meet kathryn: chicago voluntour entrepreneur

Kathryn Pisco, Unearth the World

“One of my favorite quotes from The Alchemist is like ‘When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’ That’s how I felt in hindsight, looking back on the process of prepping for the trip.”

If you live in a state of perma-wanderlust as badly as Alysse and I do, you are totally going to empathize with the range of emotions I experienced while putting this story together: longing, joy, wonder, jealousy, conviction, a little more jealousy. I can’t actually complain—I’ve been lucky enough to plant my own two little feet on insanely breathtaking places, from Ireland last winter with our good friend Alayna to South Africa in college for a three-week study abroad. And Alysse may work for a nonprofit now, but she’s had some super cool travel experiences herself, from visiting a friend in China to doing yoga in Costa Rica this March. For 2016, I am planning/hoping/dying to finally take the trip I’ve been dreaming about and visit India for a couple weeks in the winter—then go to Peru later in the summer! If it all works out, I think it might be my most epic year yet. BUT I don’t think I can even dream of approaching Kathryn Pisco’s passport. She visited 20 countries in nine months!

New Zealand, Australia, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Ghana, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Ukraine, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Croatia, Turkey

Who actually does that, right? Kathryn Pisco—that’s who! And her husband, Mike. They did the thing that most people hate them for only dream of doing—quit their jobs on the same day and took off on an adventure that forever changed the course of their life. The even cooler part is that it wasn’t just purely for entertainment. While diving into cultures all over the globe, they participated in five long-term volunteer projects that inspired them to start their own business: Unearth the World, an international volunteer placement company.

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as I just made it sound. Both Kathryn and Mike had really traditional corporate sales jobs at a medical device company. At first, the “taking a year off to travel” idea was just something they talked about every once in a while—not too serious. Then, after a chance encounter with another business professional who was taking a year to travel with his wife and kids, they started to realize it was more possible than they thought. And the planning began.

Kathryn Pisco: It seemed so drastic. We decided at that point to plan as if we were going and see—we could always not go.

People with Panache: Um… it’s kind of impossible to plan a crazy cool trip like that and then not go.

Kathryn Pisco, Unearth the World

Kathryn and monkey Pushkar in India. She says she’d love to revisit India one day—maybe we could go at the same time! I would love to meet Pushkar.

KP: Exactly! It hooked us. We couldn’t not do it. Plus everything fell into place. We were able to find someone to rent our apartment, left on great terms with our jobs, and got tons of support from family and friends.

PWP: I think so many people can totally relate to dreaming of taking a long period of time to travel. But what made you guys decide to add in the volunteering part of it?

KP: 1. We had grown up doing service through school and church and loved it. We always saw it as the most selfish and unselfish thing you can do. It just became a part of me. 2. More importantly, we saw it as an opportunity to travel in a different way—not necessarily as a tourist. Our hope was to really connect with the local communities, get to know people and see it really authentically.

PWP: Were you both happy you decided to travel with service as a priority?

KP: The volunteer projects were the most impactful part of the entire trip. Volunteer travel is now considered one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, and a ton of companies have sprung up to facilitate it internationally. We learned that some do it better than others. What we saw that wasn’t being done well was no financial transparency, very little training for volunteers before the project and very little consideration for the local community. It was like “Let’s just do a project so Westerners can come over and repaint the same wall in the library year after year,” and it’s sad. So as we were falling in love with this kind of travel, we were at our last stop in Istanbul, drinking tea by the Bosphorus, thinking about what we’re going to do with our lives when we get home. We decided right there that if one of us could be gainfully employed so we can eat and that sort of thing, the other person could start this business.

I always say I lucked out because Mike got a job offer like two weeks later.

PWP: I bet he was a mixture of happy and envious. And now it’s been just a little over a year since you launched in April 2014! What has it been like finding projects to partner with?

Kathryn Pisco, People with Panache

Kathryn did a variety of service projects while growing up in Columbus, Ohio. “I did a teen help line. They could call and talk about anything from homework to issues going on at home and I really liked it, just connecting with other people and helping in some way.”

KP: It’s a long process. We currently have five partners, and we’ll keep it there for a while mainly because one of the things we saw with some other companies that had dozens of partners was that they really don’t have a true understanding of what’s going on in the local community. Our goal is to form reciprocal partnerships that are mutually beneficial for us and the international nonprofits.

PWP: What are the things you look for in a partner?

KP: First and foremost, it has to be an international organization that is solving some sort of community problem within the community. It’s not us coming in and starting a project. Then we must know the money is going directly to them and not a hotel chain in the area. They also have to have a long-term plan; volunteers need to play a role in their mission but not BE the mission. Our hope is that they’re going to accomplish something and it’d be sustainable.

PWP: Where are the projects you’re working with now?

KP: Our first two projects from Africa, Ghana and Zambia, were the last two projects we did on our trip, so we started off with them. Since forming the business, we’ve added three partners: one in Peru and two in Nicaragua.

PWP: It’s even more compelling knowing you actually volunteered there and know what it’s like.

KP: Creating well-vetted, impactful opportunities is the most important part of what we offer. If our projects are awesome, we are going to be awesome. If they’re happy, then we’re going to be happy.

“I love seeing the world, but really it’s about the people that I meet there.”

PWP: What’s the placement aspect like with the actual volunteers?

KP: Part of our process that makes us really different is we do a ton of in depth pre-trip support and training and then post-trip coaching. It’s important to talk about it afterward and figure out how to incorporate it into your normal life. Sometimes people just want to know how to articulate their experience, but many times people want to get involved doing the same type of work locally. So I’m always on the lookout for non-profits doing similar work in the States so I can refer people.

PWP: That sounds so mind-opening and meaningful, so even people who don’t want to quit their jobs can have life-changing volunteer travel experiences. What do you love about giving your time to help others?

Kathryn Pisco, People with Panache

Kathryn in a classroom in Nepal. She recommends staying longer than a week on an international volunteer project—the average is one month. “It’s a better experience for you and it’s more valuable for the partner. Think about having to organize and train someone. If they only stay for three days, it would take longer to train them than it would to have them work. In a developing country, it can take three days just to adjust, let alone be helpful!”

KP: Even in grade school, it wasn’t necessarily about what service it was; it was connecting with the people there. I’m a pretty social person and what I learned time and time again is that even though school or church would say you’re going to help these people, I would always end up learning way more from them. I loved the personal interaction and the community it built.

PWP: And speaking of building relationships, what was it like having only Mike with you for 9 months?

KP: We had to learn how to communicate in a different way because if you think about it, if you have a problem in your day-to-day life, you probably don’t always go to your boyfriend. You call your mom or a girlfriend or whatever. But when you’re a 15-hour time change away from those people with no wi-fi, he’s going to have to deal. We had to be there for each other in different ways and that took some learning.

PWP: I feel like that must have been great for your relationship! What makes you happiest?

KP: Relationships. People. Travel is my No. 1 passion in life that’s not a person, because I love seeing the world, but really it’s about the people that I meet there. I value my relationships with friends and family most in life, so that’s what brings me the most joy and happiness too. Things I learned traveling abroad: The happiest people that I met prioritized relationships over money. You’re a sum of all of your different experiences.

[Photos by Kate and courtesy of Kathryn Pisco.]

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