Operation Groundswell | Backpacking with a Purpose

Operation Groundswell

About

Operation Groundswell does backpacking with a purpose. With ethical travel at the crux of our philosophy, we design affordable programs that tell a story. Each trip addresses key challenges unique to each region and community we work with, told from diverse local perspectives. We blend solidarity-based community service, meaningful learning experiences, and off the beaten path adventure.

Founded
2007
Headquarters

205 Church Street
Suite 200
Toronto ON M5B 1Y7
Canada

Financial Grants Available!

Our financial grants program can cover 15-25% of your program fee. Simply apply for an OG program and contact our financial support team. Visit our website for more information!

Reviews

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Laura
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

Traveling with Operation Groundswell to Guatemala was truly one of the most valuable experiences I have had. I learned more in those 15 days than could ever be possible in my 4 years of University in a classroom setting. I have long been searching for a volunteer program that doesn't feel like the typical, white-saviour-esque "voluntourism", and with OG I found just that. By forging real relationships with community organizations acting on the ground in each of the countries they visit, Operation Groundswell can contribute meaningful work along with members of the community, instead of just making assumptions about the needs of the region. Through "learning before service", members of the group have a chance to be educated on the history and culture of the region, in order to get a better understanding of the greater context in which their volunteer projects may fit. Personally, my trip was an opportunity for me to learn how to travel ethically, and a chance for me to build the confidence I needed to later travel alone as a young woman. The program leaders do an amazing job of creating a balance between the group experience, and giving every individual some autonomy to make the trip what is best for them. Without OG, I wouldn't have the passion and the confidence to continue embarking on new adventures. I am forever grateful for this experience and hope that anyone curious about traveling and volunteering in an ethical way will give OG a look.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
Not so much nerve-wracking, but the most challenging part was a 2 1/2 day, 45-km trek through the mountains. On the third day, we woke up at 4am and hiked up a mountain in the dark so that we could watch the sunrise over the lake, while enjoying fresh Guatemalan coffee. That was the most magical morning.
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Lauren
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

As a fairly experienced traveller before my program with OG, I was worried that I wouldn't get a lot out of the program. I was worried I'd resent the group dynamic, that I wouldn't learn much, and that the promises of real and intimate connections with locals simply couldn't be achieved in this way.

I have never been happier to be proven dead wrong. As a smaller org., Operation Groundswell has access to some of the most interesting and impactful local organizations and activists. You could see and feel the trust their partners had in OG, and the love they shared with us as participants was unforgettable. Travelling in a group with experienced leadership at the helm made conversations engaging and important, and I learned more about myself and Guatemala than I ever could have imagined.

If you're looking for an honest experience that will challenge you in the best ways possible and change your perspective, take the leap and travel with OG. I was skeptical before seeing and feeling it for myself, but travelling with OG really is backpacking with a purpose. I am confident that I couldn't have created this experience for myself. I am absolutely sure that it was worth the money. This program made me strongly believe in the power of travel to change the world, and gave me a new individual purpose too. Looking forward to seeing where OG goes, and I can't wait to be part of the journey!

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
Staying with a community of Indigenous women who are using back strap weaving techniques to create economic opportunity while preserving culture was INCREDIBLY cool. It was a fantastic intersection of feminism, Indigenous culture, innovative tourism/entrepreneurship and highly immersive travel. Also, absolutely delicious food.
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Vicki
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

Visiting Ecuador and focusing our trip on food revolutions was educational, spiritual, and amazing! You are participating in community service that is requested by the partners you are working with so when you leave it is not as if you are leaving halfway completed projects that will never be finished. Your impact is that you are starting and finishing a full idea or leaving work that they will be able to complete themselves. You are traveling with two program leaders which are completely supportive, both of our were fluent in Spanish and very encouraging in every way. We also happened to have a PL that was from Ecuador so we were able to hear her insights about the country and the places we were visiting as well.
If you enjoy working and connecting with nature/Mother Earth for fun, this trip is for you! We did not visit bars or get drunk but we were able to go to bed exhausted every day from working, walking, talking, discussing, learning, and so much more. You will see things you have never seen before- such as having to go down and back up a ravine in order to get into town, but you will never worry about being able to sleep or feeling unsafe in any way.
The only downside to this trip is a TEENY bit of the value. The trip itself is worth every penny of the program fee BUT because of the way the program works, they tell you not to book your flights until your program is full with participants. For us this meant buying them two months before when my $750 flight had gone up to $1,600. Every other participant felt the same way but none of us would take the experience back.

What would you improve about this program?
Allowing us to purchase flights when we would like to but requiring flight insurance beforehand in case the trip is cancelled or we need a different time.
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Kaitlyn
5/10
No, I don't recommend this program

Traveling to Tanzania and Rwanda was amazing! I loved experiencing the different cultures and I was also able to participate in a few unique experiences with Operation Groundswell, such as a homestay. At the homestay I stayed with a Grandma and her two grandchildren in a small village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was very interesting to see life from their perspective and help with chores around the house. I also made many Tanzanian and Rwandan friends and during my Independent Travel Time I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. I'm thankful for the experiences that Operation Groundswell gave me; however, there were times when I was very frustrated with the program as well.

After I was registered for the program and before I left on the trip, it seemed as if the Operation Groundswell staff could care less about me. I emailed them multiple times inquiring about the program, as it was one month after they were supposed to be sending the program itinerary. They failed to reply to all of my emails and two weeks later they sent out an email stating that the program might be canceled due to lack of participants. Only then would they reply to my emails.

During the program, most of my dissatisfaction revolved around the program leaders. I am allergic to gluten and was told before the trip that they could accommodate a gluten-free diet for me. When I got to East Africa it was clear that they had not done anything to plan for this at all. In the beginning, for breakfast I only got a small portion of eggs. At the homestay, I got a couple bananas. I talked to my program leaders and told them that this was not substantial for me. They promised to buy me something else to eat for breakfast; however, it wasn't until the fourth week of a six week program, that they actually bought me some gluten-free oats to eat, and this was after I got upset with them. I felt that they continually ignored my problems and rarely checking in to see if we were doing okay. If you are Celiac or Gluten-Free DO NOT PARTICIPATE in an Operation Groundswell program!!

The leaders also lacked communication with the entire group of participants. They would leave us sitting in a bus on the side of the road, for hours sometimes, while they went off somewhere. They didn't even tell us where they were going or what they were doing until we asked them afterwards. We were left sitting in a hot bus, in a foreign country, all by ourselves with no idea when they were coming back.

Additionally, the leaders were late for most of our engagements. They would tell us to be ready for 4pm and we would all be sitting and waiting for them until around 5pm. This happened almost every day. It was absolutely ridiculous. I felt like I was wasting my time on this program.

A few other things that made me dissatisfied with the program were as follows:
-We were supposed to be focused on animal conservation; however, we rarely did anything with animals. We mostly planted trees, which is fine too, but I would have liked to have known this before the program so that I could have chosen a program more immersive with animals.
-Many of the volunteer opportunities were going to an office and listening to employees talk. I expected to be volunteering more hands-on and at the end of the trip I felt that I barely did anything to help animals in Eastern Africa.
-Only around 50% (I can't remember the exact percentage but it was close to 50%) of the amount that you pay on OG trips goes towards your actual travel. The other 50% goes towards salaries, alumni funds, etc. I paid about $4,000 CAD for this trip and only about $2,000 went towards my actual trip! I didn't know this until the end when our leaders showed us the cost breakdown. As an accountant, I was pretty upset with this info. I would have gotten much better value for my money if I had planned out a trip for myself.
-OG makes participants on the trip participate in "learning activities." Although the message they are trying to express is good, I felt like I was back in Kindergarten again when we had to do these. They treated us like children.
-Being 26 at the time that I participated on this trip, I was older than both of the leaders and almost all of the other participants. I felt a little bit out of place and I think that the programs are designed for younger people with little to no travel experience.

Overall, I absolutely loved East Africa and would love to return there someday. Needless to say, I will not be returning there with Operation Groundswell.

What would you improve about this program?
This program can be improved if OG increases their communication both with participants before they leave on their trips and with participants on the trip. I feel that the program leaders need more training in order to better adapt to the needs of participants. OG also needs to allow participants to volunteer with more hands-on activities and change their learning activities to accommodate an audience of young adults.
Response from Operation Groundswell

Hi Kaitlyn,

I'm so sorry to hear about your negative experience on program, but am glad to know how much you enjoyed Tanzania and Rwanda. Clarity and transparency are very important to us as an organization, and it seems that we did not accomplish that during your time with us.

I would like to start by apologizing for the poor communication. I expect we were waiting to respond until we had more information on your program's status, but that's not an excuse for not replying to your emails. We absolutely want to keep participants informed of what's going on every step of the way, even if it's just to answer questions and say that we'll be in touch with more information by a certain date. We are a small team, but our goal is to respond to all emails within 48 business hours, which we certainly did not do here. I'm also sorry to hear that you were emailed about the potential program cancellation. In the case that this is a concern, we always want to try and speak with each participant on the phone so they can hear from us directly, ask questions, and know exactly what's going to happen next, and it looks like we failed to provide that space.

Regarding your on-program experience, I'm sorry to hear that your program leaders were not able to better accommodate your gluten-free diet. At Operation Groundswell, we know that there are certain food sensitivities that are more difficult to accommodate in some regions rather than others, and we would not have advised you to come on an OG program in East Africa if it were a region we felt unsure of our ability to provide you sufficient and suitable food. There is no excuse for this, only that we were unaware until now that you had gone so long without being provided sufficient meal options.

With your program leaders, I suspect that this experience plays into the lack of communication, and what ultimately felt a lack of reliability on the part of your program leaders at large. It sounds like your program leaders failed to meet your, and our, expectations for leadership, professionalism, and risk management. While there is nothing we can do to change the experience you had, your feedback will help ensure we are both hiring the right people, and equipping them with the appropriate training to ensure Operation Groundswell participants are able to have the experience abroad they signed up for.

With regards to the theme of your program - this is something we struggle with every season. Finding a way to responsibly educate around animal conservation and contribute to the work being done in the field is difficult given the many pitfalls of unethical animal tourism, as well as our organizational commitment to only participating in work we are qualified to do. That said, it's a challenge we have accepted, which means we owe it to you, and to future participants, to better meet, or set, participant expectations around this particular theme. If you have suggestions on how to do this, we'd love to hear more.

We know that OG's educational style is not for everyone. We try our best to provide a variety of activities that speak to a diverse learning style, level of education/experience, and that make learning fun. We know that this can sometimes feel childish for participants, though for others it makes the learning more approachable. It is a balance, though one that may not have been the right balance for you.

Finally, we try to be as transparent as possible with our program fees. You can find a breakdown of how our fees are allocated on our website here: https://operationgroundswell.com/programs/fee-contribution/. There are certainly cheaper ways to travel, but we aim for our programs to offer more than just a travel experience. A lot of time and resources go into developing full itineraries designed in conjunction with local partners, establishing responsible relationships with local communities and organizations, building out and responding to risk management strategies, and engaging in outreach to get new team members on board, just to mention a few. If you have any concerns about our fees, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thank you very much for joining us on program. I hope it was ultimately a rewarding and valuable trip, despite us not living up to your, or our, expectations. This sort of feedback is extremely valuable, and we will always use it to improve our training, communication, and overall experience. If there’s anything you have questions about or that you’d like to discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]

All the best,
Anna

Dora
10/10
Yes, I recommend this program

I have no words for how grateful I am to have partaken in this experience. OG really does make a huge impact and in such an exciting and interesting way. The experience is definitely off the beaten track and includes many interactions with locals and local modes of transport. OG also puts a lot of importance on talking about certain issues in the regions that you’re in (the ones that you’re working on fixing) and it’s really cool to learn what’s going on in those areas as well as hearing the locals talk about it and hearing your travel companions’ opinions. The Amazon trek was definitely the highlight and hardest part of the trip. You get to go hiking through native territory where not even 1000 people have ever walked before. The terrain is challenging and a good degree of physical fitness and proper hiking gear is definitely required, but you also don’t have to worry about carrying your food or tents with you because the guides take care of that. The trip consists of so many amazing experiences but if you’re someone who’s hoping for prime comfort and degustation it’s not the trip for you, but rather for someone who loves adventure and truly authentic experiences. The 10 days of Independent Travel Time are also an amazing asset of the trip; I have not seen any other organization that gives people 10 days to do whatever they’d like while still being able to call the group leaders or regional mentor should something go wrong or should you need help with figuring something out. I 110% recommend this for someone’s first backpacking trip because you get a hang of how backpacking works and you definitely have the chance to make your own choices and be independent but you also have leaders to help you out.

What would you improve about this program?
The one thing that would’ve been nice if we were told that hiking poles and a headlamp were needed, but we told our leaders and they took note of it so I’d imagine they inform the new groups of this now.

Programs

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Catherine (Cat) Achbach

Catherine is a recent graduate with a Global Health and Black Studies Degree from Allegheny College. She traveled with Operation Groundswell to Ghana the summer of 2017 and had a trip of a lifetime.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose to go on this trip for a few reasons. The first is that I have studied Ghana for years through my Black studies degree and was obsessed with the country and culture. Getting the chance to actually go has been a dream of mine so when I saw this trip through Operation Groundswell I knew I couldn't pass it up. The second reason is that the theme of the trip was exactly what I have been studying in school. I majored in Global Health and that was what this trip dealt with. I got to explore the various aspects of health in Ghana and got to do it in a way that wasn't touristy. I got to experience things I never would have if I traveled there on my own.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

As far as my university I was pretty much on my own. OG wasn't one of their partners so they could have cared less about helping. On the other hand OG was amazing. They were there throughout the entire process from figuring out my Visa, shots all the way to flight information. We had pre departure meetings that talked us through so much and gave us the chance to meet each other. I felt confident starting my journey knowing the program was well run.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I honestly just wish I knew the people I was traveling with more. We briefly met through video chat but that was about it. I also wish I knew about laundry before. I brought 'camp soap' which worked for me on previous travels but once there I realized I needed detergent from there. Once I had a local show me that laundry went so easily! Oh also I guess earplugs. There were a few rimes roosters were very loud at like 2am and kept everyone up.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

You typically get up kind of early, get breakfast somewhere and then head out on whatever activities you have planned. this changes day to day. One day we hiked a mountain and went swimming in water falls. Another we explored a slave castle and then played soccer with local children on the beach. Each day is a new adventure and honestly its best to just go with it open minded and not expect anything, let whatever happens happen and I promise you it'll be worth it.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was that I hyped it up before going. This trip had been a dream of mine for year and I was worried that it wouldn't be as great when I finally got there. I was so wrong. The trip was better than anything I could ever have imagined. Once I realized that this was a new experience and you can't plan or expect anything I was no longer stressed. Ghana turned out to be everything I could have hoped for and more.

What was your unforgettable experience in the program?

Monkeys . No joke we had two encounters with monkeys on our trip. The first was with me. When in a small village I got bit by a pet monkey and ended up having to get the rabies shots. It was super scary at first but honestly I find it really funny now. I also have some awesome pictures. The second encounter was a girl in our group got robbed by a baboon. We decided to go on a Safari at a national park when we had our travel time. She was eating bread and walking to the safari jeeps when a baboon ran up and snatched her bread and bag. Another girl yelled at him and he got so scared he dropped her bag and left. It was a good thing because her passport was in it! While it was scary and crazy we still joke about it to this day, almost a year after the trip.

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Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Shay Chin

Job Title
Recruitment Assistant
woman with ice cream

Shay’s love for travel started in 2013 when she spent a winter break touring around France. Later that year, she discovered OG and decided to join the West Africa: Global Health program.

Post-program she knew she wanted to get more involved with OG, and hasn’t left since. She is now the Recruitment Assistant at OGHQ, but outside of work you can find her taking spontaneous weekend trips, reading books on self-discovery, and searching for the best brunch spots in the city!

What is your favorite travel memory?

Every adventure carries its distinct memories. As much as I've enjoyed traveling to Europe and Africa, I would say my favorite travel memories are the ones that are purely spontaneous like hopping on a plane and heading to New York for a weekend. Those are the kind of trips I absolutely love.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

Operation Groundswell is more than an organization. It's a community and even more than that, a family. Working with OG has taught me much. It's such a positive environment that encourages you to be your authentic self, while promoting experience through travel and ethical volunteering.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

The best story I've heard from a student was that their experience on an OG program not only met all their expectations, but served as the genesis for their current community involvement back home. It's always inspiring to hear how our impact has truly left an indelible imprint on our participants.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

I'd easily choose the Middle East: Behind the Headlines program. Since Israel is not very big, I love the idea of being able to visit the entire region. There is so much history there, and not to mention - I'm a huge fan of Middle Eastern cuisine!

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

My company is unique for its values. We have a backpacktivist manifesto that informs all of our decisions. It includes adaptability, open-mindedness, understanding, respect, and solidarity to name a few.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

To me, the biggest factor in being successful is working with a team of people who share the same ideas and values. Our love for experience and human connection create room for us to make service-learning programs that resonate with people from around the world.

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