From a young age, Shannon O’Donnell knew that the traditional path of school, work and retirement wasn’t for her.
O’Donnell was living in Los Angeles after graduating with a degree in advertising/public relations from the University of Central Florida in 2006 when her sense of adventure and passion for helping others inspired her to take a year-long journey around the world.
After landing in Sydney, Australia, in November 2008, she traveled through 15 countries in Asia and Europe, participating in volunteer projects and blogging along the way. The experience led to The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, a how-to on selecting and pursuing the right volunteer opportunity.
Before O’Donnell embarks on a five-month trip to Mexico, we caught up with her to talk about her travels, her book and more.
What made you want to travel the world?
When I left in 2008, I was a bit lost in terms of career direction and finding work I was passionate about, and one of the things I had always dreamed of was traveling to all the places I had read about in my National Geographic magazines growing up.
How did you make the decision to focus on volunteering?
When I first hatched the idea that I could work and travel solo for a long time, I knew that simply traveling would not be enough to really re-center and focus my life. I had volunteered regularly throughout college, so when I set out to travel for that first year, I wanted my travels to mean more than just a personal, self-fulfilling trip. I wanted to find ways to connect on a closer level with the people, places and cultures in the places I was visiting.
What kind of volunteer work have you done?
In my first year, I spent a month in Nepal teaching English at a monastery that fosters young monks from impoverished areas of Nepal and gives them access to education, food and a safe environment. Throughout all of my travels, I strive to support local communities and community-based initiatives, such as social enterprises, with my tourism dollars.
How did your time at UCF influence your travel experiences?
UCF was my testing ground for who I wanted to become as an adult, and my positive volunteer experiences in college certainly had an effect on how I integrated service into my life since then.
I also took advantage of a study-abroad program my junior year and spent a summer semester in Italy– that was my first time outside the U.S. The experience lit a fire in my wanderlust and my desire to learn other languages and dive into new cultures.
You home-schooled your niece and traveled through Asia with her. What was that experience like?
My niece, Ana, was 11 years old at the time, and we decided to pull her out of public school, and I home-schooled her through the sixth grade while we traveled. Children are naturally curious, and they also bring a real sense of wonder to everything they experience for the first time. As we grow older though, it’s easy to lose that wonder, to become jaded to the beauty and special charm in new experiences—traveling with Ana brought that back for me.
Since we were based in Thailand, we tutored a Burmese refugee in English together; Ana helped plan the lessons and teach the vocab through charades and drawing. I think it was then that Ana learned there can be great fun and joy in helping, too.
What aspects of volunteer travel does your book cover?
The book looks at the industry landscape and ethical issues, gives advice about searching for organizations and provides tips on what to pack, how to navigate, culture shock and safety.
How could others benefit from volunteer travel?
For people with the time to commit, there are so many tangible benefits–you feel good inside, you likely make new friends and you gain a sense of the global community. We are all interconnected on this planet, and volunteering is a powerful way to bring that feeling into your life. And, if you volunteer and then bring that experience back to the people and community back home, you have the ability to create manifold change in others, too.
For me, travel itself is transformative and when you’re on that journey it can only transform you more to find ways to give back.
To read more about O’Donnell’s travels or to learn more about The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, visit her blog A Little Adrift at www.alittleadrift.com. Her other website, www.grassrootsvolunteering.org, serves as a database of volunteer opportunities abroad.