In Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed one Family’s Life Forever, John Marshall brings the reader along on his family's six-month volunteering vacation. With two teenage kids who struggled to be connected to the world beyond their electronic devices, a 20-year marriage in urgent need of a rebirth, and a desire to be of service, the Marshalls set off to work in some of the most remote places on earth.
At the time you embarked on your journey, you had two teenagers: a 17-year-old son (Logan) and a 14-year-old daughter (Jackson). What was their reaction when you told them they would be leaving their school, friends and comfortable life to travel with mom and dad for six months to go work for free in Third World countries?
My son was into it. He was excited by the possibility. But my daughter Jackson was a harder sell. "Freshman year is kind of a big deal," she told me. But she came around. It was really an amazing chance to unplug them both and allow them to look up from cell phones or computers and see the world. It was also a great chance for us to spend time as a family. Now that they're off to college, I cherish our time on the trip even more.
Logan and Jackson Marshall in a classroom in Thailand.
Along your journey, you worked with wild animals in Costa Rica, muscled through organic farms in New Zealand, taught English in a remote village in Thailand, worked with orphans in India and helped in a Buddhist school in the Himalayas. Was there a part of the trip that you found most meaningful for your family?
Each stop had its own lesson to teach. At our first stop in Costa Rica, our kids got chewed out for not working hard enough and that really motivated them to try harder for the rest of the trip. But I think the orphanage in India was the most transformative. Certainly it was for me. Volunteering in the developing world is a jolt of reality. It's easy to sit at home and talk about the poor, to be sad in a general sense about world hunger or global poverty. But when I actually met real people who are poor and hungry . . . they were not what I was imagining. That was certainly true for orphaned children. Before leaving home, I thought of them as some general, faceless mass of regrettable humanity. But when I got to know them, one on one, as children, it's been impossible for me to return home and live as if they do not exist.
When you were at the orphanage in India, you connected with a 13-year-old boy named Job. His name was very symbolic of what he’d been through, and the faith he had. Can you explain why he was so important to you and what you learned from him?
For whatever reason two people connect, Job and I loved each other. He started as a funny, over-acting joker, acting as my bodyguard, giving up his seat whenever I entered the room, fanning me if the air was hot. But this was just his way of saying how much he liked me. I'm now his sponsor at the orphanage, and we're in touch all the time. But during our trip, Job symbolized to me the real power of volunteering. By traveling, by serving, we connect with people we would otherwise never meet. Just by showing up. Just by trying. If you asked Job who gave more, he would say that Uncle John did. That's what he called me. If you asked me, I would say that Job did. And that's the beauty of service. Everyone feels like they're getting a lot more than they're giving. It's the perfect exchange.
Which part of the trip had the most effect on your son?
I think Thailand was Logan's favorite. He was a little shy going into this trip. But in Thailand, he really came into his own. It didn't hurt that he was adored by the girls at the school where we were teaching. No kidding, they shrieked like he was a pop star at times, asking him for autographs, wanting to pose with him for pictures. Our daughter Jackson was also adored by the Thai boys, but Thailand was Logan's moment to shine. He taught his own English classes at just 17, made lots of friends, had a blast. It was fun to watch.
The Marshall family on Mt. Fyfe in New Zealand.
I find that a lot of teenagers in the United States suffer from lack of confidence, despite their parents spending their whole childhood telling them how special and wonderful they are. Do you see this lack of confidence in kids in other cultures? What part of the trip taught your kids most about confidence?
Yes and no. Some countries are extremely humble as a cultural norm. In Ladakh, in the north of India, we stayed in a Buddhist community and, as a rule, they were extremely soft spoken and modest. The children we met in rural Thailand were also quite shy at times. As for Western children, I feel we don't ask enough of them and perhaps their lack of confidence comes from never having really been challenged. On the road, our kids needed to work, and they really stepped up. On farms in New Zealand, they worked for three to five hours a day, which they rarely did at home. They taught their own English classes, three classes a day, five days a week. They worked alongside the orphans in the orphanage laundry and kitchen, which was a big, constant job. It was all hard, demanding work, but they did it. And now they know they can do it. Confidence comes from experience that pushes you beyond what you thought you were capable of—not from empty affirmations by well-meaning parents. Yes, you're special and wonderful. Now go clean out the anteater cage.
I have witnessed relationships between girls being very complex and difficult here. Was there something about your daughter’s experiences in the trip that may have helped her socially when she returned?
I think being a girl in America is a tough job. It's hard all over the world, but the U.S. has its own brand of teen challenges. Before she went on the trip, Jackson was a typical teenager. She loved her phone and her Facebook page, and she saw herself as the center of the world, which is pretty normal. But on the trip, she began to focus out and realize that other people had much bigger problems than she did. She also made friends with girls her age who were orphaned at birth or extremely poor, and this has a power to put the materialism and our celebrity-obsessed culture in a new perspective.
Her friends are still very important to her and she still loves her phone, but she's much less concerned by "First World" problems, as she says.
How do you think this trip changed you and your wife as parents?
Parents don't often get the chance to see their children's best selves. We hear about it from other parents, how well they behaved at a friend’s house or at school. But on our trip, we got to see it every day. When they didn't think we were watching, we'd see them reading to a child at the orphanage, or playing with a group of younger children at the Thai school. Working hard, being kind. I don't think the trip changed my wife and me as parents. If anything, it just made us feel that our kids would be just fine when they left home, which is all we've ever tried to give them.
John Marshall with Sweetie
I was really touched when you asked a teenage girl in the Himalayas what she was most grateful for and she answered without hesitation, “I am most grateful for my beloved parents. They provide me with all that I have and they are like precious jewels I have been given but do not deserve.” What is it that we’re getting wrong as parents that our kids would NEVER say this about us here in America?
In American culture, we glorify youth. Children have all the answers. It's like the Bart Simpson-ification of our country. Like Homer, parents are idiots. Children are the cool ones. But other countries don't pump this message down their children's throats. Parents are revered, respected. And really, why shouldn't they be? It really struck me on the trip. Anyone who is a parent and tries to raise their children with love, sacrifices on a dozen simultaneous levels. And yet every cultural message our kids hear is that we parents are fools. When you meet children who love their parents as "precious jewels," it's not hard to see that they have something to teach us.
You describe an encounter in Tibet with a poor boy on the street. He felt the need to give you something, though he had nothing. He pulled out a half-eaten filthy fruit from his pocket, and insisted that you take it. What did that moment mean to you?
This was in the tiny village of Stok that is like a time capsule for rural Tibet. The people make their own clothes, farm the land, live as a community. It's a very simple way of life, but they survive by sharing with one another. Most of the time, when children approach you on the street, they are begging. But this boy and his two friends saw me and, true to their upbringing, wanted to give me something. I thought they were begging, but they weren't. And when I saw how happy they were to give me the only things they had—a few dirty apricots and a half eaten apple—it was a great lesson in the joy that can come from giving.
What would you say to parents like me, who have a secret desire to up and leave for a year of “voluntourism” but feel like it would be impossible?
It's not impossible, Daniela! Really, if we can do it, so can you. We were not rich and bored. I didn't have a book deal before we left. We took out a home equity loan to make it happen. The trick is to decide to do it. Not dream of it or desire it but make a commitment to get out the door. For people who are interested, I have a section at the back of the book that spells out how much we paid and exactly what we did. If that helps anyone make their dream of family volunteer travel come true, I will be extremely honored. For anyone who does go, I encourage you to go with a learner's mind and a sense of humility. You will not change the world. It's the world that will change you.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Marshall's book.
Daniela Weil was born and raised in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and now lives in Houston with her daughter Lucy. Trained as a whale biologist, Weil is also a writer and illustrator whose work includes both children’s books and scientific illustrations. She is the creator of the web comic The World According to Lucy, which chronicles the experiences of an introverted adoptive mom parenting the fearless, free-spirited Lucy.