This Traveler Shows Us How To Do Meaningful Service Projects While Traveling
By DeAnna Taylor
Over the last year, we have seen many “missionary travelers” get criticized for posing with residents in third world countries simply for sympathy likes. While some of them may genuinely travel as a means to give back to those less fortunate, often times it comes off as a mere publicity stunt.
Sheena Foster, a native of New Orleans, has had the privilege of traveling to the Motherland over ten times to participate in various service projects. At one point, she even lived in South Africa and genuinely grew to love the people there.
She has a keen interest in food justice, food sovereignty, and urban farming and will launch her own start-up this July. The Urban Peace Farm and Sanctuary is a ½ acre D.C area diversified organic farm with a focus to serve whole and healthy foods to food insecure communities while also helping public housing and low-income residents foster self-sufficiency through sustainable urban agriculture, innovation, entrepreneurship, and stewardship.
We spoke with Sheena to learn more about her travels abroad and to understand better ways in which we can give back while traveling.
Travel Noire: What led you to move to South Africa?
Sheena: A girls trip to South Africa, specifically while in Johannesburg, is what inspired a desire for me to return and visit. The tour through Johannesburg was in my opinion “sanitized,” especially in Soweto. The streets were too clean and we did not trek off the beaten path into the local neighborhoods. I expressed my desire to visit with locals and meet and speak with South Africans, but it was denied, so I became more and more curious. Knowing the history of the Apartheid, I was not sold that the Soweto I saw was the true Soweto. That curiosity led to me a desire to return where I could spend more time with locals and get to know the culture and people more intimately.
In 2012, I learned of an opportunity for me to live and study in Johannesburg at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) for half a year. I was accepted and started a new life filled with academic studies and research opportunities on banana and sugar cane farms in Mpumalanga and tea farms in the Honde Valley of Zimbabwe.
TN: When and how did you get involved with service projects around the continent?
Sheena: As someone who was impacted by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of my hometown in New Orleans in 2005, I became very involved with local Habitats for Humanity’s in various cities in the United States, especially back home where I’ve worked on over two dozen homes. Eight years ago, I began my global work with Habitat when dropped my finger on a globe to decide my next destination. It wasn’t Africa, it was India. However, that started my global work with volunteerism around the globe, including Africa. During my personal travels, I’d frequently seek out opportunities to serve, whether it was at an orphanage, women’s rights organizations, church, school or housing project with Habitat around the continent or abroad.
TN: How can those genuinely interested in serving find meaningful projects or organizations to pair with while traveling?
Sheena: I would strongly encourage anyone who would love to volunteer or serve while vacationing to seek reputable organizations. I no longer volunteer with Habitat for Humanity abroad, but they are a great place to get started. The U.S. State Department also has a list. There are many U.S based non-profits and universities that have trustworthy relationships with institutions abroad where you can inquire about opportunities.
The key is to research, ask questions and be mindful of where you send money to secure it’s not a scam.
TN: Any other tips on serving while traveling?
Sheena: In no particular order of importance, I here are 10 tips I would encourage anyone who wants to travel and serve to consider:
- Do Research. Consider reading the book “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Also, connect with expats in the area via social media.
- Be Present. I would strongly suggest that you use discretion when taking photos.
- Be Respectful. Take time to research the culture and traditions.
- Be Engaged. If you are with a group, limit the amount of time you spend doing “usies” or group selfies. You are there to serve and learn from that experience.
- Ask Permission: When taking photos, ask permission first.
- Don’t Assume. If bringing donations, ask what is needed and make sure it’s culturally appropriate.
- Keep an open mind. Many developing countries won’t afford you many of the amenities as a more developed country.
- Keep a journal: While you may find yourself not being able to capture those moments in a photograph, those memories will forever be etched on your brain and in your heart.
- Safety First: Register with U.S State Department. I’ll admit that I haven’t been the best with doing this in the past on all of my travels.
- Have fun. Serving can be life’s greatest joys.
TN: Where can we find you online?
Sheena: I can be found on Twitter: @SheenaFoster and Facebook.
DeAnna Taylor is a criminal defense Attorney turned travel blogger, author, and writer. While Charlotte, NC (her hometown) is her base, she's always somewhere on a plane. Catch her on IG: @brokeandabroadlife.