When Abby Falik graduated from high school she wanted to travel to another country to do volunteer service work, but she was too young for the Peace Corps. Falik has since founded the Bay Area-based nonprofit Global Citizen Year, which helps high school graduates take a “gap year” before starting college to do global service and learn about the world.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year
Mariela Garcia, fellow with Global Citizen Year in Brazil in 2010-2011

  • christina

    Volunteering and the latest trend of family vacations that incorporate an element of community service is wrought with hubris and ego that generally ignore the host community needs and are more about the volunteer feeling good about their “magnanimous gestures to poor people.” It’s patronizing and diminishes the dignity of the communities we aim to help. Let the community elders and leaders have a say in the direction of the type of help they need to be self sustained.

    Voluntourism is an insult to these communities and local organizations. Often, volunteering sucks a lot of energy and time for the host NGO and community leaders to “train’ the short stay volunteers, often for perfunctory activities like painting a school, ‘teaching’ a class for a day or week, building a water well, donating laptops etc. In many instances these building projects work until they are broken: no one trained to make the repairs, or money to buy the parts, laptops sit in a room because n one knows how to run them, the battery runs out, or they have no electricity…Donors give money conditionally to execute on their vanity and ideas of development vs. asking community leaders and elders what they actually need.

    • jb

      obviously you have no idea what GCY is about and you should investigate further. What you have said is so far from what GCY is and does This is why our country is a mess, people say things without knowledge.

    • lucas

      Programs such as this feed fetishize travel and propagate unsustainable (defined as those that rely on dwindling oil supplies) behaviors that are a disservice to the global population and our posterity. Tens Thousands of collegiate and high school students burning fossil fuels to develop a sense of empathy and global awareness is a foolish enterprise. The American project will work only in recognition of the diversity that we have reduced to paltry reservations, the diversity that we have created around us, and the natural resources that we have to learn from here. There are plenty of ‘third world’ experiences within the confines of one’s own city (granted most our youth are urban dwellers). We have access to myriad languages, and myriad experiences here in our own local. in light of Bill Mckibben’s campaign to prevent pipeline constructions and egregious gratuitous carbon emissions it is our responsibility as adults to reduce the confines of our childrens’ impact. Putting them in planes only fosters the notion that you have to travel to become an intelligent, responsible citizen. If we spend enough time with the diverse history of our own indigenous heritage we can accomplish much more with much much less.

    • Lucy

      I would agree that short term approaches to development do not work, and this is exactly what Global Citizen Year teaches to its fellows through real world examples. The purpose of the fellows as far as their presence in the host countries goes is not to “suck energy from host NGOs” but rather to create a stronger sense of self and learn about development first hand. This gives them the power to return to their studies more committed and more directed in their chosen field and debunk the hardheld beliefs of some donors in the first world that may just be throwing money at growing problems.

      Global Citizen Year is not marketed as a volunteering program and is certainly not a vacation. This is direct culture exchange for fellows that, as it grows, could create the next generation of influential global leaders across all sectors.

    • Mike Stivers

      I certainly share many of your reservations about the new style of “voluntourism.” which are very real and many of which are justified. In my experience as a Global Citizen Year Fellow, I found that these were the precise challenges that Global Citizen Year aims to confront.

      Implicit in your criticism is the notion that Fellows are sent to countries to help the communities in which they are situated. This is not true. The primary objective is to learn FROM the “community elders and leaders” that you say need to direct sustainable development, (and I agree with you).

      Global Citizen Year does not aim to transplant American systems of development (most of ours are broken anyway) but rather to engage in a cross-cultural exchange that incites a pattern of mutual aid. As a Fellow, I was instilled with the mindset of “What can I learn from Brazil” and how can those learnings be incorporated into any sort of social change I want to create in my community in the states.

      If the global ecological, economic, and political crises of the 21st century can teach us anything, it’s that these problems are communal and Global Citizen Year is one of many, many actors attempting to create communal solutions.

  • Ellen

    Wow, how very condescending of Abby Falk to all non-profit, service-based organizations from charities to cultural institutions to say “non-profit in tax status not in management style” with the tacky “shout-out” to Harvard Business School.

    But thank you for highlighting the fact that non-profits are indeed not businesses, as myself and millions of passionate practitioners will testify – because our organizations are responsible to the people they serve and not shareholders and profits. Why on earth you slam this sector while you’re publicly trying to promote your own non-profit is indefensible.

    • REM

      It’s funny how differently two people can interpret the same sentence, because I definitely didn’t hear it the same way you did. I actually find it quite interesting that she doesn’t feel bound into a management category as a result of the organization’s tax status. I would encourage you not to take it so personally; I’m sure Abby works closely with plenty of great nonprofits (given her line of work), and has no intention to “slam the sector.”

      On a different note, my time abroad was extremely influential to my personal growth — I only wish it could have come earlier in my life. This is certainly an invaluable opportunity for any student transitioning into college.

  • Norma

    Have you considered the impact taking a year off after senior year has on a senior’s ability to obtain scholarships? Most scholarships are for students who are just coming out of high school. There are few opportunities for students who have been out for what ever reason.

    I think this program is marvelous, and my daughter studied abroad in her high school junior year and after entering college.

  • Kym

    Amigos de las Americas is a great program providing immersion experiences for high school students in Latin America. The speakers is correct that the volunteers benefit greatly from their experience and living with host families. Amigos model uses partnership with a local, on the ground NGO, “peer” engagement and focusing programming on youth empowerment.

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