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'Voluntourism' pioneer wants to go corporate: Once province of colleges, Ambassadors branches into business

December 3, 2007

Companies wanting to build camaraderie and teamwork often send their employees on the all-too-predictable retreat.

A couple of hours down the road, in a restful setting, they'll do role-playing games and problem-solving exercises. These corporate chums will cap it off with a bar tab equivalent to the national debt of Belize.

Sally Brown thinks she has a better alternative to the typical company retreat. Why not send those employees to Belize? Or how about El Salvador, or even India, for that matter-on a shortterm, humanitarian service trip to help kids?

"I was talking to one company that said, 'Yeah, we give money to a building campaign.' I said, 'You know what? Why not go to Mexico and build a playground at an orphanage for three days?'"

The president of Ambassadors for Children, which is quickly gaining a national reputation as a "voluntourism" leader, is turning its attention to the workplace as fertile ground for expansion.

"Starting an AFC chapter in a corporation will increase retention, camaraderie and a sense of giving back," Brown tells anyone who will listen.

The Indianapolis not-for profit conveys services mostly through its two dozen chapters around the country. Since founded by Brown in 1998, it has delivered service work via chapters formed on college campuses or among individuals with a shared passion for a particular country.

In the last couple of months, Brown has been knocking on doors of executives, lawyers and the like to encourage them to consider AFC chapters at work. The not-for-profit provides support services such as a Web site, accounting help, lots of fund-raising ideas and an annual meeting with all its chapters.

It might be as simple as employees meeting together once a month for lunch, Brown tells them. Think of it, says the founder and former CEO of Indianapolis travel club Ambassadair, "as a whole corporate bonding trip."

Business roles

Capitalists thinking of the bottom line might not want to foot the bill for employees' trips for humanitarian purposes-at least not if there isn't potential for making a buck in those foreign markets. But chapter members are used to paying their own way. Last year alone, volunteers paid $308,267 to travel to and from 10 countries, according to AFC's Form 990.

Some big companies have for years assisted with cash and supplies to support AFC service trips. Two of the biggest supporters of late have been Columbusbased Cummins Inc. and Cincinnatibased grocery chain Kroger. Indianapolis medical equipment firm TriMedX, for example, pledged over 1,000 hospital beds and other equipment for an outreach in Serbia.

Sticks for pencils

Brenda Skeen, a locally based flight attendant for United Airlines, has received several grants from the United Airlines Foundation for her AFC chapter, Hearts for Tibet. She had been involved with a local Tibetan support group for years when Brown encouraged her to form a chapter.

Skeen also was able to use her United travel benefits to make several trips to Tibet, where she was shocked to find children at one school wearing little more than rags and using sticks to scratch out their numbers and letters in the dust.

"They were making such a diligent effort to learn that I made a personal pledge at that point to help these children and the village school," Skeen said.

She also was able to reunite families who've been separated for years, bringing two, 70-year-old Tibetan mothers to the United States on her airline passes to stay with long-lost family members for six months.

Skeen's chapter has delivered supplies to the schools and started a scholarship fund. In 2003, then-United CEO Glen Tilton bestowed her with the company's "chairman award" for the efforts.

Businesses and community organizations also have been of tremendous help to Indianapolis physician Lynda Cook, head of the AFC chapter Hope for Afghanistan.

Cook figures that 47 people and organizations-including Junior League of Indianapolis, Café Patachou restaurants, St Vincent Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies-have contributed more than $70,000 in recent years toward assisting orphans in Afghanistan.

Cook got involved after viewing a report by ABC reporter Bob Woodruff about the hardships of orphans in the tumultuous country.

"I told my husband he needed to have a drink in hand when I told him what I wanted to do," Cook said.

Woodruff, with whom Cook has become friends, steered her to his contacts in Kabul. Cook and her compatriots delivered supplies to Afghanistan,

set up medical clinics in orphanages, and helped fund literacy programs for females and even an automotive repair program to help boys get jobs after completing school.

In March, she and a friend plan to make another trip to Afghanistan, but, "because of the security situation, we never know if the next trip could be our last." As such, she's working on back-channel ways of getting money into the country.

Meanwhile, Stephen Foster, the principal at Warren Township's Lakeside Elementary School, is trying to develop partnerships with business to help support the work of his AFC group, Fallen Shadows.

Every summer, he and a number of local families head to East Africa to help out at such places as a rescue center for homeless street children in Eldoret, Kenya. They're trying to help children realize the goal of college and career, as well as their immediate needs.

"We would like to offer scholarships to area high school and college students to join us in Africa for this life-changing event," said Foster.

"We also are in need of cash donations to continue our support of sponsoring students [in Africa] to complete secondary school."

Word spreading

AFC has succeeded in gaining the support of business executives, such as Chase Bank's Indiana CEO, Dennis Bassett. Bassett has provided his own money to support several new AFC chapters at campuses in the Midwest. The not-for-profit has chapters at Ball State University, Butler University, Indiana University, Purdue University, Miami University of Ohio and Xavier University.

The Butler chapter has raised almost $10,000 toward a $35,000 project to build a school in Uganda.

"I really believe the [voluntourism] concept is a way of the future," Bassett said.

"My generation has a sincere desire to travel more globally and also give back and help those underserved around the world. The younger generation has a unique desire to actually help change the world."

Ambassadors for Children often gets more attention in national media than at home. It is frequently cited as a leader in voluntourism and this year has been featured in reports by such publications as Time, Family Circle and The New York Times. Word even spread to China, where Brown said a new chapter is being established in Beijing.
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