Meet Travelers Who Make a Difference

Every year, National Geographic celebrates individuals who travel the globe with passion and purpose. These travelers represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that informs and inspires us. Last year, more than 1,500 nominations were sent in to National Geographic Traveler for their annual Travelers of the Year award. The magazine staff selected those who turned trips into opportunities to assist with conservation efforts, connect with local cultures, volunteer, challenge themselves, deepen familial and community bonds, and engage the world in a meaningful way.

This Thursday, National Geographic will host a discussion with seven of their 2013 winners. And WeLoveDC wants to send one of our readers to this insightful program with a pair of tickets to the program and reception!

Panelists at the evening program will be Hilda and John Denham, who established the Pacuare Nature Reserve in Costa Rica to protect turtle nesting areas; Alison Wright, a photojournalist who launched the Faces of Hope Fund to provide medical assistance, education, and aid to children around the globe; Shannon O’Donnell, who began Grassroots Volunteering, a database of volunteering and sustainable tourism opportunities; Molly Burke and Muyambi Muyambi, founders of Bicycles Against Poverty in Uganda; and Tracey Friley, a youth travel advocate who began the Passport Party Project for helping underserved girls get their first passports.

These travelers went a step beyond a simple vacation and strive to make a difference through their journey. Often, it is an experience, sight, or object that inspires their change of direction. “I traveled several times to Costa Rica during the eighties to see the turtles and went to many beaches on both Pacific and Caribbean coasts,” said Hilda Denham. “I was fascinated by what I saw but was shocked by the poaching that was going on everywhere. Legislation came too late, and has always been ineffective.”

Denham felt compelled to do something more. “I came upon this wonderful area of land on the Caribbean coast fronting four miles of turtle nesting beach. I bought it and started the Pacuare Nature Reserve,” says Denham.

To Molly Burke, it was more about the possibilities of a simple conveyance that sparked her idea. “Bicycles have an unbelievably strong impact on families and communities in Africa. There’s no better way to ‘move the meter’ in a more direct way,” she says. “Bikes are truly game-changers: saving lives through access to healthcare, helping individuals start or grow a business by connecting them to markets, and empowering women and children by supplying quick transportation to clean water sources.

“All that through just a bicycle. To me, the bicycle itself, and the power it brings, is inspiration enough to take a service trip and turn it into a growing organization.”

For Alison Wright, the change agent came through her career. “I’ve worked as photojournalist for my entire career so I never really tend to vacation,” she says. “I’m not interested in traveling just for the sake of traveling. Everywhere I go is because it involves a story I want to tell. So far that’s taken me to about 130 countries.” Her organization, the Faces of Hope Fund, came about as a way for her to do more for the people and communities she encountered during her work.

What really motivated Wright was a personal experience during one outing in Laos. “On January 2, 2000, I nearly lost my life in a devastating bus accident on a remote jungle road,” she recalls. “I have never forgotten that I was saved by a small group of determined individuals who worked in a rural clinic with few resources–– sparse medical equipment and medications, and without sutures, phones, or even beds. My experience there has become a daily touchstone for me, motivating my work as I continue to travel around the world, photographing endangered cultures and documenting issues concerning the human condition.”

Wright often hoped her photos would make a difference and create awareness. “But then I thought, why not me?” she says. “Having survived such devastating injuries, more than 30 surgeries, being told I would never walk again, well it’s brought a whole new appreciation of my work and empathy to those whom I photograph under difficult circumstances. Suddenly creating a photo didn’t feel like enough- it made me want to do even more.”

Burke only needs to look at her organization’s small successes to know that differences are being made in a big way. “Onek Justin, one of our participants, being able to get his four-year-old son, Obwoya, to the health clinic to treat his tuberculosis,” she recounts. “Or  Maratina Lalugu, a widowed mother of five, being able to grow her small business by using her bicycle to transport goods across markets and thereby paying for her children’s school fees.” The program has provided more than 840 bicycles, impacting the lives of more than 4,200 Ugandans. “We know that our work changes lives and communities by providing access to the most-needed resources.”

For Denham, success is a look at the future even as they push through each day. “We have reduced turtle poaching from nearly 100 percent to 2 percent by patrolling day and night throughout nesting season,” she says. “Additionally, the forest has become a haven for wildlife with more than 30 species of mammals. Our program of environmental education is progressing from year to year – over 1.000 students visit the Reserve each year for one to four days, with a special emphasis on young Costa Rican children.”

But she knows its not enough. “We are doing our little bit with our environmental education program but it needs a national awareness and acceptance of the importance of protecting wildlife,” she says. “Poaching on the Caribbean beaches is as bad as it was 20/25 years ago. This has to change.”

Even with the challenges, the daily successes outweigh the difficulties. And those victories add up; each of these travelers keep looking ahead to a larger vision, making the world a better place through their efforts. “Our hope is that we are able to reach more communities across the globe,” says Burke. “We’re building coalitions across nonprofits by partnering with them to provide bicycles to their target populations, complementing their mission and expanding ours.”

Wright has focused on a tangible humanitarian need that moved her heart in those communities, such as supporting a medical clinic in Laos, tents for refugees in Haiti, funding for a mobile medical unit for Burmese refugees in Thailand, piglets for families in Nepal to enable them to survive without selling their daughters into slavery, and a rehabilitation clinic in the Middle East. “Donations to the Faces of Hope Fund go directly to supporting the grassroots local organizations that I have met and worked with,” she says.

“There are needs big and small that cry out for help in every part of the world,” echoes Denham. “Giving money is of vital importance but getting involved is even better. It might not be the right word but I can only describe it as a ‘passion.’”

Making a difference in the life of just one person can have a tremendous impact. However, waiting to act on that impulse can have adverse effects as well. “And if that’s not enough to convince someone, then I would ask someone why he or she wants to wait to bring about change?” questions Burke. “You could have a direct impact or challenge the status quo sooner, but if you decide to wait, then your time could be wasted in vain.”

The Travelers of the Year program is on February 6 at 7pm at the National Geographic Museum, located at the corner of 17th and M Street NW. Parking is free after 6pm for those attending the program. Tickets are $30 and include a post-show reception. To win a pair of tickets in a random drawing, simply enter a comment below using your first name and a valid email address. We’ll randomly select a winner on Wednesday afternoon.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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4 thoughts on “Meet Travelers Who Make a Difference

  1. Wow, I’m inspired as usual from what I see and read on NatGeo’s website. I’d love to attend this event. I share Molly’s passion for the freedom and benefits that owning a bike can provide. What a lovely way to give to others.

  2. After 1.5 years in Buenos Aires, I am a big proponent of the change that travel can inspire. I’d love to check out this event!

  3. Me and my boyfriend traveled for 6months around Cali, Arizona and up to texas by foot. When we did it then it was for fun but know I want to change the world I remember the curiosity of others and when I expressed my passion of sleeping under the stars and the hard work of walking a 9hour distance without much water they still question why. We inspired this older man to get out of retirement at home and travel, not on purpose we just have a strong motivation. We settled down then eventually forgot even what it’s like to touch dirt without our shoes, or to smell flowers and makeup games to play when others would find it dreadfully boring. I want to travel again and I know know helping people is what I want to do. Thanks for the post it has refreshed our purpose.