think about our partners in Nepal, who are driven by goodness, to provide services to just survive,” Tim adds. “There’s so much they have to overcome in order to succeed.” That determination, that focus and sense of purpose is a lesson that people who don’t travel never learn, they say.
“It really makes you reflect, Tim continues. “For all of what we have, are we better off? For instance one night in Puglia, Italy, we had a biologist who was coming for English conversation classes. He wanted to get into the substance of the conversation. He said: ‘I’m really not interested in what your favorite foods are, but I’m more interested in your lives.’ Then he went on. ‘Martin Luther King said I have a dream. What’s the status of that dream in America today?’”
“It brought me to tears,” Tim recounts. “Italy was quickly approaching the time when they weren’t going to be a homogeneous society. And I think it was because of who we both were that prompted him to ask this question. And that to me, was a sign of trust; wanting to go beyond, to truly understand my point of view. It moved me.”
Would he step back and challenge himself with this question in any other setting, Tim wonders out loud; then answers himself by making his earlier point. “It keeps bringing you back to the fact that there is more about us that brings us together than what separates us,” he reflected.
“We have a unique opportunity to actually observe through participation,” Keith added. “I think that because we work hand-in-hand with local people, and feed their children, you know, we put them down for naps, we build hand-washing stations and help them plant their EarthBoxes, that access provides deep insight.”
“It really makes you reflect, for all of what we have, are we better off?“Global Volunteer Alumnus Tim Cunniff
“And, frankly, that’s what drove us to choose Global Volunteers in the first place, back in the 80s,” Keith continues. “When Americans were traveling, particularly in Europe. A lot of them would get in an air-conditioned bus and just take pictures with their cameras through the window. They never really got on the ground. They never really committed their time. When we did our first program in 1988, in Puglia, we were hooked. It’s just that it’s such a different approach to experiencing the world and learning about people.”
“And, at the same time, these are communities that want to change. And, they invite us in to help them. Even the fact that Cuba allows Global Volunteers to participate is really very telling. I think the government can’t provide all the social services the people need. That’s one reason we go to the senior homes to help out. Because the government can’t provide any additional support other than a roof over their (seniors’) heads and maybe some food,” Keith says. Global Volunteers provides social interaction to residents and labor to improve their living spaces.
“Serving on as many programs as we have, we can actually experience the positive results. It’s very compelling,” Keith underscores. “It’s why we keep coming back, and why we donate, and why I now serve on the Board of Directors.”
“We’ll Continue to Serve as Soon as We Can Go Back.”
Keith notes he and Tim are currently registered for programs in 2020 that likely won’t materialize because of U.S. travel warnings. “As an organization, Global Volunteers itself has had to be resilient. This is not the first downturn that Global Volunteers has had to survive. If you go back to the recession of 2008, all of those conditions had a profound effect on the programs. But due to the resilience of the Executive Management, the organization is still here, and it will be in the coming years.”
“I think that by the time Global Volunteers is ready to resume business, we all will have a better understanding of what it takes and how we can do it,“ Tim concludes. “But, it’s going to be different.”
“Would we ever get back on a plane until there’s a vaccine?” asks Keith. “We’ll find a way.”