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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Passing the Baton

Big changes are happening here at Volunteer Expeditions.

Our incredible founder, president, and all-around leader Patti is officially retiring. At the age of 70, we think she deserves it.

So what's a nonprofit to do? We didn't want our good work to come to an end, so we started asking around. We didn't want just anyone to take over. So, when Patti talked to our good friends at Amizade (our partner on the volunteer trip to Washington, DC), she mentioned she wanted to retire, and they were immediately intrigued.

"So who's taking over?" Anna of Amizade asked.

"I don't know," said Patti. "I'm hoping for a wonderful organization."

"Hang on, we'll call you right back," Anna said. And true to her word, she called Patti right away with the Amizade Executive Director, Brandon. They wanted to take on our New Orleans program - and we couldn't be happier to pass Volunteer Expeditions on to them.

Amizade has a proven track record of almost 20 years of incredible service learning trips. They have taken over 6,000 volunteers to learn and do good all over the world; from Appalachia to Poland, from India to Tanzania. Their dedicated staff and incredible opportunities always ensure a life-changing experience for their travelers.

Brandon accompanied Patti to New Orleans to meet our partners and to experience the trip for himself. All went well and we are thrilled.

Amizade will officially take the lead on our New Orleans trip on June 1st, 2013. You can always visit our website to discover more about our trip and how to get in contact with Amizade to plan your volunteer vacation to the Big Easy - or to their many other global locations! (If you're interested in the other trips we offered, to Jamaica or Washington, DC, you can still do great work in those locations with Amizade.)

We've been buried in paperwork and transition details, but we look forward to handing our beloved New Orleans trip to this organization. Amizade will be taking Volunteer Expeditions over for a test run while Patti spends a few weeks in India at the end of this month (the usual travel destination for the 70+ set), so feel free to call them today and get your next volunteer trip organized!

Have any questions? Leave a comment or send an email to volunteer@amizade.org!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Of mice, work gloves, and Snapchat: a newbie's volunteer travel experience

I've been working for Volunteer Expeditions for over a year. As the Director of Communications, I handle all of our marketing and outreach. I was well informed on how our trips to New Orleans work. I knew the important names - Paul, Pastor Bruce, Warrenetta, and so on. I knew the regular volunteer opportunities - Second Harvest, The Lower 9th Ward Village, The St. Bernard Project, and more. And I knew the basics of our trips - volunteer opportunities, a tour of the Katrina and flooding devastation, free time in the French Quarter, dinner and bowling at Rock 'n' Bowl, etc.

But knowing the names is very different from being there.

I was thrilled to find out I was going on my first Volunteer Expeditions trip to New Orleans. Originally, I was to lead three groups from the East Coast, but three turned into a slightly smaller two due to Superstorm Sandy. After a bit of scrambling, we were re-set to go.

All 28 volunteers and three chaperones flew out and arrived at the hotel with only one lost wallet and one almost-left-behind suitcase. As I settled into my room that first night, I barely slept. It's so cruel that being overtired and anxious keeps you awake. And I'll admit it - I was worried about the trip throughout that sleepless night. I had never been to New Orleans before! What was I doing leading thirty people through it?

Morning came, and with it came sanity. I knew what I was doing. I had a carefully laid-out itinerary for the volunteers, and I had created my own itinerary with precisely where we were going, who I needed to talk to, and any and all contact information for every single stop on the trip. I'd been over the whole thing a few times with Patti, plus Ivy and the rabbi (the leaders of the two groups) were well-prepared themselves. This was going to work.

And you know what? I was right. That morning (after an enlightening speaker with a sleepy audience) we kicked our volunteering off with sorting food donations at Second Harvest...and it was a blast. Mr. Charles was a great leader, the work was fun, music made everyone dance, and we did a good thing for hundreds of hungry people. And you can't argue with Piccadilly Cafe for lunch. Real Southern food. One entree + two side dishes + dessert + soft drink = 28 gleefully stuffed teenagers.

After a stop at beautiful Audobon Park (beware the fire ants) and admiration of trees covered in beads from Mardi Gras nine months ago, we partook in Shabbat services, ate a lovely meal, and listened to an experienced architect discuss the rebuilding process. More than one young woman perked up on hearing he'd met Brad Pitt by working for the Make It Right foundation.

Clearing a new lot
Saturday was unforgettable. We met the lovely Warrenetta (how wonderful to put a face to the name!) and were loosed to help in various ways to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward. The main task of the day was helping Miss Polly paint her house and clear her backyard. When the gate was first opened into the yard, my first thought was, It's a jungle. I didn't see a way to actually step inside amidst the overgrowth, let alone start clearing it.

But clear it we did. By the end of the day, you could easily maneuver throughout most of the yard and we had pulled out several industrial garbage bags worth of trash. Not to mention two laundry baskets worth of ancient deep red bottles that looked better suited to a pirate ship. After an enlightening tour with another sleepy audience, everyone was rewarded for their hard work with a deep-fried dinner and bowling.

The next morning was one we would never forget - services at an African-American church in the Lower 9th. By the end, our volunteers were on their feet and clapping along like they were members.

We toured Tulane with the help of another chaperone (a college student who a few of our high schoolers were big fans of), had lunch, and split up for free time in the French Quarter. All I can say is that beignets at Cafe Du Monde are the best things I have ever eaten in my entire life. My tablemates might agree.

We spent that evening at St. John's with Pastor Bruce (not Father John). Many of us made new best friends with the young children in the church community. I had my hair done by Pastor Bruce's children. The experience was truly eye-opening for our volunteers, who are lucky enough to have never before visited "the hood", as Pastor Bruce declared.

The next morning we made the discovery that most of the volunteers are not meant for a farmer's life. I was very impressed with the work happening at Our School at Blair Grocery - and now we will all have a better appreciation for the hard work involved in getting arugula onto our plates! Although the experience was difficult for many, there were smiles all around by the time we arrived at our final stop...because who doesn't enjoy Mardi Gras World?

I think I can best explain the ties made and the bonds forged in this trip by sharing one last story. When we arrived at the airport, no goodbyes were made before we split off to our different check-in desks. MSY is a small airport, and we all wanted to get going. We figured we could say goodbye while waiting at the gates. But once we were through, we made a horrible realization - one group was in terminal C with me, but the other was in terminal D. There are no hallways between terminals. I had resigned myself to texting goodbye, but that wasn't good enough for our volunteers. A number of the group I was with proceeded to leave our terminal back through security, then wait in line to go through the other terminal's security to say goodbye before returning through their own security again.
Sad faces saying goodbye

Let me say that again: our volunteers put themselves through airport security two extra times just to say goodbye to their newfound friends.

We shared meals, stories, tools, sweat, and photos. But the most important things we shared were the memories made. It sounds cheesy, I know, but when I look back on this trip ten years from now, I'm going to remember running around the airport with Cammy, Pammy, Joey, and Sam. I'm going to remember eating lunch with Nicki, Didi, Mira, and Lev. I'm going to remember bowling with Jamie, Ilana, and Hannah. I'm going to remember Andie getting her palm read while Hailey, Noah, and Matt observed. I'm going to remember being amazed by the red bottles in Miss Polly's yard with Samantha. I'm going to remember shouting "woo!" with Zach every time we filled a box of food donations.

Making the decision to go through security again to say goodbye was a piece of cake for me too.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Learning the Lessons of Katrina

Hurricane Sandy has left a long trail of destruction in its wake. The sad events of the last few days, the images of homes destroyed, and the suddenly homeless all evoke powerful emotions. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique.

Our founder and president, Patti, is all too familiar with those who need to rebuild their lives. She reflected on the similarities and - thank goodness - differences from a hurricane just a few years ago...

Courtesy of NASA Goddard
As I look at the major devastation Hurricane Sandy has visited on the Eastern seaboard, I compare it to New Orleans in 2005. With scenes of rows and rows of houses with waters up through their windows and streets completely flooded, the flashback is real and intense. However, I think the horror of beginning to rebuild New Orleans will not be repeated. As I become glued to my television, I see the president, the governors, FEMA, and wonderful agencies like the American Red Cross immediately stepping forward so that the New Orleans nightmare is not repeated. The quick and responsive nature to Hurricane Sandy is stunning in comparison. All we can do is hope and pray that the victims of Hurricane Sandy will recover quickly and resume their normal and appreciated lives.

While people are focused on helping those in the Northeast who truly deserve our hope and attention, it is our wish that we do not forget the citizens still rebuilding their lives in New Orleans.

How will you help those on the East Coast? Leave us a comment below.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Patti's Passion

We are thrilled that our friends at Volunteer Global are compiling a book of volunteer travel stories. Our founder and president, Patti, wanted to share her story with them - and we want to share it with you! If you've ever wondered what you can do when you grow up and/or retire, you'll discover that the possibilities are endless.

Some people retire. They sleep in, play bridge and golf, knit, run some errands.

I am not one of them.

A year after my attempt at retiring, I was so shocked at the devastation from Hurricane Katrina that I organized a trip for my Chicago suburban synagogue to volunteer in New Orleans. Even 18 months after the storm, the destruction was heartbreaking. Thousands of homes were completely destroyed, and thousands more had to be completely gutted before they were deemed safe. We even had to wear HAZMAT suits.

I couldn’t just stay retired and do nothing. After word of our inspiring trip had spread to other local religious organizations – and I was asked to plan trips for them – I knew I had discovered my new lifework. I founded Volunteer Expeditions and now plan trips for religious, school and family groups from all over the country to help rebuild New Orleans. My organization has even expanded to offer trips for groups to tutor children in Jamaica and to help the homeless and hungry in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Patti jamming in New Orleans with some new friends
I am truly awed each and every day by the spirit, the determination, and the unwavering support of the volunteers I meet. Their work, their time and their money have genuinely made a difference to the people of New Orleans. I have had the pleasure of watching this city rebuild itself. In just a few short years, it has gone from a city destroyed with no green spaces to a vibrant place with new homes, businesses and parks. It still has a ways to go, but it is headed in the right direction.

Even though I have retired from the normal workforce, I'm spending my full time doing what I love best. And that's bringing volunteers to do worthwhile work that makes a difference in their lives and in the lives of the people they touch.

Do you know someone retired who is following their passion? Tell us in the comment section!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Hurricane Isaac Relief: How You Can Help

Hurricane Isaac Path
With the threat of Hurricane Isaac past, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The damage wasn't as severe as Katrina, due to a weaker hurricane and stronger levees. But there are still plenty of people whose homes are destroyed, whose towns are flooded, and have no electricity in a humid summer climate.

We've reached out to our partners in New Orleans to find out what they need - and we hope you'll consider helping them.

  • Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development: Stimulating engagement and preserving resources
    • Send gift cards to Wal-Mart to help needy families
    • Donate online here
    • Donate via check payable to: Lower 9th Ward CSED, 5130 Chartres Street, New Orleans, LA, 70117
    • LA, 70112
  • St. John #5 Baptist Church (Pastor Bruce Davenport): Helping low income families find community and faith
    • Donate via check payable to: St. John #5 Baptist Church, 3613 Hamburg St., New Orleans, LA, 70122
  • Beacon of Hope: Helping LaPlace residents
    • Need donations of
      • Storage containers (medium to large in size)
      • Contractor bags
      • Home Depot and/or Lowes gift cards
    • Volunteer: contact Heather Huth
      • Hhuth@beaconofhopenola.org
      • (504) 309-5120
    • Donate
      • Online here
      • Check payable to: Beacon of Hope Resource Center, 145 Robert E Lee Blvd. Suite 200, New Orleans, LA, 70124 (Att: Isaac Relief)
  • Second Harvest Food Bank: Providing several hundred thousand pounds of food to families in need
    • Need donations of
      • Non-perishable food items (canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, soups, juices, water, etc)
      • Cleaning supplies (bleach, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, mops, gloves, paper products)
      • Send to: Second Harvest Food Bank warehouses 
        • 700 Edwards Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70123
        • 215 E. Pinhook, Lafayette, LA 70501
    • Volunteer: contact them here
    • Donate
      • For ever $1 donated, Second Harvest Food Bank can provide the equivalent of $15.50 in grocery/food items
      • Online here
      • Call for more info: (504) 729-6322
    • For more info, visit their page here
  • ReNEW Schools: Helping lower-income families of students whose homes were damaged
    • Donate online here
    • Send gift cards to Wal-Mart or local grocery stores to help neediest families
      • 3128 Constance Street, New Orleans, LA 70115
      • (504) 367-3307
  • Harry Tompson Center: Helping the homeless stay secure and cool
    • Donate online here
    • Donate via check payable to: Harry Tompson Center, 130 Baronne Street, New Orleans, 
  • New Orleans City Parks: Clearing felled trees and restoring the park
    • Volunteers very much needed
    • Contact Steve Ryman, Volunteer Coordinator: sryman@nocp.org; (607) 237-6210
  • Community Center of St. Bernard: Providing food, water, baby formula, cleaning supplies, and personal hygiene items to families in need in the St. Bernard parish
    • Donate
      • Online here
      • Check payable to: Community Center of St Bernard, 1111 LeBeau St, Arabi, LA, 70032
    • Host a fundraiser: contact Iray
And, as always, to travel and make a difference with your own hands, you can schedule a volunteer trip for your school, office, or congregation with us at Volunteer Expeditions.

For those of you who have traveled with us, we have updates on some of our other friends. Paul, our beloved bus driver with Pelican Bus, is just fine. He and his wife stayed in a hotel for a few days, and his house was undamaged. He caught a cold though. Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is also safe, along with his family. They know several people who have lost their homes, though.

Please don't forget about your friends and countrymen in the Gulf Coast who were affected by this hurricane. For more information, check #nolahelp on Twitter. If you know of any other people or organizations in need of assistance, please leave the information in our comment section.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hurricane Isaac on the Katrina Anniversary

As many are aware, today is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In the time since those devastating storms and floods, New Orleans has certainly made huge strides in recovery. Though it will always be a city divided - before Katrina and after Katrina - it is flourishing in a whole new way.

But as fate would have it, on this day of remembering, New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast is under barrage from Hurricane Isaac. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those in the affected areas. Our founder and president, Patti Vile, releases this statement on this anniversary and new challenge:

"The brave citizens of New Orleans are again facing a hurricane to test their nerves, endurance, and their love of the city.

"In the seven years since Katrina, New Orleans has made some giant leaps and has addressed many issues while leaving other issues to be further considered and solved in time. The physical beauty of New Orleans has definitely returned. Immediately following Katrina, there was not a green space or blade of grass or trees or anything but the gray aftermath of the storm. Now New Orleans is green again, with new buildings and colorful homes and residents.

"While many families are struggling to regain some sense of a normal life after Katrina, we find them again today with new challenges from Hurricane Isaac. So many people do not have housing, and we are very concerned that this number is escalating as the day goes on.

"My wish for New Orleans is that they retain their spirit and their very unique culture. While no one can boast food and music like New Orleans-ians, the need to continue addressing poverty, crime, and issues of education is still pressing.

"Let's send New Orleans our prayers and best wishes on this anniversary and as they face this new challenge."

Just as New Orleans has taken big steps in recovering from Katrina, so too will they get through and flourish beyond Hurricane Isaac. And we will be there to help them do it.

To help those affected by the storm, please donate to the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and DevelopmentSt. John's #5 Church and Social Ministry, the Lower 9th Ward Village, or Second Harvest Food Bank - or consider taking your group on a volunteer trip to New Orleans with Volunteer Expeditions.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Extraordinary Volunteer: Max Glazer

Everyone helps others in their own way. Some people donate. Some people volunteer. Other people raise thousands of dollars and send hundreds of pounds of supplies before graduating high school.

Max in New Orleans, 2009
Welcome to the premier edition of Volunteer Expeditions' Extraordinary Volunteers, where we feature the incredible volunteer work of those who have traveled with us (outside of their volunteer trip). We are truly honored to share the story of Max Glazer, who has done more in just four years as a teenager than many have done in their entire lives.

It all started in 2008, when Max was at the ripe old age of twelve. The Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah centered on a theme of home. He wanted to have his guests help build a home with Habitat for Humanity after his service (and he would outfit the home with his gifts) but unfortunately was not allowed to because of his young age. Habitat's loss became New Orleans' gain, as his rabbi worked with Volunteer Expeditions. 30 congregants - including Max and his parents - joined us on a volunteer trip.

Max worked in a men's shelter and gutted homes during his trip with us. He returned to New Jersey inspired. To remind others of the importance of the rebuilding efforts, he wrote letters, articles, a play; he gave presentations; and he asked his Bar Mitzvah guests to donate while doing his own fundraising to send over $3,000 to the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (now the Lower 9th Ward CSED).

But Max wasn't done. In 2010, he returned to the city and helped plant over 2,000 trees to revitalize the wetlands and worked in several other organizations. He was dismayed to discover that very few books had survived Hurricane Katrina and there was still no functional library. With the help of his 8th grade teacher, his friend Noah, and Noah's mother, Max started Books for the Bayou to replace the lost books and provide additional resources for schools, churches, and community centers.

In his first Books for the Bayou collection through his middle school, Max received over 1,000 books for children and adults in the Lower 9th Ward and a grant to cover the shipping costs. Since then, Max's efforts have collected almost 4,000 more books and the thousands of dollars necessary for shipping, which has led our friend and partner Warrenetta Banks at the CSED to declare, "He's my hero!"

Now 16, Max has received a Raoul Wallenberg honor for his efforts and donated the cash award to the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. He has also been nominated for the Kohl's Kids Care Scholarship and the NJ Jefferson Awards for Public Service. There is a chair named after him in the Holy Cross Church in the Lower 9th Ward in appreciation for his dedication to the people of the community.

In his free time (he has free time?), Max plays the saxophone in his high school marching band, works at his temple as a classroom aid in the religious school and tutors Spanish. He hopes to study architecture and engineering - and he will be returning to New Orleans for the fourth time in January.

Max and more books at the post office, July 2012

To donate to Books for the Bayou, you can send checks to 203 Sailer Street Cranford, New Jersey 07016 or email maxxrea[at]gmail.com for more information. Please note that Books for the Bayou is not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit at this time, so donations are not tax-deductible.

Many thanks to Max and to Julie Glazer, his mother, for providing so much information!