For the next couple of weeks, I will be volunteering at an orphanage in the projects of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Had you asked me about volunteering abroad eight months ago, when I was still nursing a broken foot and daydreaming about my next travel destination, I would have quickly dismissed the thought. Admittedly, I’ve never been too interested in volunteering abroad – my travels have revolved exclusively around visiting friends and family or my own personal pleasure. Yet here I am, cramming two week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on and trying to sweep aside the bubbling excitement and anticipation that continuously distracts me from my day-to-day.
Angkor Wat at sunrise
So how did I end up with a pending volunteer trip to Southeast Asia? Some may call it coincidences, but I don’t believe in those. This trip materialized due to a series of serendipitously connected events involving tweeting out my blog, having it randomly be acknowledged by a stranger, and reaching out to said stranger to thank him for the support. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this stranger was Leon Legothesis, an author and TV host who traveled the world on a yellow motorcycle with no money, surviving purely on the kindness of others. When Leon told me about the Human Interaction Project – a foundation that sends young people to volunteer abroad with the goal of connecting strangers through kindness – something inside of me clicked. This trip was a missing piece of a puzzle I’ve been deciphering for quite a while. It is no secret that I long to travel the world. And, though I keep expressing a yearning to connect people in whatever it is that I do, I have yet to understand how my travels can do so. Unequivocally, I knew that I needed to apply.
Truth be told, traveling for kindness puts me completely out of my comfort zone. Of course I value kindness. Of course I want to help people. But it is one thing to say and believe, and wholly another to put it into practice. Since learning about this project, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about kindness and the role it has played in my life. Even though kindness can ask a lot of the giver and guarantees nothing in return, it is always worth it because the smallest of acts have the power to change someone’s life. I can vouch for that, because kindness changed mine.
I learned a profound lesson in kindness by coming from a place that I initially thought was devoid of it. I didn’t have the best of childhoods – my stepfather walked out on my family when I was a teenager, pitting me in a position where I was working 30+ hour weeks while balancing a full time student schedule to help my mother support us. Needless to say, this experience had some residual effects. At a young age, I was jaded, suspicious of everyone’s intentions, and resistant to letting anyone into my life. Between my attitude and my environment, I had plenty of excuses to sabotage my future. I did not believe that kindness was something that could be easily given or received. Yet somehow, every time I was tempted to head down a negligent path, someone’s kindness intervened. It took me a long time to realize that from as far back as I can remember, my life has been peppered with instances of people going out of their way to help me, even when I didn’t feel I deserved it.
After years of resisting, kindness broke me. Eventually, it just flooded in. Today I am a completely different person, happy and with the means to pursue my passions. I’ve found myself repeatedly asking, why? Why, despite my pessimistic teenage outlook and seemingly unfortunate circumstances, did others – both loved ones and strangers – try to help me all along? To this day, I do not fully understand why I’ve been given so much kindness in my life. What I do know is that I’ve consistently found myself catapulted into positions of incredible opportunity because people believed in me. Everyone is given the tools to succeed in life, but not everyone is given the opportunity. Without the people who rallied to push me forward, I wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out of a difficult life situation. Every one of us has the potential to do something great – sometimes all it takes is the knowledge that someone out there is invested in your future, for no reason other than that person believing in you.
The fascinating power of receiving kindness is that eventually, it will seep into you. And when it does, it becomes like a muscle: it is not a trait that necessarily comes effortlessly or naturally, but rather one that is strengthened through nurture and exercise, and atrophies if neglected. Practicing kindness is a challenge that requires diligence and repetition. What makes it worth it for me is combatting a mentality that I was once very familiar with – that of skepticism and resistance to the goodwill of others – by opening someone’s mind to the realization that we live in a world where people want to help us. More so than any of us realizes, we are surrounded by strangers who are willing to give kindness without any caveats or expectations. I want to be that stranger.
I will be honest. My excitement pre-Cambodia is slightly stifled by apprehension. I am about to embark on a trip where I will be expected to make a big impact on someone else’s life. I’m not exaggerating – the point of the Human Interaction Project is to quite literally change someone else’s life, and myself in the process. No pressure, right?
I am excited because for the first time, I’m not traveling just for me. I will be going into a country I’ve never visited, that I have zero connections to, in an area I would have never been able to wander into unaccompanied. I get to help people by contributing to their livelihood. Not in the “do you a favor” or “scratch your back and you’ll eventually scratch mine” kind of way, but through work that will (I hope) actually generate meaningful impact in their daily lives.
It’s not just rainbow and butterflies, though. I am also scared. Kindness comes with a cost, and that cost is opening your heart to vulnerability. Allowing yourself to feel sadness and empathy for others; understanding the breadth of their pain, the misfortune of their circumstance. Dropping the mask, as Leon would say. As someone who has always ruthlessly protected her feelings, I wonder what will happen when I decide to drop that mask. My trepidations are only heightened by the shame of recognizing that this is completely a first world problem, because at the end of the day, I get to go back to my comfortable home in New York City while the people I meet must continue to face the realities of their struggles.
In these moments of insecurity, I remember – I get to go on this trip because someone believed in me. Someone who is good and kind and genuinely wants to change the world has, simply by connecting with me, forced me to think about kindness in a way that I haven’t done before. I was handed a plane ticket, a mission, and a possibility, all because someone believed I could make a difference. The truth is, I’m as scared as I am excited, because my upcoming volunteer work in Cambodia will inevitably ask me to consciously let people (strangers, nevertheless!) into my heart. And that’s never an easy thing. But, I have a feeling it’s just the change I need.