How A Trip Mishap Led To The Birth Of A Positive Impact Travel Organization

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The Samoa coastline

In 2011, Ryan Brennell left everything he knew behind to go to New Zealand and find a way to play pro soccer. Months later, Ryan’s dream hit a dead end, and he found himself in a foreign country, desperate for a place to live. After responding to a Help Wanted sign with a sport fishing yacht, he got a job the next morning–and eventually set forth on an entirely different path, one focused on positive impact travel. Read on to learn where Ryan’s journey took him, way beyond sailing.

1. What inspired you to want to travel, and what made you choose New Zealand?

My little sister inspired me to travel. She took a year off after high school to live in Argentina and came back a brand new person. She was confident and compassionate, and had a new perspective and a breadth of wisdom that shined through. When she got back, I had just finished my third year stumbling through college playing soccer and I thought “What do I have to lose? I’ll go to New Zealand and try to play soccer there. Worst case, I’ll come home a better person with some great stories.” I found an exchange program so I could continue with college, bought a ticket, and was on my way.

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Ryan Brennell

2. Your trip to New Zealand didn’t quite pan out the way you were expecting. What happened, and how did you transform a negative experience into a positive one?

My dream to play pro soccer hit a wall pretty quickly. My apartment lease ended, and I was all out of cash. Thankfully, I’d spent my whole life trying things, failing, and then using those failures as opportunities to do something better (I call this turning chicken shit into chicken salad). I was walking down the marina after a night out and saw a sign for a sport fishing boat with an email. I got home, sent an email proposing I’d work for free if they’d let me sleep on the boat, and woke up the next morning with a job as a deckhand.

Thankfully, I’d spent my whole life trying things, failing, and then using those failures as… Click To Tweet

3. Your trip to New Zealand ultimately led to some time in Samoa staying with locals and learning about lives after the tsunami disaster in 2009. How did this impact you?

Some friends and I booked a trip to Samoa. On the second night, there was a tsunami warning. If I’m remembering correctly, there was an earthquake just 50 miles off the shore. If a tsunami had come in, we’d have all been goners. Knowing that was a sobering experience, but it was nothing compared to what we saw when we got to the safe-house they took us to. We saw the same people who were serving us breakfast sleeping on the tombs of the loved-ones they lost in 2009. That hit us all right in the feelers. We spent that night getting to know the people who had welcomed us as their guests, and we spent the rest of that week helping out any way we could.

When I flew to Samoa, I was a lost 23 year old, standing still in life without any inkling of direction. My time staying with the community at Taufua Beach Fales set my life on a path. I wanted more experiences like this, so I started Gladitood. It’s a website that would help communities and grassroots organizations raise money and rally volunteers around their projects, so travelers like us can find places around the world where they can make a difference.

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Making friends in Samoa

4. What is Gladitood, how does it work and how do you choose what projects to get involved with?

Gladitood is a site for nonprofits and social good initiatives to raise money and rally volunteers around their projects, so people like us can find causes around the world where we can make a difference. For the most part, we only work with established organizations, but we don’t pick and choose causes. If you’re solving a real problem and improving the world, we want to help.

We’re just getting started, and we’ve already helped kids go to school in India, pregnant girls get mentorship and job training in Kenya, and helped women start their own business in Tanzania. We’ve helped a whole community get access to clean water in The Dominican Republic, and helped get medical care to the most remote parts of Nicaragua. Most of the organizations we work with are headquartered here in the US, and we have a good mix of organizations who do work locally and abroad.

If you’re solving a real problem and improving the world, this #impacttravel organization want… Click To Tweet

5. For those looking to make a positive impact on the places they visit, what advice would you give?

You must listen first. So often, we view the troubles facing a community through our own personal lens, but to truly understand a problem and find a sustainable solution, we need to see it through the community’s lens and listen to their ideas. More often than not, they know exactly what they need, they just need help executing.

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A baby pig in Samoa

6. For those looking to volunteer or work abroad to help the local population, what tips would you give for choosing a responsible placement where they can make the greatest impact?

Think about your skills and what you know. If you’ve never built a birdhouse, you’ve probably got no business building a home.

I always believe it’s best to speak directly to the organization or community you’re going to be volunteering with, so I try to stay away from most placement programs. Often times, those programs are going to charge ridiculous fees anyway. A great, affordable resource in addition to Gladitood is Grassroots Volunteering, where you can get in touch directly with the organization.

It’s best to speak directly to the organization or community you’re going to be volunteering… Click To Tweet

7. For those looking to start their own nonprofit/charitable organization, what advice would you give?

Do your research. Are there any organizations already serving the cause you’re so passionate about? Does it make sense to partner with them?

If you decide to start your own organization, listen to the people you’re working to help. There’s a story that always sticks out in my mind about an organization that was building houses in Haiti after the earthquake. They never stopped to talk to the community, and just got started building the houses. Once the houses were built, the Haitians had no idea how to use the gadgets they were built with, and preferred to sleep in their self-built shacks.

One organization that has done an incredible job listening to and working with a community is Mavuno. After being told countless times by NGOs and politicians that the communities in Eastern Congo were helpless, they sat down with the leaders, listened to their problems and ideas, and let the community take ownership of their solutions. In just a year, they’ve seen unprecedented success in Eastern Congo. This is how powerful listening can be.

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Local fishermen in Samoa

8. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned, both from traveling and starting Gladitood?

I think one lesson that we all know too well is that you’ve got to be ready to roll with the punches. Nothing ever goes as planned, so it’s important to be flexible and patient.

Traveling and starting Gladitood has also taught me that we are infinitely more capable than we give ourselves credit for. There are few things more empowering than really being out in the world, in unfamiliar territory, and having to figure it all out on your own. And as I’m saying this, I’m reminding myself how often I was helped by strangers because I approached them with a smile. If you need your faith in humanity restored, go travel.

There are few things more empowering than really being out in the world, in unfamiliar… Click To Tweet

9. What have been the biggest challenges of visiting communities in need, and how have you overcome them?

I think the biggest challenge is to not let the enormity of the problems facing the world overwhelm us. There have been more than a few times I’ve felt helpless, like whatever I did, it wouldn’t even make a dent. In those moments, I think of the ripple effect. Getting one woman access to clean water has not improved one life, it has improved a whole family of lives. Giving one person sustainable employment can improve a community exponentially.

When we realize that each individual life is infinitely valuable, we’ll do whatever it takes to improve that life, and then they will be empowered to do the rest. I believe that’s how our problems will be solved – by changing one life at a time, and empowering them to do the same.

*All photos are courtesy of Ryan Brennell, co-founder and CEO of  Gladitood. Featured image courtesy of Anthony DELANOIX/Unsplash, edited by Jessie on a Journey. 

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