Volunteering helps local traveler get more out of his vacations

John Gardner
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

NEW CASTLE, Colorado – Dan Niedbalski has a different definition of vacation than most folks. He was looking for a unique experience as a way to spend a couple of weeks on vacation, rather than the typical relaxing getaway.

“I was basically looking for a cultural experience vacation,” he said. “Rather than just going to Mexico and sitting on the beach, drinking beer.”

What he found was something that fit his idea of vacation through an organization called Global Volunteers, a private nonprofit that provides the experience that Niedbalski, 44, was looking for.

“One thing about Global Volunteers is that it’s a non-religious, non-governmental type deal,” he said. “Just individuals who go on a volunteer vacation.”

And the organization has places all over the world to visit. In 2007, the organization took some 2,300 volunteers, like Niedbalski, to work on development projects in 20 countries on six continents, according to the organization’s website

It’s an organization that Niedbalski was pleased to have found.

His first trip was to Romania in 2001. Since then, he’s returned to Romania two other times, has gone to Poland once, and most recently, Niedbalski spent three weeks in Chennai, India working with orphans.

“This last time I thought, well, I’ve been to Romania three times, let me try something a little bit different,” he said. “I kind of thought India might be a challenge,” he said.

And it was.

It was challenging not in the work that he did, but in the aspects of extreme cultural differences, the intense poverty of the area, and the sheer 18-hour travel time just to get there.

“That was something about India, I had no idea about the culture,” he said. “I tried to read up on the culture as much as I could beforehand, but there are so many differences when you go to a place like that, it’s so different. But one of the things I wanted to do on these trips is not just be like a tourist, but actually meet some of the people and learn something about the culture.”

One of the biggest differences from his previous trips, besides the aforementioned, was that he ended up being the only volunteer to sign up for this trip. He traveled to Chennai, alone.

“It was a little different in the sense that you are not the only volunteer on the other trips, versus not having a group of people to share that experience with,” he said.

But that did not scare him off. He traveled to Chennai, a city of about 7 million people, and made it to his destination, a suburb of Chennai called Porur.

He stayed with a host family and met up with a program coordinator who had an agenda specific to what Niedbalski would be doing while in the foreign country. He spent his mornings working with orphans at an orphanage just spending some time with kids ranging in age from 2 to 18 years old, he said.

He taught middle school students how to write a letter and how to use a word processing document on a laptop computer.

In the evenings, he would go to a place called SEAM, a local mission for at-risk youths, where he spoke to the children about motivation, job skills, different skills they would need for different careers, and goal setting. It was there he realized the impact he was having on these young people that he had just met.

“It was kind of interesting because these kids had never been exposed to that kind of stuff before,” he said. “They come from difficult backgrounds, so it was kind of interesting to see them get wide-eyed when you started talking to them about their future, and not living day by day, but actually having some goals.”

It wasn’t the typical vacation. And the challenges were greater, not having an American companion along for the trip. But he also realized that it didn’t matter.

“The best part of the trip was the interaction with the children,” he said. “It’s a completely different world, but everywhere you go the kids are the same. They always want to learn and they are always interested in somebody different.”

Not to sound too cliche, but this trip, as all of the trips Niedbalski has taken with this organization, was “life changing”. He really got to see his impact, and he saw a change in these children that he spent time with when he received a simple thank you card from some of the kids.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “I could see what it meant to them to have someone come and spend some time with them.”

And while he said that the concept of traveling to the other side of the globe to spend time with children that he will likely never see again may seem a little odd, to some, it was an experience that he won’t soon forget. And while he may not see the children again, he won’t soon forget them either.

“You come back and you realize how much more you have broadened your mind, and you’ve learned so much more about a different culture,” he said.

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