It may sound like just another trendy buzzword, but “volun-tourism” is a very real trend. A 2008 study by Tourism & Research Marketing found that an estimated 1.6 million volunteer tourists take “ethical” holidays where they have an opportunity to experience another culture while performing philanthropic actions. Yet another 2008 survey by University of California-San Diego researchers found that 45 percent of Americans said they’ve considered taking volunteer vacations, and 72 percent knew someone who had been a global volunteer. If you’re thinking about joining their ranks, get inspired by these three inspiring stories from cheer professionals who’ve been there and done that:
Bringing Cheer to Belize: Virginia Baldwin
In 2013, Virginia Baldwin, owner of All-American All Star Cheerleading and coach at Mechanicsville, VA-based Hanover High School, traveled with her two daughters and several athletes to Belize, where they conducted youth cheer camps and engaged in community service projects. In a country that places little value on females, Baldwin was gratified to help to raise self-esteem and put smiles on young faces through individualized attention—and some cheer bows. “To see the joy in these little girls’ faces is a beautiful thing. We think we are changing someone else’s life, but our lives are the ones that are changed,” she says. “A little piece of my heart is in Belize.”
Baldwin’s life-changing experience inspired her high school cheerleaders to climb aboard. Last year five of them accompanied her; this year, 10 will make the trip. “To take kids from upper middle-class families to a third world country is eye-opening for them. They see what these kids eat and how they live—but they bond like you can’t imagine,” she says. “I hope the lesson is something that will carry through to adulthood. It’s all about loving one another. There’s no better way to do this than to spend time with someone in need.”
Back home, the experiences in Belize have restored Baldwin’s love for cheer. “It’s given me a new vision for the way I coach. It’s not just about winning. It’s about self-worth. I love having the privilege to coach and want to mentor young girls, to let them know someone believes in them,” she says. “It brings us back to center and makes us realize what’s truly important in life.”
Getting Schooled in Bolivia: Sydney Cottle
The spirit of giving comes naturally to Sydney Cottle. A cheerleader and senior at Portland, OR-based Lake Oswego High School, she participates in the Susan G. Komen Cheer for a Cure event, ties fleece blankets and donates them to the Portland Rescue Mission and volunteers every Sunday with Team Shine (Oregon’s first cheer team for athletes with special needs). But she sought something more. That “something” became a three-week trip with Humanitarian Experience for Youth (HEFY) to Bolivia, where she helped construct a school and worked at an elderly care facility.
During her stay, she and 20 other teens from across the country engaged in some heavy-duty construction work. “Things were very prehistoric there. We didn’t have any big machines to mix cement; everything was done by hand,” says Sydney’s mom, Michelle Cottle, who accompanied the group as a parent helper.
In addition to intense labor, the group played with the Bolivian children and attempted to teach them the English alphabet. Even though Spanish is the country’s native language, the language barrier proved to be only a minor challenge.
Originally intended as a way to initiate change outside of her immediate community, the trip fostered a transformation in Sydney. “I’m a lot more grateful for what I have. These people have so little, but they always manage,” she explains. “I’m happier and more outgoing. Just to see what others go through on a daily basis is eye-opening.”
From Reluctant to Rewarded: Melanie Randolph
Unlike Cottle, Melanie Randolph was not initially sold on the idea of an overseas mission trip. “I thought staying at a Holiday Inn was roughing it,” says Randolph, who owns Danville, CA-based Spirit Force Cheer & Dance. But she changed her mind when she and her husband were recruited by a missionary in 2007 to travel to Pazardzhik, Bulgaria. There they taught Christian drama stories in several gypsy villages and also helped feed the citizens; the trip was so impactful that they made it an annual endeavor from 2007 to 2011.
In retrospect, Randolph emphasizes that she received ten-fold back what she gave to the Bulgarian people. “God’s given me so much. All I can give them is me,” says Randolph, who is a member of the Christian Cheerleaders of America (CCA) advisory board. “I’ve gotten more out of it than they did.”
Randolph also points out that the experience for the children who also made the trip with Macedonian Outreach was life-changing. “To get the kids to experience this is very important. It took me almost 50 years to do something like this. Imagine what I could have done if I started earlier,” she says. “When you step outside your comfort zone, it changes your heart.”