I was blessed by parents who believed that travel was one of the greatest educational experiences they could provide me. Summers, spring breaks, fall weekends and holidays; my childhood was flowered with national parks, city skylines and exotic beaches. And then, at age twelve, I took a life changing journey to Mexico to feed the hungry. That combination of service and travel bored a hole in my heart so large it would never again be filled.
The smell of fresh tortillas and homemade refried beans wafted through the air. The scorching sun beat down on us as we made our way to the center of the town square. As I turned to stand in my appropriate place on the small stage, I was enthralled with the site of the crowd gathering around us in anticipation and curiosity. I was 12 years old, in a country far away, and I was there to serve.
This is my earliest memory of mixing travel and service. As a child of the theater, my talent to entertain and teach was the most precious commodity I could offer at a young age. And so, a small band of eager preteens from across the US loaded on an airplane and set off for rural Mexico, to entertain, to educate and to serve.
Over the next three decades I would continue to find joy and meaning in giving of my time, talent and financial resources in this way. From building houses in Nicaragua to teaching financial literacy in Sierra Leone; from planting urban gardens in Baltimore to sorting books for Africa in Atlanta – the destination rarely mattered, it was the connections that made all the difference.
I find giving back to be as selfish as it is selfless. What I can give to others pales in comparison to what I gain from others and even more, learn about myself. While I still enjoy the frivolity and relaxation of a simple vacation, the more I turn my travel into service work the more addictive it becomes to my soul.
Service travel has proven to be a priceless commodity to who I am as a human, teaching me culture and traditions, vulnerability and openheartedness, creativity and solitude. I have been privileged to witness the best of humanity and the evil remnants of the worst. I believe each and every experience I have used my precious capital to provide is an investment in my future self, albeit of a different kind— the intrinsic kind that can neither be fully explained nor fully appreciated by anyone but me and those working beside me. It is my literal take on my favorite Robin Sharma quote:
Life is a mirror. And life gives us not what we want, life gives us who we are.
To date, I have traveled to more than 50 cities and five international locations just for service work. It pushes my body to get comfortable in the uncomfortable, my mind to expand to understand other cultures, and my heart to stretch from love. All elements that improve my physical and mental health along the way. Here are three ways this works.
Step 1: Ignite Passion. We all have hobbies or interests that excite us. I love live music, sports, and theatre. My best friend is a foodie and spa-goer. My husband loves fishing. With a bit of advance planning, you can combine a trip to follow your passion into a way to give back to others. It might make for a bit of an altered itinerary but it will not only relieve stress, but also leave a lasting impression on your memory for years to come.
Step 2: Get Active. I am an avid runner and my very favorite thing to do on trips is wake up extra early and run through a city I am not familiar with at dawn. There is something magical about the quiet of a normally bustling metropolis that gives you a completely different perspective. I have seen sunrises from lavender fields in California, the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC, Lincoln Memorial in DC and Jackson Square in New Orleans. And great news, you don’t have to be a runner. Many of the most impactful community service projects have a level of physicality. I have built bunks in an orphanage, handicap ramps for elderly, and homes in underdeveloped countries. You leave exhausted but exhilerated.
Step 3: Eat Local. When you travel frequently, we can develop habits of eating the same meals just to eliminate one more decision or ambiguity. But one of my favorite ways to spice up a long stretch of work travel is to find a local hub for eating and shopping. In nearly every city you can hunt down a community hub where artisan makers create unique, often farm to table meals, and local crafts. Finding these gems will not only spice up your on-the-road meal routine but also introduce you to unique local cuisine or ingredients. And bonus – they are usually the healthiest travel meals you can eat!
Melanie Hicks, PhD
Melanie Sue Hicks, author of Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, is an adventure seeking, social impact advocate dedicated to helping others overcome fear and live their dharma. She has led or participated in more than fifty service projects in twenty cities and four international locations and dedicates her life to creating impact on her own or amplifying the impact of others every single day.
As an empathy driven author, and education, nonprofit and workplace expert, she has been interviewed and published in more than two dozen magazines and websites including Forbes.com, Marie Claire, Authority Magazine, See Beyond Magazine, The District, and Doctor’s Life Magazine. As an experienced motivational speaker and master facilitator. Using her custom 3E Method of Change© along with her unique style of group facilitation, she offers training to organizations focused on helping to navigate the future of education and work for increased retention, productivity, and revenue.