'Global Volunteers' Pay to Be Good Samaritans
For a Vet returning to Vietnam and other Americans, stints abroad or in rural US bring unexpected benefits
NEW YORK — IT took Tony Terzi more than 25 years to confront the troubling memories he brought back from Vietnam. The Long Island, N.Y., resident now says it was the chance to help the people he had fought a generation ago that prompted him to return there.
"Going back was the greatest thing I have done in almost 30 years," says Mr. Terzi, who returned to Mytho (a town in southern Vietnam) with a team of volunteers this February. "Just to have touched one person, it was overwhelming. If people were walking by and they saw you working hard, they jumped right in to help.... It was incredible that they did not show the slightest tinge of animosity."
Terzi signed up for a three-week stint with Global Volunteers, a nonprofit, Minnesota-based organization that places American volunteers with developing communities around the world. "I thought that going back as a tourist would be artificial; I wanted to give something back," says Terzi, who had come back from the war with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a belief that the war was wrong. "I spent 13 months destroying the country; the least I could do is help build it back up for three weeks."
Global Volunteers has been sending teams to Vietnam for more than a year, though the United States did not normalize relations with its former nemesis until July.
Eleven years ago, Bud Philbrook and his wife, Michelle Gran, started up the organization with the intention of helping others. "I was one of 11 kids, and my mom taught us all that our purpose in life should be to serve others," says Mr. Philbrook, whose eyes brighten as he talks about a subject he is clearly passionate about. "Her philosophy is that we can bring people together to wage peace, just as governments wage war. For me, it's that simple."
Global Volunteers began with nine volunteers, if "you count me twice," he says. Now it sends more than 1,000 volunteers in 90 teams to places as far away as Vietnam and Tanzania and as close as Mississippi and Arkansas. "We not only have trips abroad but we have, much to people's surprise, trips to places here at home," Philbrook says, alluding to how the economy of rural Mississippi is not that different from that of places overseas.
'This is so intense'
"Global Volunteers always does a good job of preparing their people before they go out," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's global village work camp program, "so that they are well-organized and well-focused when they are out in the field. They are definitely an organization that we look up to."
Former newspaper business executive Linda Schlaap also went to Vietnam. "I have become a Global groupie," says Ms. Schlaap, who has been on three trips this year and hopes to become a team leader. "These people have practically nothing, and they still insisted on giving me things. I spent half my time there thinking to myself, 'Wow, this is so intense.' "
There is a certain irony in the fact that the group's president was a draft resister and some of its volunteers are Vietnam War veterans. Though he went to military school, Philbrook concluded that he could not participate in the war. "I never harbored any ill will toward the North Vietnamese," he says. In 1970, Philbrook was arrested for resisting the draft. A federal judge acquitted Philbrook because his draft board had denied him due process. "I had applied for conscientious objector status and never received a reply," he says.
Philbrook became a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1974. During his tenure, he says, he was the only politician he knew in the state who regularly visited a nearby native American reservation. "I made the simple deduction that American Indians have been struggling with economic issues in ways I couldn't imagine; the living conditions were just abominable," Philbrook says. "On the other hand, they were as proud and joyful and likable as you can imagine."
This experience, along with a trip to India where he was the "token politician" in a group of scientists and economic advisers, prepared him for a more rigorous sojourn. He and his wife decided to spend one week of their 1979 honeymoon working in a Guatemalan village (the other week they spent at Disney World).
Upon his return, "People were coming up to me and saying, 'I've always wanted to do something like that, but the Peace Corps is too long of a commitment.' "
Unlike the two-year hitch normally required by the government-run Peace Corps, Global Volunteers is a one- to three-week stint. Developing communities invite Philbrook's teams of volunteers to come and help improve their infrastructure. Volunteers pay for the trips, which are tax-deductible because Global is a nonprofit organization. Costs range from $300 for one-week trips to $2,000 for treks to Tver, Russia. One-third of the fee goes to administrative overhead, including Philbrook and his wife's salaries. Volunteers pay their own travel expenses as well.
Volunteers usually live in the rustic homes of host families and eat the same food. "I was eating three delicious Thai meals a day when I was in Indonesia - who could ask for better food than that?" says Sanford Alberts, who did not mind the sparse living conditions. Volunteers might teach English, paint homes, or simply ask local residents what they would like them to do. "People can't believe that we big, bad Americans would come all the way to their land and do what they tell us to do," Philbrook says.
Connie Williams of New Jersey had never seen a cotton field until she joined a Global Volunteers team on a goodwill trip to Jonestown, Miss., in 1993. "As an African-American, I wanted to go see the state that was most notorious in terms of its civil rights record with my own eyes," Ms. Williams says. "When I got there, I was shocked to see that little had changed from the 1960s. People were still picking cotton to make a living."
She vividly remembers a conversation she had with an African-American store owner in the small Southern town. "In that town, everyone knows everyone else. So when she saw me come into the store, she asked me if I was one of those 'Globals.' She said her town appreciates what we as a group were doing, and it felt good to see one of her own come all the way down to Jonestown to help clean up her town."
Williams's team cleaned up empty lots, laced the Main Street with Christmas lights ("they had never had them up before"), and fixed up the town hall's bathroom facilities. Since that trip, she has gone to two other Mississippi towns, Texas, and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. "Jamaica was just breathtaking," she says.
Philbrook warns that these non-touristy trips are not for everyone. Even though people's hearts may be in the right place, some are ill-prepared for the "culture shock," he says. Hayward adds that "it takes a certain type of temperament to go on these trips, because you have to be willing to be flexible in your expectations; you have to realize that anything can happen." The cockroaches Mr. Alberts saw in the Texas home he slept in "were just an everyday part of a migrant workers' life."
Alberts, a former business executive from Florida, has found a new career with the private, nonsectarian group. He has worked and lived with migrant workers in San Juan, Texas, picked collard greens in Arcola, Miss., and sung to schoolchildren in Indonesia. "To help teach the children English, I would sing songs to them like 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm,' and their eyes would just light up. From then on they called me 'Old MacDonald,'" says Alberts, who adds that "now that I am retired, I find that when I help others, I am also helping myself."
Whether volunteers spend one week in Mississippi or three weeks in Vietnam, Philbrook says, they return with a sense that all people are basically the same. "Although you might read about the South or Southeast Asia," Alberts adds, "it is not until you live with these people that you know what is really going on."
Philbrook has a worldwide staff of 25 in 13 countries, and says he wants to remain on a first-name basis with his employees. He also does not want to forget why he began Global Volunteers. "The story we tell about ourselves, about who we really are, is just so inaccurate," Philbrook says. "The rest of the world doesn't ever get to see genuine Americans except through programs like this."
Terzi, a wiry, ponytailed man with a salt-and-pepper moustache, adds that people on his trip told him: " 'You know, for Americans, you really are not obnoxious.' I don't know why we have such a bad image," he adds with a laugh.
Philbrook plans to have 110 trips to exotic locales next year. These volunteers are not going to Jamaica, Indonesia, or Tanzania to shape cultures, he says, but only to improve the people's quality of life. "We're not imposing American technology or religion when we go to these places," he stresses. "We're there simply to help and to serve without any ulterior motives."
* Global Volunteers: 800 487-1074.