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We are so glad you are taking a moment to read our story, and we hope that we can write the future together. Environmentalism has always played a major role in the lives of the Center of Cultural Interchange's President, Emanuel Kuntzleman and CEO, Laura Rose.
Together in 1995, 10 years after starting CCI, they founded the Foundation for the Future in Madrid, Spain. The foundation supports an ecological group on the island of Ibiza, Spain known as Greenheart. Inspired by the unyielding work of environmentalists growing the green movement in Ibiza, Emanuel and Laura took the decision to orient their work at CCI with the concepts of love and respect for planet earth by incorporating Greenheart into CCI's mission and all departments.
Meet Jill Robinson, Social Media Manager for Greenheart
GO: Tell us a little about Greenheart Travel and your role at the company.
Jill: My name is Jill Robinson and I'm the social media manager for Greenheart Travel. I have the wonderful opportunity to interact with our travel community online, as well as work with our participant bloggers. Living vicariously through our travelers' experiences is an amazing job perk. It keeps me in the mindset that travel always offers something eye opening and new, no matter how many times you have been abroad. It also gives me tons of daydreaming material for my next travel escape!
GO: How did you get involved in the volunteer industry?
Jill: When I graduated with my degree in journalism, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to travel so I scraped together money for a plane ticket, ditched the internship and hopped on a one-way flight to Scotland. It was the best decision I made. I worked abroad in Scotland and England and traveled until I ran out of money and then came home.
I was fortunate to join Greenheart Travel after moving to Chicago and realizing that I needed to somehow combine writing and traveling. What makes this job even better is the opportunity to really make a difference in so many host communities across the globe, and I'm so grateful that I am able to come into a job everyday knowing that I fully believe in an organization that I work for.
GO:What makes Greenheart Travel unique?
Jill: Greenheart Travel is unique in many ways, but I can honestly say that I have never worked for an organization that truly cares about the travel experience as much as this team. We are a close group and we know our participants by their first names, we share their blogs around the office and cheer them on during their "aha" moments on the programs. Everyone on the Greenheart Travel team has traveled, volunteered, worked or taught English abroad and the passion for these types of experiences hasn't diminished for any of us.
Greenheart Travel is also unique in the aspect that we feel travel is more than just boarding the plane and landing in the country destination. Our programs believe in full immersion, because the only way to gain a new perspective is to dive right in to a new culture. Our participants are traveling and volunteering to make a difference, but we also hope that our volunteers will come back with a new perspective as well. We also offer a chance for participants to do more than explore the country they are volunteering, teaching or studying through our Greenheart Grant and Greenheart Club programs. We want to promote volunteer service experiences in their host communities that engage our participants where they are most passionate.
GO: In your experience, what characteristics make a good international volunteer?
Jill: A good international volunteer is one that is passionate, empathetic and positive. Traveling and volunteering abroad is an eye-opening experience on so many levels. Volunteers that arrive at the site with an equal desire to learn as they are to help will be better at understanding the needs of the community. We had a recent participant in Costa Rica sum it up wonderfully that many times the processes and day-to-day tasks can sometimes be unfamiliar, but volunteers need to take on the mentality that "It's not wrong, just different." International volunteers that are curious, good listeners and observers and passionate about the culture and project they are working with will do great. It also helps to have a great sense of humor and go with the flow attitude when those showers are cold and you are trying to communicate in a language that is unfamiliar.
GO: How do you ensure your programs are sustainable and mutually beneficial for you, the community, and the volunteers?
Jill: We are very selective in who we partner with regarding our global volunteer projects. Greenheart Travel only works with local grassroots NGO's who need the partnership of dedicated volunteers to sustain their project efforts. These projects are selected according to the actual impact of the project on the local community, which they are a very important part of. Many of these communities lack basic services and our partners are passionate about meeting these needs. Our mission is to change lives, advance careers and create leaders, and these three values must be part of all of our volunteer projects.
For our volunteers, the majority of the fee they pay (over 60%) goes directly to the projects themselves and a percentage of every program fee from our volunteers goes to our carbon offset program as well in Masaailand Kenya. Regular check-ins with both volunteers and partners ensure our projects are continuing to help local communities and help them sustain themselves for years to come.
Meet Anna Kacyn, Greenheart Travel Director
Anna Kacyn, a Chicago born-and-bred travel lover and avid proponent for going abroad, completed a degree in International Relations and Business from the University of Wisconsin. Since college, Anna's been moving all around the world, but has now finally admitted defeat to Chicago's deep dish pizza. She's settled down in the windy city where she works as the Travel Abroad Senior Relations manager at Greenheart Travel.
GO: Did YOU study abroad?! If so, where and what inspired you to go?
Anna: While in university, I studied abroad in Valparaiso, Chile (not Indiana as my friends liked to joke!) My family is originally from Argentina so I initially had plans to study there instead; however, given the economic, political, and social situation at my intended time of travel, a family friend instead encouraged me to choose a safer option, such as Chile, for my study abroad experience. I was there for 5 months and I think it was the best decision I have ever made (as I would probably have never gone to Chile otherwise.) I'll get to Argentina someday!
GO: So you haven't made the return trip to South America yet? Where have you been going in the meantime?
Anna: After graduating, I lived in France for a little while, where I attended a language school and did some volunteer work with a company out of Israel. I also did a lot of exploring! I went to Switzerland, and spent a few weeks in Turkey. I could rave about Turkey for hours - I had already done a bit of travel throughout the Middle East, mostly Jordan and Israel, but I was fascinated by this corner of Eurasia. Turkey's history, the physical geography, the people - it was stunning and all came together seamlessly in this beautiful country. You really feel like you're experiencing the past there. Its extraordinary.
GO: What separates CCI from other study abroad program providers?
Anna: Greenheart Travel is the travel abroad department within our umbrella organization CCI, and most of our programs are available for high school students only. While we all been around for over 25 years, we formed Greenheart Travel about 5 years ago to highlight and emphasize our unique commitment to environmental action within study abroad. By incorporating the Greenheart Travel initiative into the CCI family, we give people a better idea of what kinds of programs students can get involved in, which ultimately emphasize a commitment to social and environmental projects as an integral part of study abroad. We also are unique in that we strongly encourage students to work in community-based volunteer or research projects while abroad. This makes Greenheart alum stand out in future college applications and job applications (beyond the fact that they have already shown initiative by studying abroad in high school!)
CCI also funds grant programs for volunteer projects. Right now, we recently funded an English book library in the country of Georgia; as there are few English books in Georgia yet a great demand for learning the language, we knew this project would be a worthwhile investment. It is projects like these that Greenheart Travel seeks to be a part of and contribute positively to.
GO: What does the future hold for CCI? Any new programs on the docket?
Anna: We have new volunteer projects popping up in Asia - one in Nepal and another in Vietnam, and Greenheart Travel has our sights set on China! We're hoping also to create teaching partnerships in the coming years.
GO: How interested are high school students in studying abroad?
Anna: Well, in the past year, 2000 US high school students studied abroad. This figure sounds like nothing when compared to the 30-40,000 international students who come from abroad to study in the US each year. I think there is a lot of interest from students but there are many hurdles to jump for study abroad - the biggest set back being the ability (or lack thereof) to transfer credits. It takes a bit of legwork to convince administrations to allow certain classes taken overseas to be considered the equivalence of classes offered by the students' school. Some schools really understand the benefits of study abroad and are really flexible with their curriculum, and yet others are more strict and difficult to work with.
What it comes down to is education: people need to learn and understand the invaluable benefits of studying abroad, and how much it transforms and challenges students to become worldly and independent thinkers. When parents and students know and agree that study abroad is a worthwhile investment, further pressure will be placed on legislation to make studying abroad a less difficult option for students.
GO: What is the best advice you can give some considering studying abroad?
Anna: Do it now! The biggest thing is that life quickly starts to happen and if you don't travel now, then you most likely never will. Excuses are many but opportunities are not! Instead of pushing and pushing and pushing it off until it never happens, travel now. There's no better way to gain life skills than by traveling and experiencing other cultures.
I really respect Greenheart's dedication to providing younger students with programs that connect them to the planet through environmentalism. By exposing students to the importance of fair trade, cross cultural understanding, and the potential for social transformation from a young age, Greenheart is certainly doing their part in contributing to a better tomorrow for all.