November 25, 2010

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Helping the helpers
World traveler shows would-be volunteers the way
By Jeff Mucciarone jmucciarone@hippopress.com

Jason Connell has spent a few years helping others in faraway places. He’s also been visiting colleges in the United States telling students how they can make a difference abroad, and how they can afford it. The Westford, Mass., native made a presentation at Plymouth State University recently. Visit www.changingtheworld101.com.

Q:Your presentations to colleges, what are they all about?
When I was 19, I dropped out of school. I wanted to see the world for myself. My original goal was just excitement, it was just about having fun. So I saw a young girl in China — no more than 17, 18 years old, and she was feeding a small child. It looked like an infant. She was feeding it bits of food, rice and fish, from trash cans. That image was burnt into my brain. That level of poverty and desperation. Traveling was no longer just to have as much fun as you possibly can. So it became what can a college student do to actually make a difference. No one person...can save the world, but on the other side of the coin, any person, and particularly a college student, really can positively impact the world, especially the Third World, by developing leadership skills in a very hands-on and real way....

How have you seen yourself evolve?
The real goal in the beginning was just fun. It quickly turned into how I could effectively help people on a personal level. Starting out as a 19- or 20-year-old in the developing world, the experience as a speaker on being an international volunteer, and just as someone who cares, it has forced me to walk the line between responsibility to myself and responsibility to others. It’s also changed my value system quite a bit. I was a person who cared a lot about stuff. I was, in a lot of ways, the perfect consumer. In some ways, I still am. If I see an ad for Guinness, I start craving a Guinness. ... I realized that type of value system wouldn’t match up. ... I value human connection much, much more now....

So your focus changed during your trip to China. What did you do?
At first I was really depressed because nothing made sense. I was from a suburb of Boston ... I wasn’t familiar with that type of poverty. ... How can that level of poverty exist on Earth? I had a mentor who helped me; instead of being upset about something, I tried to get involved. I got involved with a program ... which was in some ways my introduction, working with sex slaves in Thailand, trying to get them liberated. These were 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds servicing five, six, seven men a day. Then I went to South Africa working with kids who were born into severe and dire poverty, with a high risk of HIV. ... My mentor said, “Hey man, stop complaining about stuff and see if you can take action.”

How did you make that jump from wanting to make a difference and doing it?
It’s a huge jump and that’s the exact issue I speak to. The situation on most college campuses, and I work almost exclusively with college students, if you ask a random college student if they want to help out people in Haiti, chances are they’re going to say yes. But how do you help? Chances are they’re not going to have a cohesive answer and the best thing they’ll offer is donating money. ... There’s a sense of powerlessness that I think all modern people feel. You look at the problems and you think how could you possibly make a difference? I try to help you understand you can’t fix every single problem, but you can work on serious chunks by working with organizations. [Connell helps students find quality organizations to work with.] ... I was addicted to traveling but I never had any money. These trips, they cost usually $2,000 to $4,000. ... [Connell works with students to figure out ways to raise funds through social media or corporate sponsorships.] Having the confidence, the finances and the good organization to work with allows you to exercise that power. ...

When you talk to someone who is thinking about volunteering, what do you say to them?
I think the first step with achieving anything really awesome, really anything cool and great, is owning it and committing to it and refusing to accept failure. ... If you really want to do something, the first step is really to get to own the decision, whether it’s international development or trying to lose weight or get a promotion, the first step is being determined ...

When you look back at your own sort of transformation ... what do you think about that?
When I was in college, I never had a specific goal, I never really wanted to be a businessman or an actor or whatever people hope to do when they’re 18. My goal was to just take cool opportunities and have as much fun as possible. ... I ended up going in the direction of helping people. I want to keep riding that wave. ... Getting 20 years down the line, I’d like to be running an institute that’s focused on the very serious problems we are facing internationally. ...

[Connell offered advice for college students.]
... I don’t know if I’m qualified at all to give advice or not, but my experiences have taught me that if you have the audacity to chase even one of your dreams, your life will be so much better. —Jeff Mucciarone