Picture of Kip Patrick and Liz Zipse in Glen Echo Park, Maryland

Kip Patrick and Liz Zipse in Glen Echo Park, Maryland

Photograph by Cade Martin

The Weekly Revolution

Short-term volunteering works. Just ask Liz Zipse and Kip Patrick, who spent 16 months traveling 30,000 miles in 24 countries and volunteering at least one day each week. The wedded wanderers counted whale sharks in the Philippines, picked up trash in Borneo, practiced English with monks in Laos, painted schools in Uganda, and distributed shoes in El Salvador.

Their mission, which began with an impromptu trash-clearing effort near a trailhead in Colorado, is quickly becoming a movement. “Afterwards, we thought: If it was this easy to travel and do some good, what was keeping us from doing it everywhere?” Patrick recalls.

They embarked on their journey to prove that short-term volunteering can help change the world. Now they’re settled back in the States, and their blog, 1 of 7, has morphed into an online platform “to show travelers and nontravelers alike that making a difference is not only simple, but it’s something we should and can do every week,” says Zipse.

“Once-a-week volunteering is educational, humanizing, eye-opening, and possibly one of the most underutilized foreign policy tools around,” says Patrick. “Best of all, kindness can start a chain reaction of positivity.”

—By George W. Stone

THE INTERVIEW

National Geographic Traveler: What inspired you?

Kip Patrick: We never set out to be traveling volunteers. Or to spend Earth Day underwater in Palau. Or count whale sharks in the Philippines. Or deliver shoes in El Salvador. Or organize a trail cleanup en route to Everest Base Camp. As we wrote on our blog, we were visiting Liz’s parents in Colorado and we just wanted to go for a hike along the Continental Divide. But when we arrived at the trailhead, the place was a wreck. Drivers had tossed bottles and cans along the nearby road. Hikers had left the trails and parking area littered with trash. So we did what a lot of folks would do—we got together and cleaned the place up. It didn't take long, and the entire area looked way better than before. We were excited, too—it felt special imagining there were bears and birds watching who would have high-fived us if they could. On our trip back to Washington, D.C., where we lived and worked, we did some thinking. If it was this easy to travel and do some good in the process, what was keeping us from doing more of it?

NGT: How did travel factor in?

KP: Long before our Colorado cleanup, we had dreamed of traveling long-term. Yet to explore all the exotic spots and befriend all the wild animals we had been reading about in National Geographic since childhood, we knew we would need way more than two weeks per year. We also knew if we were going to quit our jobs to travel, our trip would need a higher purpose. We soon hit a roadblock: How could we explore the spots we’ve always dreamed of while donating time to do good along the way? So we hatched a plan: No matter where the trip took us, we would do some type of volunteer work at least one day each week. While it wasn’t a lot to ask, we weren’t sure it was possible or if it would be entirely productive. But after our Colorado experience and months of short-term volunteer opportunities in Washington before we left, we were hopeful.

NGT: Does short-term volunteering work?

KP: Yes. We’ve learned a lot so far, particularly during our 16-month trip through Asia, Africa, and Central America. Giving back, even a small amount of time, can be quite contagious, as we discovered when five adorable girls ran down the sand from their mosque to join us as we cleaned trash from a beach in Malaysia. Volunteering also opens doors to local cultures, we learned, when a family in Burma invited us to their hut for tea and we helped their eight-year-old daughter with her English homework. It boosts employee morale at the companies where we have worked and set up volunteer groups that are still active today. If that wasn’t enough, volunteering is also an effective public diplomacy tool, as we heard from a U.S. diplomat we volunteered with in El Salvador.

NGT: What kind of feedback do you get when you’ve donated time?

KP: The diplomat wrote that “some of the most effective diplomacy is done on a person to person level. Kip and Liz exemplified this, connecting so well with so many Salvadorans throughout their travels. Their enthusiasm and desire to see new places and meet new people made them great ambassadors for the U.S. They made significant contributions to communities around the country through their service projects, further helping to strengthen the ties between the U.S. and El Salvador.”

A coordinator of Food for All D.C., a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., wrote: “I look forward to seeing them each week along with the hordes of enthusiastic friends and family they also bring with them to help. It seems that their spirit of adventure and goodwill follows them wherever they go and inspires everyone they meet!”

NGT: How are you advancing your mission now that you’re back home in D.C.?

KP: We’re committed to our weekly volunteering, and we’re boosting our efforts to spread the word about giving back, speaking about philanthropy and global citizenship with businesses and at events and schools. And we’re writing a book about our travel and volunteer experiences and the 1 of 7 movement.

NGT: What are your goals for 1 of 7?

KP: As Traveler’s 2013 People’s Choice Award Winner Katherine Connor said, “Our gestures do not have to be big…one kind gesture encourages another and another.” We believe that as this movement grows we can show that although one person can make a difference giving back in a small way, with exponential growth that one person becomes two, that becomes four, that becomes 400,000, and that many people pushing to make the world a better place will do exactly that.

NGT: What has travel taught you?

KP: That there’s always something we can do to help others. We've traveled to—and gotten lost in—more than 70 countries so far. And we've volunteered in most of those places. Building on what we’ve experienced over the past two years, we’re committed to creating a movement to prove that volunteering makes a difference—even if it’s just one day each week.

>> Next: Fearless Family Travel

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