Community Volunteerism

Unplugged and Involved. How I Embraced Volunteerism.

Since being back in Maine I attend more events, volunteer and explore my community. Being blessed to work for a company that embraces volunteerism and community certainly helps. Disconnecting from technology, volunteering more and networking has helped me to connect in ways I never imagined.
Taking time to disconnect from technology can help us connect in other ways.

How many of you remember a childhood without computers and other electronic devices?   While I was growing up, at our house, we had one giant, old school computer in our house that the whole family shared; it wasn’t until I turned 13 that I really knew how to use it. For me, in the early years computers weren’t much more than glorified word processors. Today many schools give laptops to every 6th grader.

The Internet wasn’t worth the wait. It took about 10 minutes to load a page. Today-information takes milliseconds to pass from place to place.

As for cell phones, I didn’t get my first flip phone until I was 15. No texting, no camera, and only to be used for emergency purposes. You know what? I didn’t mind the limited access to a computers and cell phone. I didn’t give it a second thought. I was busy doing other things, like spending time outside, talking face-to-face with actual people, and, gasp, using the land line to get a hold of my friends.

Today, we have an endless number of these devices right at our fingertips. Now, I am not saying that that is a bad thing. Technological advances are great and important for personal and business needs. However, I do think that my generation (hello, 90s babies!) and especially younger generations need to learn some time management skills. To be more specific, we need to manage to make time for more face- to- face interaction with other people.
Instead of meeting and chatting with people online, we should try to make more of a conscious effort to meet new people out in the community, or by joining groups that spark our interest. Having trouble putting down the cell phone? Perhaps this will help or inspire you.

Here’s the journey I started two years ago (and it really helped).

Growing up I was very shy, preferring to sit in my room and watch TV then go out and really socialize. This continued through high school and even college. I got by, but I  also knew I wanted to be successful in the business world. Being shy just wasn’t going to cut it. So, in the spring of 2013, I made a change and decided to do something about it and push my limits.

I flew all the way around the world to Australia (where I knew no one) to participate in a Study Abroad program for four months. I literally had to disconnect myself from all technology for the first two weeks of the trip, and it turned out to be two of the best weeks of my life. Granted, for those weeks, I was busy being a tourist with my new found friends. Being away from the computer and phone really made me think about the importance of putting myself out there, exploring the community and people around me. From there on out, I elected to not have a cell phone during the four month period. The only technology I had was a computer and spotty Wi-Fi. Since I was hardly ever in my room, I hardly missed a thing.

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While in Australia I had the opportunity to volunteer at the 2013 Association of Surfing Professionals World Championships.

While in Australia I volunteered at a few different events. I met a ton of new people, had real conversations, and learned that putting yourself out there – whether it’s volunteering or civic engagement – is one of the most fulfilling things a person can do.

Since being back in Maine I’ve made it a point to explore my community more. I attend more events, and volunteer when I have the time. Currently, I am part of a volunteer group called YPLAA, where we plan events in our community to bring professionals together to network and have fun.

Here at Provider Power employees are encouraged to volunteer, even on company time. We are providing numerous opportunities to interact with non-profit groups, and get hands on experience with these organizations. Volunteerism is part of the corporate culture here.

Last summer I volunteered with one of the Electricity Maine Power To Help partners, St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, where I helped kids learn about and cook nutritious meals    As a company we are active with the United Way of Androscoggin County, regularly participating in their Day of Caring.

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With volunteers, staff and some of the families served by the St. Mary's Nutrition Center of Maine. Photo courtesy St. Mary's Nutrition Center of Maine.

I am blessed to work for a company that values the importance of volunteerism and networking. I’ve met more people in the past two years than I have at any other point before that, and the rewards are endless. Volunteering and helping others, while putting myself out there and exposing my vulnerabilities has helped me to personally grow and gain a new level of confidence.

My point is this. Taking time to disconnect from technology can help us connect in other ways. Freeing your mind free from cell phone notifications and social media updates can and is a good thing. It is good for our own personal growth, as well as the growth of the community we are in. Don’t get me wrong, I see the irony in writing this in a blog. So, when you are done reading this, I encourage shut down your computer, and put down the phone. You will be glad you did.

A sign posted at an animal preserve in Australia.
A sign posted at an animal preserve in Australia.

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Interview with Wide-Open World’s John Marshall

After reading and reviewing the well-written and thoughtful (as well as, thought-provoking) Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever, I had a few questions for author, John Marshall. He graciously answered the questions that I sent him via email.

Marshall is a nine-time Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, and director. Mainers will recognize him from seeing him on local television stations, like WPXT and from his work writing and hosting a number of weekly television programs. Wide-Open World is Marshall’s first book.

How does a family know if they have what it takes for a journey like this? Were there any contingency plans in case you found out after four weeks that you and your family weren’t cut out for it?

For any family considering their own Wide-Open World adventure, you can always start small. Add a few days of volunteering to your next vacation and see how it goes. Most importantly, get every family member on board before you ship out. Dragging someone on a trip like this will not produce the best results. In our case, once we got the kids to buy into the idea, we committed to a six-month journey. The truth is…there were several times on the road that our kids asked to go home; difficult homesick times where a comfy bed, a hot shower, or a familiar face was all they wanted. Without a real commitment at the start, it would have been all too easy to pack it in at the first challenging stop along the way. For me, the length of the trip was as important as the individual volunteer opportunities, allowing the world enough time to have a deep impact on us all.

As a follow-up, are there certain types of people/families that are better suited for an adventure like this one? Any kind of prerequisites that you’d say help prepare you to take off for six months or more?

The #1 prerequisite is simply your decision to go. Not a passive dream of going or a desire to maybe get out the door one day, but your ironclad, set in stone, decision to hit the road. Once you make this decision, you can find a way to make a trip like this happen. As for prerequisites or certain types of people who might enjoy this kind of travel…it helps to be flexible. Things go wrong on the road. Buses are slow and uncomfortable. Accommodations are less than stellar. Where we went it was hot most of the time. One day in Thailand it was 125 degrees! And there are bugs and simple meals and toilets of every conceivable variety. If you are looking to judge every situation by Western standards and prefer room service to actual service, this might not be for you. That said, there is a world of difference between comforting a crying orphan and tipping your favorite bartender. So if you can be flexible, the rewards we discovered far outweighed the challenges.

Would you say that for most of us, getting outside of our “cocoon” in any type of fashion for an extended period helps change how we see the rest of the world? What was the biggest “aha” moment for you in that regard?

I think it’s easy to forget, at a very basic level, that we are alive. That our time is passing quickly. The routines of life are very hypnotic. They put us to sleep, in many ways. But travel is the opposite of routine. Every day is new. Every new experience requires your full attention. So this is one powerful reminder we discovered on the road. Additionally, volunteering in the developing world is a jolt of reality. It’s easy to sit at home and talk about the poor, to be sad in a general sense about world hunger or global poverty. But when I actually met real people who are poor and hungry…they were not what I was imagining. As for “aha” moments…orphaned children had the most profound impact on me. Before leaving home, I thought of them as some general, faceless mass of regrettable humanity. But when I got to know them, one on one, as children, it’s impossible for me to return home and live as if they do not exist.

I thought you did a good job of portraying your children, not as saints, but as typical suburban, middle-class kids, privileged compared to the children you met on your trip. You touched on it a bit at the end of the book, but how have Jackson and Logan continued to build on the experiences detailed in the book?

Yeah, a trip like ours can have a powerful impact on teenagers, and we certainly saw that in our kids. Our son Logan was 17 at the time and our daughter Jackson was 14. Today, Jackson is in college, studying to be a doctor and hopes to be a part of the Doctors Without Borders program, serving in the developing world. Logan has spent several years in South America, learning Spanish, volunteering and writing a blog about finding your inner superhero. Before the trip, they were already great kids and motivated people, but I feel the Wide-Open World experience magnified their best qualities and opened their hearts a little bit wider.

What were the deciding factors in traveling around the world, rather than picking a few locations, or even staying stateside?

Traveling around the world is a dream. It’s one of those long-shot bucket list items that a lot of people write down but few people ever actually do. Like running a marathon or bungee jumping in Australia. Wouldn’t it be amazing? For us, we were motivated to make it happen and so we went. But we are nothing special in that regard. If you’re interested in how to make a trip like this happen for you and your family, I wrote a chapter at the back of the book on how to volunteer your way around the world. Truly, if we can do it, so can you. If it feels like too much, try a two-week volunteer vacation and see if it doesn’t touch your heart. Or volunteer in your own neighborhood. In many ways, I believe volunteering is almost selfish because you receive so much more than you give. As I say at the end of the book: You will not change the world. But the world will definitely change you.

I understand that you’ve gone back and spent time in India at the orphanage you wrote about in the book. What was it about that place that drew you back?

I went back to India, thinking I would volunteer my way around the country, maybe write about it as a follow up book. But I ended up very sick at the start and went back to the The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission (a large orphanage on the Nepal border), which was the only place where I actually knew people. Once there, it was the kids who really nursed me back to health, and I ended up spending most of 2014 living with them. From terrible beginnings and hopeless situations, these kids are now filled with incredible joy and an infectious love that is hard to describe. It was so inspiring to me in fact, I’ve launched a non-profit called New Orphanage that looks to find and support the best orphan projects worldwide. I also hope to have my next book be about my time at the orphanage. Like Wide-Open World, I hope it helps readers see the difference one person can make in the world. And the difference the world can make in each of our lives.

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Book Review: Wide-Open World

John Marshall’s life had been tracking a predictable middle-class story line—a house in the suburbs, married to the same woman for 20 years, two teenage children—yet he sensed that something was amiss. There had to be more to life than what he was experiencing.

Rather than resorting to skirting around the edges of change, or even making a myriad of resolutions that are akin to a magic talisman or lucky rabbit’s foot—losing weight, joining a gym, or even finding a different job—Marshall’s prescription called him and his family towards something  much more radical.

Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever, is the story about Marshall and his family spending part of 2010 traveling, volunteering in various places on what became a global odyssey. This experience broadened Marshall’s and his family’s perspective by taking them outside themselves and their comfortable surroundings.

By all measures, Marshall was successful in his work. An award-winning television personality in Maine, and at the time (2009), he was serving as a creative director at a Portland television station. And like many American men, Marshall had been socialized to ignore his intuition and tamp down his feelings. That left the usual default of work and digging deeper into his career.  Traca, his wife, was also experiencing dissonance. She sought meaning in yoga, shamanism, and Reiki therapy. Meanwhile, his two children, Logan, 17, and Jackson, 14, were immersed in the daily routine of high school, friends, and his daughter especially—the pull of the virtual world.

"Wide-Open World," by John Marshall
“Wide-Open World,” by John Marshall

A short yoga vacation with Traca to an ashram offered Marshall a glimpse of what might be possible. On the flight home to Maine, four words were on his mind:  a year of service. What would that look like, and was it even possible? They were about to find out.

Not to make light of the logistics, but they weren’t as challenging as most people think. In fact, Marshall does a great service to readers, by walking them through some scenarios at the end of the book. Ultimately, it’s about letting go and giving in to the possibilities. Soon, the Marshalls would be on their way, on a vacation trip different than any typical family vacation—this one built around service and volunteering.

The initial stop on their itinerary was the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary, an animal orphanage in the jungles of Costa Rica. It’s clear from the start that Marshall and family aren’t in suburban Maine anymore.

Marshall never comes across in his narrative as some kind of super-righteous, holier-than-thou moralist. Instead, he lends his own experiences to his readers, pointing them towards new possibilities.

At each subsequent location, Marshall along with his wife and children were engaged in volunteer work for a part of each day. In Costa Rica, it was feeding abandoned animals, raking paths, cleaning cages and helping out with tourists who visited on day tours. After their chores and activities were done, the family had the remainder of each day free to explore their new surroundings.

From Costa Rica, it’s on to New Zealand and work on an organic farm; next, a primary school in Thailand where they teach English to local students in Bangkok; then, an orphanage in India.

All good things must come to an end. After six months, it’s back home to the life they’d left behind in Gorham. Marshall is honest about what the return was like. All four family members were changed, but this didn’t mean that the return landing wouldn’t be somewhat bumpy.

Each family member learns new things about themselves during their time away. For John, it was time to face realities in his life that he’d been putting off and hoping, perhaps magically, that the time away might heal. This was also true for his wife, Traca. Jackson and Logan found meaning in serving others.

For anyone contemplating a radical life-change, and wrestling with the realities of making it happen, Marshall’s book is a great place to start.

When purchasing John’s Book we hope you’ll consider one the many local booksellers.

Longfellow Books

Gulf Of Maine Books

Nonesuch Books

(if we missed your favorite bookstore, please let us know and we’ll be happy to add it to the list)

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