The Start of a New Life

Months ago, when I was first contemplating the idea of a year off, I had applied for an internship at a non-profit in Thailand called Travel to Teach (T2T), an NGO headquartered in Thailand that brought in foreign volunteers to teach English at village schools. I was looking to volunteer somewhere in south-east Asia, but most organizations charged fees to cover housing, activities, support etc. So when I stumbled upon a page on T2T’s website, offering free accommodation, no fees and a small stipend in exchange for working as a “Head Office Intern”, I jumped at the opportunity and applied.

Getting the job with Travel to Teach helped me leave New York because it gave me some kind of plan for the future, but as I started traveling and falling in love with each place I went to, I grew less attached to the idea of working for T2T. I hadn’t signed a contract and it didn’t help that while researching the organization more, I had discovered a few rather negative reviews from previous volunteers that claimed that the owner kept a lot of the money and that it wasn’t really helping the village schools.

Still, when December rolled around, I decided to test it out. I had had very limited communication with T2T, had no idea what to expect or what exactly my role was going to entail. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing, but regardless, I hopped on an 11-hour bus that took me from Bangkok to T2T’s base in Chiang Mai.

That was ten days ago. It took me one day to fall in love with the other volunteers and my new life, and one week to realize the sincerity of the organization. As soon as I arrived in Chiang Mai, I was greeted by two soon-to-be coworkers, who were full of smiles and positive energy. We were quickly whisked away at adrenaline-inducing high speeds by a tuk-tuk to our charming volunteer house, located 30 minutes outside the city. After three months of cramped hostels, it felt amazing to be in a cozy house with spacious rooms. And everyone was so friendly, genuine and welcoming that it took me no time to get to know the other volunteers and settle in.

Still, regardless of how fun and sweet the other people working at an organization can be, it’s hard to be motivated when you don’t believe in the organization itself. And I still wanted to know if T2T really was making an impact and if it was true that the owner kept a lot of the money.

It didn’t take me long to figure it out. A little cautious probing revealed that the owner, Kerstin, hadn’t taken out a salary in a couple years and was living off her retirement money from Sweden. Her house, which on first impression looked rather fancy, was rented from friends who gave her a huge discount. And after my first work meeting, where we made a budget for the next month and planned out the upcoming stay of a large group of USC Alternate Winter Break volunteers, I realized the many little things into which the organization’s money was going. Donations to orphanages, cost of materials for restoration, materials for English camp at schools, sight-seeing activities for the incoming volunteers, etc. There were also costs I hadn’t thought of – costs you don’t have to think of in the Western world…like drinking water and maintenance of the volunteer house in a climate that expedites decay. It made me happy to see that Kerstin never hesitated to spend money to fix these things. Talking to her, it was hard to see that person I had read about online…she seemed so enthusiastic about the upcoming projects.

The other thing that put me at ease came from the Thai locals around us…they all seemed so grateful…teachers and parents, our neighbors, other people in our village, bus drivers that took us into town…everyone went out of their way to make us feel comfortable, giving us extra attention as a way of showing their appreciation for our presence and work at their schools. Coming from the for-profit world, it was a really pleasant change for me.

I’m not sure how it is in the other countries that Travel to Teach operates in. Kerstin herself said that it’s been hard to keep track of all the other branches without micromanaging…and that she recently heard of an in-country coordinator mismanaging funds. So I know the organization is not without its problems. But ten days in, I have enough peace of mind to believe in the organization and its owner. This is only the start of my experience in the non-profit world and I’m curious to see how I’ll feel after two months. But for now, I can say that I’m pretty happy with my new life.

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