It was March 8, and all outgoing flights from Aspen/Pitkin County Airport had been grounded due to inclement weather. That didn’t stop Cathy Massey from convincing her husband to drive her to Denver International Airport so she could catch her flight to Quito, Ecuador.
“I called United I don’t know how many times, and then my husband agreed to take me to Denver because I’m like, ‘Hell or high water, I am doing this trip,’” she laughed.
Massey doesn’t speak Spanish, and she’d never been to South America. An account manager for Medtronic selling service agreements to hospitals, she doesn’t exactly have a background in construction, either. But that, too, didn’t stop her from traveling with 16 of her colleagues to help tile and paint a preschool.
“When we got there, they didn’t think we could achieve what we set out to do, which was to paint the entire outside of the school [and] tile the entire first level,” she said. “The walls, we had to grout it and tile it — and we also helped with the kids. A lot of these kids, they don’t know if they get a second meal of the day, so we were just shoving food down their throats all the time.”
To facilitate the trip, Medtronic partners with Global Volunteers, a Minnesota-based nonprofit granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations that organizes short-term volunteer opportunities.
“It’s not a difficult matter to put something like this together,” said Michelle Gran, Global Volunteers co-founder and senior vice president. “In some cases, we can offer opportunities for people to use their professional skills — whether they’re in the medical field or teachers — and in other cases, if they’re more interested in focusing on the capacity building in the community.”
Gran co-founded Global Volunteers with her husband in 1984 after honeymooning in Guatemala on what she described as a “human economic development project.” The trip landed them on the front page of the B section in a Minneapolis newspaper.
“The resulting interest that friends and colleagues and social associates had given us led my husband, who’s really the visionary in the family, to believe that there was a true interest in doing something like this: using your vacation to really make a difference,” she said.
Since then, their vision has permeated mainstream and corporate cultures. Medtronic, for example, boasts “global corporate citizenship” in the middle of its website homepage. Massey, who herself boasts a 14-year tenure with the company, can attest to those convictions.
“One of the things Medtronic is known for is their philanthropy,” she said. “And every dollar I donate, Medtronic matches it dollar for dollar because that’s our way of giving back. That’s one of my favorite things about working for Medtronic.”
In addition to the hands-on work at the school, Massey and her colleagues dedicated every morning to some emotional heavy lifting, as well.
“Every day, we did a journal and a quote for the day,” she said. “So we woke up listening to somebody’s journal and quote for the day, and then we reflected at the end of the day. Our goals are really just to give instead of receive. By the end of the last day, we were just all in tears.”
Massey’s experience was a corporate-sponsored one, but Gran emphasized that anyone can participate in a project through Global Volunteers.
“The bulk of our volunteer service is just individuals: families, couples,” she said. “We assemble teams of volunteers. You don’t even have to have a traveling companion. No barrier of entry here!”
And it’s an incredibly rewarding way to travel, Massey noted. Months after her Ecuador trip, she is already looking forward to her next one.
“We’re talking about going to Poland, outside of Krakaw,” she said. “That’s been on my list because my heritage is Jewish. I’d like to go back and pay homage to those that were lost.”