So You May Know
When A Destination Becomes A Home
As we enter the fourth year of publishing The VolunTourist Newsletter, I am awed by the continuing growth and expansion of VolunTourism around the globe. What started with a handful of folks graciously accepting my bumbling efforts at sharing the potential of this approach to travel has blossomed to serve an audience of more than 3,000 subscribers in 125 countries around the world. And weekly downloads of The VolunTourist Webcast are nearing triple-digit-status. Simply Remarkable!
And as if this wasn't enough for you, "true-believers" (as Mr. Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame is apt to say), then you may appreciate that two of the most respected brands in travel are christening VolunTourism in their own unique ways this month. On April 1, 2008, Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, officially launched its Give Back Getaways featuring projects at all 70 of its properties worldwide. Headed up by Sue Stephenson, Vice President of Community Footprints, this is by far the most all-encompassing initiative launched by any major travel company to date. And, to add the whip cream and cherry to the banana split, in a couple of weeks, when the May Issue of Conde Nast Traveler Magazine hits newstands, you will see that the voice of "Truth In Travel" has more than a little something to say about VolunTourism as well.
Yet, there is still much to learn about this nascent industry. Every day is an opportunity to uncover its potential, to expand the horizons of imagination and creativity, and to more fully understand the breadth and depth of "exploration meets inspiration." I was recently reminded of this during a short 90-minute visit with a resident of Maple Ridge Assisted Living center on my way through Dyersburg, Tennessee, on a VolunTourism trip organized by Students Today Leaders Forever:
Tuesdays 10am ET/7am PT
Dyersburg, Tennesse is home to some 17,000 folks. A couple of hours northeast of Memphis, this "bustling" community has risen on the backbone of former Indian Hunting Grounds. Not far from the center of town is an assisted care living facility that provides services for some 36 seniors. Mrs. Jones (not her real name) is one of the residents at Maple Ridge Assisted Living. I had the opportunity to spend the better part of an hour and a half with her on the afternoon of February 16, 2008.
Her room was simply furnished with a bed, love seat, side table, a chest-of-drawers (made from mahogany, no less), and a special recliner that arches in such a manner as to facilitate her in standing up. When I arrived, she was comfortably resting with feet propped up and body reclined. The nurse simply pressed a button and Mrs. Jones assumed a sitting position in a manner of moments. She was evidently expecting visitors.
I took a seat on the edge of her bed opposite a wall decorated with three portraits. Two large, rectangular frames held young women in bridal attire and garlanded an oval frame that held a picture of Mrs. Jones and her late husband. "Those are my granddaughters," she told me. I noted smaller pictures sitting atop a shelf that ran the length of the room, each one offered a glimpse at historic events within a family's legacy. After an initial, awkward silence, following the departure of the nurse, I ventured a question: "Have you lived in Dyersburg all of your life?"
"Shoot Yeah!" came the response. "Lived here all of my life. Grew up on a farm."
I spied a stuffed monkey on a side table. "Who is that?"
"That's my monkey," she offered.
"And what is his name?"
"He doesn't have a name," she said. "My grandchildren play with him when they come to see me."
"Well, you can't have a monkey without a name. Let's give him a name."
Thus, we began the process of naming the monkey. Periodically some of the students that were with me would come into the room and give their thoughts on the matter. Finally, we reached a consensus - Javier.
As Mrs. Jones began to stroke Javier, she told me something of her life - her travels out West and even a visit to Detroit (my starting destination) years ago, but she didn't want to go back. "Once was enough," she said. She spoke of going to the Prom, watching her husband depart to Japan during World War II, visits from her grandchildren, and what it was like not being able to drive anymore.
Her words painted a picture of what Dyersburg had, and still, meant to her. Dyersburg was history itself, a history that was her life, her interaction with others, and even included an occasional game of Bridge. Yet she expressed her frustration with the growth - "the bustle" as she called it. With each passing moment she relaxed and smiled a bit more. I could feel the tension of "a stranger in her midst" beginning to dissipate. She began paying more attention to our conversation and less to passersby outside her door. And Javier the monkey, he was blissed out from all the petting and preening he was receiving.
What I couldn't help but notice during our exchange was how a "dot" on the map of my itinerary was taking on a life of its own. No longer a GPS reading, Dyersburg, Tennessee, was shifting, morphing, into the home of a woman who had called it such for, what I could best figure was, eight decades. "I don't want to live anywhere else," she added. "Dyersburg is my home."
Two students came into the room to remind me that the bus was departing soon. Mrs. Jones ventured, "Bring me my walker, I want to walk." I realized immediately, as my gaze fell upon the wheel chair removed a mere five feet from Mrs. Jones, that this was no ordinary request. I pressed the "up" button on her magic chair and together, Mrs. Jones, a student and I, helped her to her feet.
One step, two, a little falter, three, four, and soon we passed into the hallway. I sensed the effort she was making; this was not easy for her. But she trodded on as she eyed a group of residents sitting on a bench 40 feet away. The nurse arrived as Mrs. Jones completed another step. There was a furrow in her brow, yet I was aware of her surprise in the midst of consternation. She headed our team in the opposite direction and explained that it was unusual for Mrs. Jones to be walking - very unusual. We collaborated to position Mrs. Jones into her wheelchair in preparation for dinner.
I offered Mrs. Jones a warm farewell, patted Javier on the head, and wended my way back to the facility entrance. On my way, one of the women sitting on the bench asked, "Did you give her the healing touch?" "No Ma'am, I did not, " I said. The pervading thought as I crossed the threshold of sliding doors was simply this: "It is I who received 'the healing touch.'"
VolunTourism changes perspective. It gives you a chance to experience a destination as a home instead of just another place to go. If you ever experience a destination through the eyes and life of another, like Mrs. Jones, you will know what is meant by those who say that VolunTourism can be life-transforming - - Shoot Yeah!
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