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December 2005 - Feature Article 2

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Outbound VolunTourism: "Giving With Both Hands"
The Corporate World is, in my humble opinion, one of the absolute best audiences for VolunTourism Operators to approach over the next 10 years. A recap of a conversation with the Plant Manager of Medtronic Mexico may spark your thinking!

I had lunch this past week with Gerardo De La Concha, Plant Manager for Medtronic Mexico and Elisa Sabatini, Executive Director of Los Niños. We were discussing the unfoldment of our two-year relationship and the development of VolunTourism products and services for his team. It was one of those conversations where we admitted that we know where we have been; now, where are we going? This is the question we came to address over our Argentinian fare.

Gerardo has a vision for Medtronic Mexico and beyond. He wants to see a new version of philanthropy embrace the hearts and minds of the Mexican people. But he is practical about all of this, and realizes that it must start within his immediate sphere of influence – his family, friends, and Medtronic Mexico.

Mexico , like many countries throughout the world, has a tradition of philanthropy that resembles the doctrines of religious practice – “Write a check or put some cash in the collection box.” If this has been your practice for centuries in terms of giving to the church, why not incorporate this as a practice for supporting “the poor and the needy?” And, just like that, a deeply seeded habit has been sown. What we see in Mexico, and for that matter in all countries around the world, is the continuation of this process. Gerardo believes it is possible to enhance and, subsequently, transform it, and so do I.


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In October 2004, I worked with Gerardo to develop a one-day VolunTourism experience for his 15-member executive team. Gerardo’s goal was to encourage a team-building mentality amongst his core staff, but to also instill the value of “giving back with both hands.” Yes, we had a budget for the day’s agenda that included a drive to Mexicali, Mexico – 160km from the Medtronic Mexico Plant in Tijuana; the itinerary centered on a visit to a women’s beehive cooperative there. But, we also planned to put his team to work.

A 7am departure took us across the Rumarosa just south of the US/Mexico Border – an area that features some of the most amazing and unique rock formations in the Western world. Following a descent from the Rumarosa and a crossing of the Colorado River (more like a fast moving stream after California and Arizona take their parts of it), the group enters the fertile Mexicali Valley and the endless green carpet of alfalfa.

We met the women at their “taller de abejas,” or bee workshop, in which they extract their honey, beeswax, and other products. The women provided a basic orientation to beekeeping and the history of their micro-enterprise. Gabriel Alarcon, an agronomist, engages the group in a longer discourse with a Q&A session and offers to take Gerardo’s team out to see the hives – unanimous, instant acceptance!

While one team visits the hives, the other team begins their project of assembling beehives that will be put into service by the women. Gerardo has included funding from his budget for the raw materials (the check-writing hand) and he and his team provide the labor necessary to assemble eight hives for the women (thus, the other hand gets involved as well). The “busy bees” of the Medtronic Mexico team work in smaller teams of two to assemble various components of the hives and, voila, the work is complete.

When Team #2 returns from the second visit to the hives, they bring fresh honey with them and the entire group feasts on the newly harvested honeycomb. Gabriel and the women inspect the work of Gerardo’s team and find everything in order. In the interim, the women are joined by some of their family members and a feast of Chinese (that’s right, Chinese!) food is prepared. (In the late 1800’s many Chinese immigrated to the area to support the building of railroad tracks and the expansion of commerce in the region.)

Gerardo’s team returns to Tijuana 10 hours after their initial departure. But the seed has begun germinating in the minds of his executive team. “What will we do next?”

We recall the day’s events with a sense of satisfaction. His goals were achieved; in fact, he and his team were overwhelmed with the unanticipated success of the bonding that occurred and the unique nature of the experience. But what is next? The bar has been set very high indeed.

We can easily identify other locations and impact-filled projects that can be addressed by Medtronic Mexico. But there is something bigger, something that we identify that can be truly transformational. Collectively we brainstorm on the possibility of developing VolunTourism projects with other groups and having Gerardo’s executive staff function in the capacity of team leaders. The idea inspires us.

Gerardo wants to see more participation in service by residents of Mexico and believes that he and his team can become exemplars of “giving back with both hands.” I am in total agreement with his assessment. It is my job to assist him and his staff in this process.

As I head back to San Diego via the San Ysidro Border Crossing, I reflect on our conversation. I am awestruck that I was present for something of this magnitude. Our discussion was not spawned by some vision of a large, multi-national, corporate headquarters. Our discussion was fed from the sincerity of three people that envision a world differentiated only by the degree to which we can make VolunTourism accessible to the corporate world. Are you ready to join us?

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