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Volunteer Travel with Shannon O’Donnell

We're honored welcome Shannon O'Donnell to GoGirlfriend to share her travel journey. If you haven't met Shannon yet, you're in for a treat. As a traveler, volunteer and valiant earth steward, she has much to share.

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Up close & personal with the founder of GrassRootsVolunteering.org

Shannon O'Donnell of grassrootsvolunteering.orgShannon O'Donnell of grassrootsvolunteering.orgJulia Rosien ~ Can you tell us how you first got into volunteer travel and how it lead to travel writing? What was the catalyst?

Shannon O'Donnell ~ In 2008 I decided to leave the United States on a one-year, round the world trip. From the very beginning stages of my trip, I hoped to include local volunteer experiences peppered throughout my travels, but I didn't plan exactly when or how. Once I was on the road, I found that there were an infinite number of ways, both small and large, that I could easily help and support local communities. Giving back added depth to my trip, and throughout my travels I shared my thoughts and experiences on my travel blog.

That is really the root of it, I traveled and blogged, and after that first year traveling I decided to stay on the road for more than four years now and I integrated service into each new place I visited. I built up an online community through my blog, and discovered there was a need out there for more information on the ethics of volunteering abroad. People were confused by the myriad of options and often asked me how I chose where and why to volunteer. So, I pulled together my experiences, interviewed others to round out the total picture, and published my first book, The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook

see the world as a voluntouristsee the world as a voluntouristJR ~ What's the best travel advice you've ever received?

SOD ~ My dad's advice years ago has resonated with me to this very day, and he didn't intend his advice specifically for traveling but I find that in my travels I have found the most use for it. He told me that when I felt stuck, overwhelmed, or fearful of a situation that I should shift my perspective and look for the other solution I hadn't yet found. Sometimes on the road it is so easy to get caught up in the moment-you've just missed your bus/plane/train and you're trapped. In that situation we often hone our focus in on all the reasons that this circumstance is not possible the grand plans you've made; but if you shift your view and step back, if you really take yourself out of the situation and approach it without your personal biases, sometimes there is a surprisingly easy solution within reach.

Countless times I have asked myself "this situation seems unsolvable to me, but what would that local sitting next to me say if he were in my shoes, or what would my best friend's advice be right now?" That simple question can be enough to jar me out of whatever has me stuck and into a new perspective that often solves the dilemma. 

ask yourself how you can help othersask yourself how you can help othersJR ~ What's the worst travel advice you've ever received?

SOD ~ Don't pack my jeans. That seems silly, but when I left to travel with just a single backpack full of clothes meant for one year on the road, I was very stressed out about packing just exactly the right items and taking all the advice other travelers offered. And frequent advice for long-term travelers is not to pack jeans-but that was terrible advice because I love jeans, and yes they get smelly. And yes, they take forever to dry. But when I am at home I wear jeans nearly every day, so I'm not sure why I thought I would want that to change on the road!

The underlying message of it, though, was really to take the advice of others only so far as it makes sense for you specifically. The way we all travel is so personal that I say pack what you want, plan a trip that delights you alone, and ignore advice you don't think fits your situation ... really, it's okay if you love jeans too. ;-)

have your eyes opened by travelhave your eyes opened by travelJR ~ Have you ever had an experience at a destination (or other travelers) that made you rethink your decision to be a volunteer traveler and travel writer?

SOD ~ I am often plagued by doubt about choosing to write about volunteer travel. Travel writing in general has never been a controversial decision for me because I deeply love sharing my perspective and thinking about interesting ways to convey the sense of a place. But, through writing about volunteer travel, I entered a much more controversial field because voluntourism is closely linked with development and international aid and there are many people in the latter fields who feel that voluntourism does more harm than good.

I believe there is a balanced approach to volunteering that-when taken with very careful consideration of the fundamental issues surrounding international development-allows volunteers to create meaningful change in local communities, and within themselves.

Volunteer Travelers HandbookVolunteer Travelers HandbookJR ~ What are you most proud of with your portfolio?

SOD ~ Though each article on my site is a piece of my portfolio, it's the specific projects that I poured my heart and soul into that bring the most joy. Holding the paperback copy of my book in my hands for the first time was incredible, seeing my name in print was a validation I didn't know I wanted.

Writing the book was incredibly difficult because I had to confront my fears of failure, dedicate huge quantities of time to the writing and re-writing, and there were points when I was simply plagued by intense self-doubt. I think this is a common fear for many of us, when you launch something you care about into the world, you then open it up for criticism. But, in the end I feel like I was able to really emphasize all the ideas and advice needed to make my book enjoyable, honest, and helpful-for those reasons I am immensely proud of it.

JR ~ Tell us more about ALittleAdrift.com and GrassrootsVolunteering.org. How can folks get involved.

explore with a volunteer organizationexplore with a volunteer organizationSOD ~ A Little Adrift is the site I created to document my round the world travels and I have been so lucky and grateful over the years to see the site grow into a dynamic community of travelers who share their ideas and thoughts on the site, and on my site's Facebook page. This site focuses on travel narrative and photography, as well as full resources and advice for others planning long-term trips. 

Grassroots Volunteering is different than my blog; this site has been my passion project since 2011 and it is a free and open database of local volunteer opportunities and small social enterprises all over the world. The site is community-supported and the goal is to have travelers all over the world finding and submitting worthy and interesting grassroots projects so that others can connect and support with those organizations too!

My goal with this site was to empower travelers to easily add an aspect of social good to every single trip they take. I welcome inspiring guest posts on this site, recommendations for organizations that should be in the database, and a monthly newsletter to inspire more social good in each person's life.

purpose in volunteeringpurpose in volunteeringJR ~ What's next for Shannon in 2013?

SOD ~ My immediate plans center living in Mexico for the next several months where I plan to rent an apartment and work on a handful of new projects that are in the works. I love traveling slowly, and by renting a place in Mexico I will have the opportunity to find some social enterprises and small community based projects to support, while also exploring all of the nearby towns and sights. By the end of the year, the dream is to fly to Africa and travel there for several months-the Africa plans are still very vague so it could change on whim! 

have fun, explore, help othershave fun, explore, help othersJR ~ What's the best advice you can give to an aspiring volunteer traveler and travel writer?

SOD ~ To volunteer travelers, I say do diligent research on any potential volunteer project and vet the organizations thoroughly. There are so many opportunities for positive and mutually enriching experiences if you put forth the initial effort to find a good match for your personal goals and objectives. I believe travel itself has the power to transform and shift our personal perspective, and if you dream of volunteering overseas there are ways any traveler can make that a reality. 

For travel writers, it is a much tougher road toward finding success. Consistently writing on my travel blog since 2008 was the largest catalyst in my writing career because it gave me the space, time, and opportunity to hone my skills and technique. Success is not overnight, and simply sticking with your dedication will get you farther than so many who dream of travel writing but give up after just a couple years.

It takes time to learn the craft of writing and even longer to build up the media and industry connections you will need to find an outlet for your writing, so stick with it even when you're frustrated! 

About Shannon O'Donnell

Shannon O'Donnell ~ Volunteer Traveler HandbookShannon O'Donnell ~ Volunteer Traveler HandbookThank you Shannon for sharing so generously with GoGirlfriend readers. If you'd like to learn more about Shannon, she has actively traveled around the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. She recently published The Volunteer Traveler's Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.

Founder: ALittleAdrift.com

Founder: GrassrootsVolunteering.org

Twitter: @ShannonRTW

Where have your Volunteer travels taken you? Tell us about your experiences ... Chat with us on Facebook or connect with us on Twitter. We'd love to hear your stories!

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