Photos courtesy of Journeys Within Our Communities

See a problem – solve a problem. It’s a good mantra to live by, and if you can travel with that mindset, even better.

Andrea and Brandon Ross certainly have taken that issue to heart, doing a world of good in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. The couple runs Journeys Within Tour Company and Journeys Within B&B. Wanting to give back to the Cambodian community in which they were working, they initially started small, collecting donations from guests. The projects grew and, luckily, so did the support. They were able to incorporate Journeys Within Our Community and received their 501(c)3 tax-exempt status in 2005.

“JWOC seeks to create and support projects that reduce poverty levels and increase educational and economic opportunities throughout Southeast Asia,” explains Andrea Ross, JWOC Founder and Executive Director. “Our projects provide training and assistance in the areas of health, education and economic development. As we see new problems develop, we focus resources and attention to solve those problems.”

JWOC’s programs range from a scholarship program in which 70 students from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are currently attending university, plus donating volunteer hours back to their communities. They run three free schools in Cambodia and Laos that are open six days a week and there are more than 300 wells providing clean water to villagers in the Siem Reap area. Microloans have also been given out to more than 200 local people living below the poverty line.

“By working at the local level and focusing on basic needs such as clean water, education, health, emergency relief and other community based issues, JWOC helps to develop projects that start small, but with outside support, gain momentum and change lives,” says Andrea.

Hurricane Nargis hit Myanmar hard in 2007. JWOC quickly went to work, and the organization was able to get into the country to aid stranded villages, often when bigger aid organizations were still struggling for permission. Past guests and donors were a huge part of this effort, and the organization eventually raised more than $30,000 in emergency relief.

“Our managing director was soon on his way to a small village that had been devastated with much needed supplies of rice and oil. We were able to continue supporting this community until major relief supplies started arriving,” says Andrea. “At the same time he visited Mingalar Parahita Orphanage on the outskirts of Yangon. It had been severely damaged and had experienced an influx of children orphaned by the storm. …[W]e were able to provide food and oil until their traditional supplies were re-established many months later.”

If any blessing came out of this tragedy, it was that JWOC continued working with this orphanage, and they are currently sponsoring 16 students at university.

It’s easy to get involved with JWOC, and the organization offers a unique way of seeing your donation at work.

“We believe strongly in active philanthropy. This is the idea of giving to a project before a trip so you can then see the results of your donation during your travels,” explains Andrea. “We have guests donate water wells and then visit the community benefiting from clean water; we have guests donate to our language schools and they then get to participate in a class and meet the students. I think this idea of being a part of the community and integrating giving back in any tour is a really fantastic way to make a tour… much more meaningful.”

If you’d like to do some hands on work, JWOC accepts volunteers on a case by case basis. Volunteers must pay their own way, and need to be self-starters and able to work independently on projects assigned by their directors. Duties may include teaching an English class, working on hygiene projects, or helping with the microloan program.

[T]his idea of being a part of the community and integrating giving back in any tour is a really fantastic way to make a tour… much more meaningful.

Judy and Gerry Laird from Fair Oaks, California read about Journeys Within Tour Company in their local paper and knew immediately this was an area of the world where they wanted to visit and volunteer. Among other activities, they helped out in JWOC’s school for younger children, as well as spent a day in four different classes at their school in Laos. The couple was thrilled with their experience.

“We were fortunate to participate in a JWOC finance class for young people where they collected loan payments from small local vendors,” Judy says. “ We rode in a tuk-tuk behind four teens on motor scooters! This was an inside look at the hard working local vendors and the well-trained young people.”

Judy has lots of encouragement for potential volunteers.

“Do it! Brandon and Andrea will find a project for travelers of all ages, experiences, and abilities. They are involved in many activities for the community and will find a match for everyone,” she says. “Volunteering for JWOC gave us a small opportunity to be of service to the world. We are better people and travelers because of this thrilling experience!”

Final thoughts from Andrea?

“Ultimately we want to empower the community to help itself and to educate a new generation with the idea of community action. We like to see how travel can have a positive impact on communities and that development, if done right, can be a good thing.”