Global Volunteers’ genesis was the simple idea of waging peace by providing development assistance to local people in need. We began slowly, and experimentally, to encourage humanitarian-minded Americans to invest short periods of time living and working with people in developing communities. In this way, local leaders gained the resource of culturally sensitive and open-minded volunteers, while the volunteers experienced a genuine, non-tourist perspective of daily life in the host community. It’s hard to imagine today that this optimistic plan arose before the internet, before cell phones, and before most host communities even had electricity! With a paid part-time staff of one, and a small cadre of volunteers, we incubated the “philosophy of development” in the law offices of Co-founder Bud Philbrook.
Our first efforts were labor projects in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. In 1984, Global Volunteers Co-founder Bud Philbrook led two teams of four volunteers to Woburn Lawn, a tiny hamlet surrounding the famed coffee plantations of the Caribbean. There, we built chairs and desks for the elementary school, helped repair a village road, and painted a community center. The intention was to demonstrate that “average” individuals, with proper guidance, could contribute in a meaningful way to on-going development projects. This was a unique proposal…different from the standard “top down approach,” and we learned early on that volunteers were anxious to put their skills and energies to work for improving local people’s lives.
The concept of combining service with international travel was largely a curiosity in Global Volunteers’ early years. Organizations such as Earthwatch and Habitat for Humanity mobilized citizen activists to assist with specific service agendas. But Global Volunteers was the first to pioneer short-term non-sectarian, non-governmental broad-based community development assistance for two or three weeks at a time. It was service that local people wanted. From 1985 to 1988, Global Volunteers expanded to Guatemala, Tanzania and Mexico, where the work projects focused on agricultural and health projects, such as providing potable water, improving irrigation, expanding reforestation, and digging latrines. 1989 ends with seventeen teams and 163 volunteers having been sent to 5 countries.