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Changing Lives One Trip at a Time
An Interview with Kelly Campbell
Founder and partner at The Village Experience (a community-tourism organization that brings travelers and community members together to make a difference), Kelly Campbell is passionate about connecting with communities around the world and spreading awareness about human rights issues. Even though Kelly started out in apparel merchandising, she discovered her true love for travel and volunteer work while living in South Africa and Kenya. In 2011, the Indianapolis Business Journal named Kelly as one of Indiana’s “Top 40 under 40.” Over the past few years, she has been working tirelessly alongside her sister and countless others to establish community projects in Haiti, Kenya, Guatemala, India, and Thailand to better the lives of others.
Kelly was able to take a few minutes to answer some questions we have been dying to ask:
Tell us about the Village Experience’s destinations and how they were created.
Well, we’ve been working with five core countries since we started: Kenya, India, Haiti, Thailand, and Guatemala. We really believe in supporting these core places and focusing on, not so much adding destinations, but in being able to take more people back to these communities and support them. A lot of what our trips depend on is our travelers and where they want to go. We’ve had years where we have only one trip to Kenya and twelve trips to Guatemala. Then the next year, everyone wants to go to Kenya and we are lucky to get one or two trips to Guatemala. However, we continue to support all five of our destinations no matter what; no matter how many trips we take, we are always fundraising for them and supporting them throughout the year.
The only time we ever add anything outside of our core countries is if a client comes to us and pays for a customized itinerary. But we aren’t continually looking for destinations - I mean nothing makes us happier than to add a new trip to one of our five core destinations.
What is your process for developing village experiences within these five core destinations?
Most of the trips we take revolve around our projects which are orchestrated through local community organizations or NGOs. So, at first we’ll go to these programs and organizations and scope out their projects. We have this process of going to the village, inspecting the area, learning what the core problems are and the poverty-related obstacles being faced. And then we really make sure that we are comfortable with this village: that they are trustworthy, that they want to work hard, that they are willing to work in the manner that we require which means submitting budgets, turning in receipts and really being partners with us instead of expecting a handout. For example, in Kenya, there are about four or five different villages we work in. And so with each of those, we work toward taking development to the next level: we built a health clinic in one of the villages, we built a primary school in another, a secondary school in another, artisan workshops have been established in several areas. It all depends on what the community needs. We really try to balance out the wealth that comes in with travelers and in order to do that, we encourage visitors to engage in more than one project during their trip.
Walk us through one of these trips.
Ok. So, Kenya is one of my favorites and is one of the places I feel most connected to. We usually start people in Nairobi because that’s the easiest place to fly into. We have several different artisan groups that we work with in Nairobi and we spend the first day teaching visitors about fair trade and the importance of artisan workshops. People get to meet some of the women’s groups that we are a part of. If a group isn’t interested in something like that, there are several conservation projects, like elephant and rhino orphanages, in the area that we will bring them to.
After spending some time in Nairobi, we take our group to a small village about three hours away. Here, people can go on safari and learn about conservation, which is extremely important nowadays especially with all the poaching going on. A safari normally takes a day and then we will spend another day where visitors can participate in spending time in the community. If a visitor has medical experience and has asked to be of service, we will involve them in the medical clinic that has been established. Travelers can share a meal with people in the community, take part in artisan workshops, do a cooking class, take a walking tour through the village, and much more. We just broke ground on a secondary school that, once it’s done, will have a cyber cafe and many other learning tools. So, the philanthropy that we have experienced over the years from travelers has helped shape a lot of these communities and made it possible for them to succeed.
Next, we will take our group to another community about five hours away on the shores of Lake Victoria; a very isolated place. It’s heavily populated with malaria, lots of mosquitos, HIV - I mean, it’s kind of bad all the way around because the community is so isolated, not well educated and it doesn’t have access to health care. But it is probably the one community out of every place we go that everybody falls in love with. I think visitors see the poverty and they see how committed the village is and how they work together. For example, because of all the HIV, there is a group of widows in the village who have come together and taken it upon themselves to care for and raise the orphans in the community. One of the first things we did for this community was build a school, particularly for the orphans so they didn’t have to worry about getting into another school or paying school fees. Then we opened it up to other kids as well. We have a playground there and a dining hall and kitchen and the latrines are all set up, so no one has to worry about much while in school. Another program has been to support the community through small business projects such as developing gardens, catering centers, motor bike taxis, tailoring services, and a community center. So this is a community that people really love and we usually stay two or three nights to let our group get really immersed. And we have gotten a great response from our travelers, they really love it.
After the community visit, we will either take our group out to the coast so they can see a whole different side to Kenya or if they are super interested in animals, then we will tack on a Maasai Mara safari for a couple days.
In our travels, we have come across several tour companies that have exploited community and culture in order to turn a profit. Do you have advice as to what kinds of questions to ask other community tour companies to assess how legitimate their tours may be?
I think the key question to ask is “who is actually going to benefit from the tour?” Are the community members the decision makers in this tour company? Is the company creating employment opportunities for the community or are they just playing tour guide? If the tour company isn’t run by the community, what percentage of the profits are going back to them? What kind of an investment is being made back into that community? If you start to see that there isn’t concrete evidence of investment going back into the community then that’s where it starts to feel more like exploitation instead of community tourism. Community tourism can be great; as long as the community is the one saying “this is what we want to teach people about our lives and where we live, this is the amount we want to charge, this is what we want to use the profits for,” then a solid business can be made. But if those things aren’t happening, then that’s when the red flag starts to go up.
Looking through your featured trips on your website, I noticed that yoga activities are included in many of them. Can you elaborate as to why that is?
One of our biggest clients is a yoga organization that is based out in San Francisco, and once they started hiring us to plan trips for them (we’ve done a Haiti trip, an India trip, Ecuador trip, and now we are planning a trip to Kenya), we found more and more instructors coming to us and wanting to plan similar trips where they would be the yoga instructor and their students would be able to have an authentic meaningful experience outside of a meeting hall. And so, we started planning these trips where the people can get yoga classes in the morning and evening, and then throughout the day they’re going to have a trip like any other Village Experience trip, whether its doing some sightseeing, cultural activities, fair trade, or participating in any of the community projects. It’s kinda cool because the yoga community has really stepped up for social justice causes; this is what they believe in and they are great fundraisers. So, we do have more and more people coming to us asking for those retreats.
Yoga isn’t the only activity that we build itineraries around. We have people like men’s groups that come in wanting to do hands-on work, colleges that really want to focus on education, women's groups that are really just super shoppers and want to see every fair trade group there is, etc. That’s what’s so great about our business, we can build an itinerary around many different hobbies and make sure that our travelers have a chance to participate in community projects.