Marlynn Rust of Lake Oswego has been an avid world traveler for years, but likes to bring back more than just great photographs of the places she has been.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: Alyssa and Marlynn Rust helped Eya harvest cassova roots in the Dwenoose village at Cape Coast, Ghana.“I like to learn about the people and their culture when I travel,” she said. “I like to learn about their religions and foods. ... I like to immerse myself in the culture, so I decided to try voluntourism.”

Voluntourism is a way to combine travel with volunteer service. After a few voluntourism trips of her own, she invited her daughter, Alyssa, to go along.

“We looked at various websites and chose to go to Belize with a NGO (nongovernmental organization) call Pro World,” Marlynn Rust said. The program was offered through Portland Community College and was timed perfectly to coincide with her daughter’s winter break from school. The mother and daughter traveled to San Ignacio, Belize, in December 2008, where they spent a week painting inside and out of elementary schools and helped build a porch railing on the second floor of an orphanage about to open. Prior to their departure, the women and other Pro World participants went through an orientation to familiarize them with the culture, language, foods and proper etiquette of Belize.

They enjoyed their experience so much that the following summer they volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“We were both out of our element, as we had never worked with large animals before,” said Marlynn Rust. They stayed in a hut in the park and got to bathe and feed the elephants every day, as well as do several community service projects near the park, such as teaching songs and games to school children, planting teak trees, pulling weeds and digging a deep trench to control the monsoon rain runoff. The experience taught them how one person can make a difference in many people’s lives and how much work is required to care for one elephant.

This summer the Rusts traveled to Cape Coast, Ghana, with Pro World. They chose to work for a week on a sustainable farming project, planting corn and tiger nut seeds, fertilizing crops and digging cassava roots. With the roots they helped make gari, an important food made through a two-day process. They stayed with a host family, learned to speak the local language, Fante, and taught songs to the village children.

The voluntourism has had a lasting impact on Alyssa Rust. She will graduate this spring from Portland State University with a degree in public administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management and grant writing. She has ambitions to work to support international cultural programs. She had a month-long internship in Ghana this summer, which gave her a keen appreciation for living conditions people in other parts of the world consider normal.

“The people of Ghana are resilient people,” Alyssa Rust said. “They work hard, but it isn’t organized. Getting a proper education is important to be successful.”

During her internship she witnessed issues that could have been remedied with educational campaigns but were thwarted by cultural differences.

“There is a campaign for the fight against malaria but there is such a respect for elders that if grandparents don’t agree with vaccinating children to prevent malaria, the parents wouldn’t stand up to them, so the kids don’t get vaccinated,” she said. Many die from malaria, even with campaigns to vaccinate and agencies providing bed nets to protect people from the mosquitoes.

“I think as Americans we are distanced from the rest of the world. We tend to donate funds and then ignore issues,” Alyssa Rust said. “Go and do something. Go see where your money is going and you’ll get a broader perspective.”

“Until you see it firsthand you won’t have the whole picture,” Marlynn Rust said. “Even the poorest of the poor in Ghana are happier than our poor. They don’t realize they are poor.”

The women hope their experiences with voluntourism will encourage others to vacation this way.

“It makes you rethink your lifestyle,” Alyssa Rust said. “I think every student should take advantage of programs like this. You can learn a lot of things about other people and the world.”

“People have to experience this and then come back and appreciate what we have,” said Marlynn Rust.

To learn more about Pro World, visit Pro World has internships, study abroad and volunteer programs in more than 15 countries. Volunteers are needed at all points during the year and can participate in projects ranging from one to eight weeks. Internships are longer and geared toward individuals seeking professional and career development skills. For most countries, internships can range from one to six months, but some require a two- to three-month commitment.

Study abroad programs vary depending on the country and host institution, but are offered during the standard fall, spring and summer semester intervals.

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