Traveling for Good in Russia: A Volunteer’s Story
Nearly two decades ago, just before she was to leave on one life-changing trip to Russia, a phone call and a twist of fate stopped Travelocity Market Manager Jonna Orwig in her tracks. She got a second chance to visit this past summer as a Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer on a Change Ambassador Grant, and now she’s sharing the experience’s profound joys and challenges, as well as some travel nitty-gritty, to extend a helping hand to anyone considering a volunteer vacation.
TWS: After winning one of Travelocity’s employee Change Ambassador Grants, what made you choose your particular program and location?
Jonna: Sixteen years ago I was in the process of adopting a child from Russia. At the last moment before leaving for Russia I got a call about my two daughters, who were in foster care in Chicago, which resulted in their adoption and thus changed the course of my life. I have always had a love for Russia but a void that I never traveled there.
TWS: How difficult was it to plan your trip and sort out logistics like visas and flights? Did the volunteer commitment make it easier or more complicated than it may otherwise have been?
Jonna: The pre-planning was extremely organized by the staff of CCS. The timetable of actions made the process very smooth, and frequent conference calls with our CCS director were invaluable. We also had a conference call with the entire group about a week before departure, which was a helpful “ice breaker” before meeting them in Russia.
TWS: What were your impressions of Yaroslavl, and of the two centers in which you were placed: the Hospital for Women and the Hospital for Kids?
Jonna: Yaroslavl was a bigger and more beautiful city than my impression before arriving. Being one of the oldest cities in Russia, the architecture was stunning and the Volga riverfront was fantastic. However, there were areas that were extremely sad and a symbol of the hardships they have suffered. I was shocked by the public drinking and sadness in people’s eyes. The placements I was assigned were rewarding but very hard. The Hospital for Women was in an old prison, and most of the women were not allowed outside. It was rundown, dirty, and very drab. The Hospital for Kids had “better” conditions in comparison; however, it was a small space for many kids. The children (mostly teenage boys) were not disabled, but troubled, and most were orphans. They had bundles of energy and we were blessed with great weather so we could play outside. It is very difficult to imagine how confined they are in the winter months.
TWS: What was a typical day like on your program?
Jonna: We would begin the day preparing our craft project and packing up games, puzzles, coloring books, sporting equipment, and anything else to enhance our time with them. We would go to a morning session, return for lunch (the main meal of the day), and go to another placement for the afternoon. The women were excited about doing an art project, and then we would play games such as checkers. They loved to dance, and, with the help of our translator, they would ask many questions about my life and wanted to see photos of where I lived, my daughters and pets. The children also loved to do a craft project, and then we would play basketball, cards, football; the girls loved the Barbies we brought with us. We also had to intervene on many “disagreements” between the children! Several days in the afternoon we would have time off to participate in a cultural-immersion activity such as touring a traditional Russian village, visiting the space museum, or taking Russian language lessons.
TWS: Talk a little bit about your fellow volunteers. What was the group like? Was this a bonding experience for all of you?
Jonna: They were a wonderful and very diverse group. Age ranged from 18 to 72. We shared our meals together and it was great to share the day’s experience since there were multiple placement locations. Some days were really hard emotionally and they were a wonderful support system. Many will be lifelong friends.
TWS: Where in Russia did you travel in addition to Yaroslavl, and what place or activity did you most enjoy as a tourist?
Jonna: I arrived in Moscow and played tourist before meeting up with the group to travel to Yaroslavl. Being on Red Square was chilling and an amazing location to begin my Russian journey. Midway through my time in Russia, there were six of us that traveled the 11 hours via train to St. Petersburg. This was the tourist highlight of my trip. We had three days there and it was one of the most dramatic places I have ever had the opportunity to visit. The communication barrier was extremely difficult, so it was comforting to have others help navigate throughout the trip!
TWS: Had you engaged in volunteer trips before this? Would you take one again? And based on your experience in Russia, would you recommend “voluntourism” to other travelers?
Jonna: Last year I traveled as a volunteer to Swaziland, Africa, to help build “care points” in remote villages. I have been extremely blessed to have been a part of these two unique volunteer experiences in the last 12 months. I know that mission work and voluntourism will always be a part of my life. I would of course recommend giving back while seeing the world. It does not need to be across the globe but can be in our own country where there is great need as well. Travelocity’s Change Ambassador Program is a unique opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and go for it. I am proud to work for a company that supports Traveling for Good! Russia was a very tough environment and harder culture so the location (and tasks required) choice is very important and needs to best fit the stamina/desires of the traveler. With my experience in Yaroslavl, the need was overwhelming, so you have to have a positive attitude and flexibility, and hang onto the small and simple ways to make a difference in their lives.
TWS: A subtitle of your trip blog reads, “Give a little…receive an abundance.” How emotional was your volunteer experience, and has it changed you in any discernible ways?
Jonna: I think about these women and children every day. They had a huge impact on me and their stories still haunt me. God has called me to serve and it manifests in doing the simple things like a loving hug or dancing a waltz with those that just need a moment of joy.
Take a minute to see how you can apply to Travelocity’s Change Ambassador Program, and to discover other ways to Travel for Good.
My name: Michelle Doucette
How I earn my keep: I'm an editor at IgoUgo.com.
Favorite way to get around: Some of my favorite trips involved renting cars in foreign countries and driving through the countryside, stopping on whims. You get a feel for the culture away from the big cities and meet interesting people on the road, including, I must admit, an embarrassingly high number of local policemen. I suppose it would be prudent to learn all of the traffic laws ahead of time.
Best meal I've had while traveling: Since a succession of gelato cones probably doesn't count as a meal, my favorite must have been a fresh crabmeat lunch prepared by a St. John sailboat captain while we took a break from snorkeling in the Caribbean. Sharing baklava as the sun came up over Paros, Greece, (while, once again, not technically a meal) was also memorable.
Travel ambitions: Since climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I've figured out that I'd like to keep trekking while traveling. I've got my eyes on epic hikes in Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru.