As part of a new voluntourism concept, outdoor retailer MSR is working with the Nairobi-area leadership academy Flying Kites to bring clean water to local schools.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

On the plane ride back from Nairobi, I sat next to a young, 20-something girl. She fit all the stereotypes of a fresh-out-of-college American, taking a bit of time to volunteer abroad before the school year resumed. She had been helping at a primary school for three weeks and readily voiced her desire to return home. “It was so dirty,” she shared with derision.

McGlothlin traveled to Kenya with Mountain Safety Research to document the installation of water purifiers at rural, public primary schools in and around the scenic Aberdare Mountains north of Nairobi.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

Her list of complaints went on, including the lack of shopping in one of the poorest districts of Kenya’s largest metropolis. Eventually she sat back in her seat with a sigh. “But I needed the volunteer experience for my résumé,” she bemoaned. “I’m just glad it’s done.”

I, too, was on the way back from Kenya. I’d spent a week behind the scenes with a new voluntourism concept, documenting the installation of water purifiers at several public primary schools in rural areas north of Nairobi. During my stay, I struggled. Struggled with the knowledge that at home, I had clean water with the simple turn of a tap; struggled to reconcile my need to help these children who lacked resources that I took for granted with my ability to do so in a meaningful way. And struggled with the entire concept of traveling to a different country to volunteer. What good did I do—do any of us do—flying in for a week to “help” before jetting back halfway around the world?

The voluntourism question The concept of “voluntourism” has drawn sharp discussion from both sides of the issue. Seasoned aid workers and sociologists argue that a person who travels to offer perceived aid for a short period of time does more harm than good. Some charity organizations, and certainly the vast number of “voluntourists,” argue there’s benefit to the idea—that the more people experience a place, the more they can help it and facilitate change.

A row of sinks at Flying Kites allows the children to wash their hands before meals and after using the restrooms.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

But what change are we really talking about? Many who travel to volunteer are untrained in the needs of the region or the role they step into. While ostensibly there to support a place and its people, voluntourists are often really seeking change within themselves.

Consider the money such a trip requires. Would the cost of an airline ticket and on-the-ground food and lodging be better spent bringing in a trained nurse, one who is accustomed to traveling in similar areas with minimal draw on resources, to administer expert medical care to a vulnerable group of children? Is the voluntourism industry simply eating into resources that could be better applied to skilled aid?

Mountain Safety Research’s answer But not every person who wants to help others in an active way is an expert architect or all-star nurse. Seattle-based outdoor gear manufacturer Mountain Safety Research (MSR) recently launched the Adventures for Impact trip series to provide a new option. Rather than risk leaving the destination with a net resource loss, these trips focus on allowing travelers to contribute in the most effective way—financially—while still having life-changing experiences and connecting with a cause. Aspiring travelers book one of MSR’s adventures, raise a set amount of funds to support a designated cause, and then embark on their trip. After visiting the places where their fund-raising dollars are put to use, they then tackle a memorable, moderate-scale outdoor challenge. On the first Adventures for Impact trip in 2018, that challenge was Mount Kilimanjaro and the cause was clean water in Kenya. (The 2019 adventures will travel to Mount Kilimanjaro and Nepal.)

The MSR Community Chlorine Maker runs off either electricity or car batteries, allowing it to be used in nearly all settings.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

The new undertaking dovetails with MSR’s Global Health Division, which focuses on developing technologies that increase access to vital needs such as clean water, hot food, and reliable shelter for people living on less than $5 a day, and with the company’s nonprofit Impact Project, an initiative founded on the premise that safe water changes everything in rural communities. Since 2015, the Impact Project has brought safe water and hygiene to more than half a million people worldwide.

MSR Global Health’s latest success is the Community Chlorine Maker, a small device that uses salt and electricity to create a chlorine solution that can be added to water, making it safe to drink; a higher-concentrate solution can also be used as a medical disinfectant. It was the implementation of these devices in rural schools north of Nairobi that I had flown to Kenya to document. As participants in the first Adventures for Impact trip were preparing to embark, I was traveling with a team from the Impact Project as they distributed chlorine makers in the area and trained the community leaders—the same ones Adventures for Impact guests would eventually meet—on their use.

While the work of the Global Health Division is chiefly financed by grants, the Adventures for Impact series raises funds to get these projects out into the field faster. Because MSR covers all Impact Project operating expenses, overhead costs, and salaries, a guaranteed 100 percent of the dollars raised for Adventures for Impact supports the company’s mission to increase access to safe water in tangible ways.

Finding community partnership with Flying Kites The entire enterprise is fiercely dependent on savvy local partners in Africa, Asia, and South America where the Impact Project operates. “We realize we’re not the ones to take this technology into the communities,” shared Brandon Bills, MSR’s marketing manager, over cold Tusker beers one night in Kenya. “We need partners who understand each community’s needs [and can] train the community on the technology and follow-up.”

The Chambers’s young son, Max, is already an old hand at navigating Africa. Here, the trio poses while on a brief wildlife safari in Nairobi National Park.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

In Kenya, MSR’s main partner is Flying Kites, a primary school and leadership academy led by Massachusetts resident Leila Chambers, her husband and outdoor endurance athlete Mike, and a talented team of local on-the-ground experts. After her own stint volunteering in the slums of Nairobi as a wide-eyed collegian, Chambers realized the influx of foreigners trying to make a difference for a few weeks wasn’t doing much good. So she sought a better solution.

In 2007 she founded the Flying Kites School Network, “a cohort of resource-poor schools committed to improving student outcomes” that operates on the premise that education is a path out of poverty. What started out as a small-scale orphanage and school in Njabini, just 56 miles from Nairobi, has become an educational system that supports four local schools. Now in 2018, Flying Kites has moved to its second, larger campus. Still tucked into the Aberdare Mountains, this new facility supports 80 local children in grades 1 to 8 from the surrounding village of Njabini and, with the completion of a new building, will add 70 more in January 2019.

Zac Gleason, MSR’s Water Lab Manager, demonstrates the Community Chlorine Maker to a roomful of students and teachers at Chania Primary School.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

With the help of MSR and the Impact Project, Flying Kites is beginning to use the Community Chlorine Maker on its own campus. The students in the area have all grown up knowing that their water sources make them sick. It’s a fact of life here; kids sometimes miss school because they are too ill to sit in the classroom. This is especially true at local schools Flying Kites partners with—such as Tulaga Primary School, serving 654 children, and Chania Primary School, with 886 children—which lack sufficient infrastructure to implement the devices. Part of MSR’s mission is to raise funds to supply this important framework.

For MSR, partners like Flying Kites are a critical force in convincing the local community to accept Global Health’s ideas and products. The Community Chlorine Maker is not hard to use—I watched a girl in one middle school explain it to her classmates—but MSR has found that older generations can be skeptical. Water treated with the device carries the faint taste of chlorine, and while stateside we’re used to the taste, many users are hesitant to trust it. Although it’s perfectly safe, villagers worry the chlorine will cause health problems including sterilization. Flying Kites can leverage its respected standing in the community to ensure that the products are actually used.

Scaling mountains for real change On the first Adventures for Impact trip, visitors who traveled to climb Mount Kilimanjaro first spent several days at the Flying Kites campus meeting faculty, watching classes, and eating meals with the students, experiencing firsthand how the money they raised was being put to work. They were not asked to simply show up and watch. Their funds ensured their presence had a practical, applicable benefit to the local community.

Students at Flying Kites walk in front of the Feinstein Junior Scholars’ Academy, the main building on the current campus. Beginning January 2019, a new building will accomodate 70 new students, nearly doubling current enrollment.

Photo by Jess McGlothlin

Yes, the onus of raising funds before a trip is work. It can be uncomfortable to ask friends and family to donate to a cause. Mike Chambers knows this. “I’ve always been skeptical of people ‘doing something for a cause,’ ” he said retrospectively as we sat before a roaring fire one chilly night in the Aberdare Mountains. “At the end of the day, you have to approach this [kind of trip] with dignity. It’s not about a kid getting a line item on a résumé; you’re dealing with people’s lives.”

It was these quiet evening conversations that brought new light to my questions surrounding the ethics of voluntourism. There is no perfect solution, but as travelers we can do our utmost to ensure we leave a place with a net gain, not a net loss, after our visit. We can continue to find new ways to use travel as a tool to better the lives of the people we meet along the way. So what if your next great outdoor adventure could help change lives—more lives than just your own? Twende, as they say in Swahili. Let’s go.

Want to contribute to the Impact Project and Flying Kites missions? A special fund-raiser has been created to help finance water infrastructure needs at the partner schools, including Tulaga and Chania. Donate here.

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