Kris Depowski O'Donnell
Kris is an education and communications professional, teaching at the University at Buffalo and working as a field producer providing medical reports to more than 100 television stations around the country. She loves making a difference through international volunteer work.
Why did you choose this program?
Globe Aware offered a program that helps better the lives of captive Asian elephants. With this program, unlike some others in Thailand, the elephants' welfare is front and center at all times.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
Globe Aware provided detailed descriptions of the project and outlined what volunteers should expect and bring with them to Thailand. They suggested hotels for me in Bangkok that were close to the meet up point and assisted with a reservation that I had an issue with. I took care of finding a hotel near the airport (flights from the U.S. almost always land around midnight and depart in the early morning hours).
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
For this particular program, there wasn't much I didn't already know prior to arriving in Thailand because Globe Aware prepared me so well and I did a lot of research on my own as well. For friends who are thinking of going abroad I tell them GO! You will never regret it as long as you have an open mind, a sense of adventure (and humor) and love learning new things.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
The days at Surin Project are well-coordinated. Everyone has breakfast together around 7 am. The food is freshly prepared and delicious. I'm vegan and they could easily accommodate my needs. We then have a work project for about an hour or so, which includes cleaning enclosures and chopping sugar cane. Then we walk the elephants in the forest for an hour or so. Then there's a break for lunch at a local eatery, then an afternoon work project followed by another walk in the forest where the elephants get to hang out with their friends and enjoy being elephants. We end the day by having dinner together. On two of the days, we walk the elephants to the river to bathe them, one of the highlights of the experience.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
I have traveled extensively through Europe, mainly on my own, so my fears were relatively limited. I think the biggest reservation I had was that I had never been to Asia (and was traveling on my own). I was also traveling to a very remote part of Thailand to work in a village with no air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, showers or hot water.
The way I overcame the fear is by reading as much information as I could ahead of time about what to expect and making sure I had the proper travel shots, medication, etc. Knowledge is power.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with prospective volunteers?
There is one important thing to know and it's something I've been asked about. Travelers should educate themselves about the plight of captive elephants in Thailand. It is a sobering and complicated issue. Elephants in Surin Project are allowed off chains for at least 5 hours a day and mahouts are not allowed to use the bullhook. But the Project exists alongside elephants who are used for the local circus. These elephants are chained 24 hours a day (when they are not performing), sometimes by all four feet.
It's difficult emotionally at times to see them in these conditions but I remind myself (and tell prospective volunteers) that it's critical the Project continue to receive support from volunteers. It shows the local people that tourists want to see elephants treated humanely and interacting with each other in a natural environment. I have taken part in Surin Project every year for the last three years so there isn't anything I would have done differently.
I can say that on the first day of my first visit (in 2014) I sat on my bed, on the floor, in 100 degree heat, with only a fan and mosquito netting and thought 'what in the world have I just done!?! I can't survive this!' Fortunately, that feeling lasted less than 24 hours. Then I was hooked. But it was briefly terrifying!