A big blue tour bus with a capacity for some 60 people waited outside the pier for us — all five of us. We were three passengers, one crew member and one host. We were all volunteers for Crystal Cruises‘ You Care, We Care voluntourism excursion to the Feed Nova Scotia food bank in Halifax.
On the bus a guide waited to take us — passengers on Crystal Symphony — to the food bank. “Bless you,” she said as we boarded, her response to the fact we were all giving up some of our cruise vacation time to do volunteer work.
Launched in 2010, Crystal’s You Care, We Care program is designed to give passengers a chance to give more than just tourist dollars spent in retail shops to the communities they visit. On every sailing, one free hands-on voluntourism excursion is offered. Opportunities range from helping orphans with their homework in South Africa or playing a game of snooker with troubled teens in Dublin to removing invasive weeds from Oahu’s coastal ecosystem or planting trees to restore native forests in New Zealand.
In the case, Feed Nova Scotia is a private charity that helps feed hungry people throughout the province by collecting and distributing food to more than 150 member food banks and meal programs.
This was crew member Christopher’s fourth visit to the food bank. According to him, our group was a bit smaller than others he’d been a part of. Past visits had had six to eight participants.
Not all voluntourism excursions are so small, though. According to a dinner tablemate who did a You Care, We Care excursion in Cartagena, Colombia, his group comprised about 30 people. But that excursion put passengers directly in touch with the people they were helping. Ours would not.
Ours also required a bit more elbow grease. We would, I’d been told when I signed up at the excursion desk, be packing boxes of food for distribution … not actually dishing out food to people.
On the way to the food bank, our guide pointed out buildings of historical import and told us a bit about Halifax; sort of a free city tour thrown in, though we didn’t pass any of the major tourist attractions.
A 10-minute bus ride later, we arrived at the facility, a nondescript building with a sign in front that read, “Plant a row of vegetables, then donate them to the food bank.”
Bill welcomed us into the warehouse and pointed to several stacks of cardboard boxes, explaining our jobs to us. First, we had to unpack boxes full of food and household items, sort them into several categories, filling boxes with sorted items as we worked. Once we had a full box of a sorted item, like a box of grains or a box of condiments, we had to weigh it, label it and put it on a pallet for shipping.
Most of the boxes were heavy and dusty, and I ended up on the “wrong” side of the sorting table. My job was to lift the boxes onto the sorting table. I was, after all, the youngest volunteer aside from Christopher, who’d gone off with some of the workers he knew from previous visits to work at a separate station. I then unpacked the boxes, while our guide and Margie, a passenger from Tennessee, sorted the items into their appropriate categories.
As we sorted, I was shocked to discover how much junk food (sorted as “snack” food) was donated. In the two hours we were there, we unpacked and repacked more soda, chocolate bars (Lindt chocolate!) and other varied snack items than any other category. I don’t think we ever filled a single canned meat or dairy box, but the hungry people of Nova Scotia certainly won’t be wanting for Coke.
We didn’t talk too much as we worked, other than to consult on whether a six-pack of peaches was real fruit or a snack item, or which box olive oil should go in (condiments or baking). But later, as we waited, hot and sweaty, for our bus to take us back to Crystal Symphony I asked Margie and her husband Phil why they had decided to volunteer.
“We didn’t really like any of the other excursions,” he said. “But back home, we believe strongly in giving back to our community.”
So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out one of these options. On previous Crystal sailings they’d seen the voluntourism offerings but had never tried them.
Would he do it again? “No promises,” he said. It would depend on what the other excursion offerings were.
I never got the chance to ask Christopher why he was spending his valuable free time volunteering. He didn’t work with us at our sorting table and I never saw him on the ship again (he worked backstage as a stage hand in the Galaxy Lounge). But every time the ship visited Halifax, he was front and center to volunteer at the food bank, so clearly it was important to him.
After two hours of lifting heavy boxes, standing around a sorting table and going through hundreds of food and household items, my lower back ached and my hands were filthy. I was ready to return to the ship. Bill thanked us enthusiastically for our time, and though I was never going to get to see the end result of my work, I left feeling I had at least done a little something for someone else.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. And that is a promise.
Read about what other lines are doing to promote voluntourism.
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