GeoVisions Blog

World War I Volunteers And Beyond

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Nov 11, 2010

Happy Veteran's Day!

This extremely short Blog post celebrates our Veterans, those who served and those who served and volunteered.

Veterans Day, here in the U.S., was established to commemorate the end of World War I.

AFS World War I VolunteersI served at AFS (The American Field Service) years ago and had the opportunity to interview many World War II AFS Volunteers, who basically drove ambulances on the field of war and I was able to walk part of the route the ambulances took from the field to the hospitals in Paris.  Of course, AFS was born from the volunteers of World War I.  I did a piece on those volunteers in 2007.  You can read it here.

My father died a few years ago, but not before he told me about being on a liberation team in Germany and the two camps he helped liberate near the end of World War II.  It took him almost 60 years to be able to talk about that experience.  On my desk, here in my office, I have a black and white photo of my Dad in his uniform and it is almost a habit that when I have to make a big decision, I look over at his photo for some strength...or guidance.

Our CEO, Kevin Morgan, wrote today on his Facebook page that "when my Dad died last year, I discovered he had been awarded the Bronze Star.  I got to read the citation describing him carrying wounded soldiers across the line of fire in Luxembourg. So, thanks to all the Veterans, who hopefully lead us to some kind of lasting peace!"

I think I'm happy ending this post right here.

Tags: AFS, History of Volunteering

Volunteer Abroad: An Exchange of Ideas and People

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Sun, Oct 25, 2009

Shaw once wrote, "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

There are more organizations offering Voluntourism this year than last.  And more colleges and universities are providing their own volunteer experiences too.  That's always a good thing.  When I travel, I do my best to visit other organizations offering volunteer abroad or teach abroad programs.  And when I'm really stumped about what to do, how to respond to a crisis, I have found some them to be the best people to talk with about the problem.

The problem I have is with people wanting to exchange an apple with me rather than an idea.  I only really need one apple a day "to keep the doctor away" but I really need a lot of ideas.

If you type "exchanging ideas" in the little Google search bar on your Internet browser, two things come to mind.  1) You have a lot of time on your hands and 2) 5,440,000 results.  People are exchanging ideas on software features, hearing loss, medicine, art, and I even noticed someone called exchanging ideas a "circulation of knowledge."  If you type in "exchanging apples" a) you REALLY have too much time on your hands and b) most of the entries are either math related for grade school children or you'd better have an Apple computer.  But I guess, therein lies the point of Shaw's quote.

If, when we experience the miracle of spending time together we exchange computers or we learn that if Dick has one apple and Jane has one apple and after they trade apples, how many apples do Dick and Jane have?...we really don't walk away with much.  Unless I give you my old Mac Classic and you give me a new iMac.  But I doubt Shaw had any of that in mind.

Peace Corps LogoIn 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps with three simple goals:

Help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women.
Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

AFS Ambulance DriverIn 1914,  A. Piatt Andrew organized the American Field Service (AFS) whose mission was to transport wounded French soldiers.  By 1917, AFS had grown to 2,500 volunteers who had carried more than 500,000 wounded to hospitals.  127 AFS volunteers would lose their lives.

I have doubts that President Kennedy or Mr. Andrew were very keen on exchanging apples of any kind.  They exchanged ideas with others and you can see, here, only a couple of results.  They also believed in exchanging people, who could exchange THEIR ideas.  From there, the exchange never ends.

We continue to get testimonials from our volunteers who are exchanging ideas, in many cases exchanging sweat and tears, and whose lives and hearts have been changed forever and have changed the hearts and minds of their host communities forever.  It typifies what President Kennedy and Mr. Andrew knew would happen.  We are proud that you are a part of that.

I started this post with a quote.  I suppose I should end with one.  How 'bout Emerson.  "It is one of the most beautiful compensations in life...we can never help another without helping ourselves."

How many ideas have you shared today?  How many apples?

Tags: Reasons To Volunteer Abroad, AFS, Volunteering Abroad, Randy LeGrant, History of Volunteering

What's Wrong With Conversation Corps?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Wed, Oct 14, 2009

As the Executive Director of GeoVisions, founders of The Conversation Corps, I'm able to see all the good aspects of a program as well as those that aren't working.  If some of my Blog posts are going to dish it out to others, I should also dish it out right back at me.

AFS Ambulance driver.Three years ago GeoVisions took the Gateway, international educational exchange, and created a Gatejumper, live with a family and teach them English.  We named it Conversation Corps.  We took an old concept, started in 1915 by AFS Volunteer Ambulance Drivers, and gave it a little twist.  As long as you're living with the family, help them learn your language.  Oddly enough, that was not the focus of an exchange.  In most cases, it still isn't.

GeoVisions has sent almost 1000 tutors abroad as members of The Conversation Corps in the three years we have operated the program in 18 different countries.  In those three years and looking at all those volunteers headed abroad, we have come to the conclusion that you have to be a very special person to make the program work.  There can be instances where this isn't a great program for everyone.

Let me explain.

GeoVisions doesn't sit here with thousands of families overseas waiting on tutors with baited breath.  We look for those families much like a high-end restaurant cooks every tasty morsel just for you and to your liking.  We let you take a pass on a family if you don't think they are a good match.  But sometimes the stars just don't align.  Our volunteers want a mom, a dad, a dog, 2 children (one boy and one girl) aged 6-9, a private bedroom, a private bathroom, hoops on the garage, and situated across the street from transport into the city. Oh yes....wireless.  We can't forget wireless.  And obviously the family needs to speak at least SOME English.

GeoVisions' Conversation Corps logo.Sometimes, because of the time of year or the merit of a tutor's application packet, we have a family comprised of one parent, one child (a boy aged 17) a private bedroom with a shared bath, no garage (never mind the hoops) a 30 minute walk to a metro for a 1 hour ride into the city (if you are very lucky) and no wireless, but a 5 minute walk to the Internet Cafe. No English spoken here.

Get the picture?

The Conversation Corps has had 3 years of success because we know there are families out there who just want a border...they don't really want to learn English.  So we look for families who really want a tutor...they want to improve their conversational English.  They have to be interviewed and screened.  They aren't "on call."  And tutors need to feel comfortable with the family and the family needs to feel comfortable with the tutor.

Conversation Corps member tutoring a host mom.Sometimes that perfect match is in the that's why we build in weekends for tutors to travel.  And we encourage tutors NOT to stay 3 months...take time for yourself and enjoy the independent travel.

But it can get boring out on the olive farm in Spain or Italy.  It can get boring even an hour from a city but with poor transportation to the hot spots.  Especially if your host family prefers that you don't come in late.

People used to the big city, spotlights, being able to very easily come and go and come in at the wee hours...we sometimes have issues with them.  And we have found this program is not for them. 

What's wrong with Conversation Corps?  It requires a perfect match. Tutors work hard to deliver a compelling application packet.  They sometimes don't consider that the host family has a choice of tutors. And we find host families don't always inquire about the needs of the tutor.  Even when they email back and forth before the program begins.  Everyone (tutor and host family) considers their own needs first.  And at the end of the program we hope that is no longer the least that is why we designed the program the way it is.

What's wrong with Conversation Corps?  When all the stars and planets align...nothing.  What makes the perfect match?  When the tutor realizes they are there to volunteer.  And when they have such a love of people and their home language that they want to share. Farm, small town or city. Everyone wants to learn. Everyone wants to share their lives.  THAT can actually create the perfect match.

Tags: AFS, Conversation Corps

Teach Abroad! Stepping Stones Keep on Rolling

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Sun, Sep 13, 2009

This Blog Post first appeared on the GeoVisions site June 2007 as a "Monthly Letter From Our Exec."  It is being recycled here on this Blog.


At St. John's University in Queens, NY today, AFS is doing a re-entry orientation for 40 teachers returning to Thailand and China who have been here in the U.S. for an academic year.  They depart this weekend for home and family...and to pick up where they left off in their old school.

Re-entry orientation assists visiting teachers prepare for their return home by providing them an opportunity to discuss with other visiting teachers the differences in culture, education, and students they encountered over the course of the school year.  Going home after teaching in the U.S. one year is as stressful as the day they arrived in the U.S., about a year ago.

AFS Returning TeachersMany teachers I spoke to from China have learned to be more assertive.  Impolite in China, it is almost a rite of passage in the U.S. and they had to learn how to stand their ground in the U.S. schools.  But in this orientation they are reminded that they probably want to tone that down when they meet with their Principal!  And that is actually a topic during the orientation-how to bring home the new ideas, creativity, excitement and new teaching methods, then implement them in a way that meets cultural norms and expectations back home, blending the best of both worlds.

At one of the tables I met 3 teachers from China.  One left a 4-year-old daughter and a husband.  Another left her 15-year-old daughter and husband.  Grandpa has been taking care of the 15 year old this entire academic year.  The third teacher left her husband and 18-year-old son behind for the year.  All 3 of these children celebrated birthdays since their mothers left China to teach here in the U.S.

At another table I met 2 teachers from Thailand.  One left a fiancé and the other a very ill mother, who had to be taken care of by this teacher's 3 sisters.  The two teachers from Thailand will arrive home on Sunday and will take up their full time teaching duties at their home school on Monday.  Unbelievable.

More AFS returning teachers.I was caught unawares with my emotions.  I was in a room of 40 teachers who had traveled here a year ago.  Could I have been able to leave my children for a year, like many of these teachers?  Technology helps with Skype phones and web cams.  But I cannot imagine not feeling my six-year-old's skin, the softness of his hair, his arms around my neck, helping with his homework, putting a band aid on his knee, watching him play with his friends, washing his clothes.  But many of these 40 teachers did that, and more.  I was in awe.

One of the volunteers who started volunteering with AFS in 1960 uses an exercise when the teachers first come to the U.S.  She and her grandchildren collect stones.  They clean them and lacquer them.  She places the stones in a basket.  At orientation she asks the teachers to find a stone they like and to then study it.  A bit later she asks the teachers to return their stone to the basket.  Adele explains to the teachers, using metaphors, that each stone is different in texture, color, and size.

A bit later, each teacher is blindfolded and asked to dig in the basket to retrieve their original stone.  They feel all of the stones and try to pull out the stone they originally had picked.

I mention this only because 90% of the teachers today brought their stones with them to the re-entry orientation.  They had kept these stones for 10-months.  As they spent the year living with families, teaching, learning about different communities, teaching far-different students than they were used to, they used the stones as their own metaphor.  Today they told Adele about how the stones had (realistically and metaphorically) pulled them through difficult times and gave them strength.

A stone Alex gave to me when she was 9.I came back to my office at the end of the day so energized.  I sat down at my desk and ironically; I noticed a stone that I keep on my desk.  It's a flat stone, about 3 inches by 2 inches.  It's grey with a white stripe through the middle.  There is a red heart drawn on one side and a yellow flower on the flip side.  When my oldest daughter was 7 she gave me that stone when she visited me in New Hampshire.  14 years later, it is still with me and never leaves my desk.

And so now it is my turn:

Dear Adele.  I am safely home after a remarkable day.  I am changed in the last 12 hours.  Again.  I am holding my own stone, which I have held for 14 years.  As a former teacher, and having spent 31 years doing this work, I wanted to write to you and underscore what you already know so well.  Teachers who inspire realize there will always be rocks in the road ahead of us.  They will be stumbling blocks or stepping-stones; it all depends on how we use them.  Stepping-stones allow us to keep going.  I spent a day with 40 stepping-stones, and I am better for it.  Thank you.

Closing with an old adage about stones, I hope each of you gathers no moss.  Here's to keep on rolling...

Randy LeGrant

Tags: Teach Abroad, AFS, Randy LeGrant

The Responsibility Of Language-A Reason For Conversation Corps

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Sun, Aug 30, 2009
Picture of the definition of language in a dictionary.I've just returned from a week in Paris, where I met with our Paris office staff and five of our partners who recruit and screen families for our Conversation Corps-France program.

On this trip, I invited my 11 year old daughter, Molly.  This was her first trip to France.  She has an email-pal in Lille, France named Alexandra and we had arranged for the two girls to meet.

As I sat in Alexandra's living room chatting with her mother, Molly and Alexandra ate Crepes in the kitchen and then took scooters down to the neighborhood park.  Molly will learn French this year in school and Alexandra is currently learning English.

At one point, Alexandra asked Molly about her hobbies.  Molly had to "act out" about her drama club.  When Molly asked Alexandra about the things she likes to do, Molly didn't understand the French and Alexandra didn't know the words in English.  So Alexandra drew a picture in the sand with a stick showing a boat with sails and then drew a picture of a horse with a triangle for a girl rider.  And the two girls laughed and scootered off as if they could communicate with words and had been BFF.

Since I began this work in 1975, these types of experiences are what keep me going to work each day.  After 34 years, I still get out of bed each morning excited about my work and the opportunities GeoVisions provides people all around the globe.  My daughter's life will never be the same.  Her first trip to France, her train ride to Lille, eating Crepes in a friend's home and running in a park made her realize learning French this year in school is not a subject she will have to take.  Instead, it is a responsibility that in it's own way might bring the world closer.  Realizing that, learning French will take on an importance she would have never known without this trip.

My meetings were very positive and I am excited about the tutoring experiences in France for 2010.  And I'm very happy Molly and I took a Saturday and traveled to Lille to meet Molly's email-pal.  It reminds me to be open to new experiences each day.  It would have been easy to fly home on Saturday or to stay in Paris for the day.  But, heading for Lille on a Saturday made lasting changes for my daughter and for her friend, Alexandra.  And even for Molly's Dad.  It's good work we do.

If you happen to read this post, and something similar has happened to you, I hope you will use the comment section and let us know.  It is really a great reminder that the AFS slogan, "Changing the world one person at a time" is right on target.

Live the journey,


Tags: AFS, Conversation Corps, Randy LeGrant

Volunteer Abroad-It's A Beginning

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Feb 19, 2007

Terry Strickland and Randy LeGrant in front of Hemingway's house in Key West.In last month’s letter, I mentioned Ernest Hemingway and his volunteer work on the front line as a volunteer ambulance driver with AFS.  Little did I know I would be standing in front on his home in Key West, FL during a visit there earlier this month.

This seems to be the way of life in general and a nuance of travel specifically.  Everything builds upon the other.  Everyone and everything is connected.  If you travel, and then venture out to meet the locals, you understand that quickly.

Our Search Engine Optimizer lives in Key West.  Being a resident of six years, walking around town with Terry is a treat.  Everyone knows him.  (Including the guides at Hemingway’s house.)  It is that feeling of “belonging” you get from being in one place long enough for the “locals” to trust you and seeing the smile on their face when you walk in their shop or meet them on the street.

I’m told we receive what we give.  It comes as no surprise then, when volunteering in a community or teaching in a local school, we receive the local’s trust, friendship, and admiration.  And if you’re rubbing elbows with the locals, you find out all kinds of things you’ll never know from the seat of a tour bus.


The Turtle Hospital in Key West, Fl.

For example, The Turtle Hospital, near Key West, is a rescue/rehabilitation center started in 1986 by Richie Moretti who came to Florida to retire after owning one of the country’s largest Volkswagen repair garages. The once topless dance bar “Fanny’s” is now the only state certified veterinary hospital for sea turtles in the world. In the spotless stainless steel equipped rooms Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are x-rayed, receive flipper amputations due to fishing line or rope entanglements, are treated for intestinal impactions (plastic bags, e.g.) and laser operated for viral tumors or fibropapilloma. A rehabilitation center on the bayfront contains a 100,000 gallon salt water tidal pool and 19 individual tanks. Since their inception the hospital has released over 750 sea turtles. Once a food source in the Keys, the endangered animals are protected. And they would love a few volunteers!

I discovered that the end of US 1 is just the beginning.  70 miles west of Key West, out over the emerad waters of the Gulf of Mexico lies America’s most inaccessible National Park - The Dry Tortugas - Fort Jefferson on Garden Key.  Volunteers are welcome!

The Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas National Park consists of seven tiny islands composed of coral reefs, white sandy beaches and the surrounding tropical waters. The area is known for its famous bird and marine life, and its legends of pirates and sunken gold, and sheer unspoiled beauty. Ft. Jefferson, the largest of the 19th century American coastal forts is a central feature. When Ponce De Leon originally discovered these islands (in 1513) he named them "Las Tortugas" (meaning "the turtles" in Spanish) because of the abundance of sea turtles that provisioned his ships with fresh meat, but there was no fresh water - the Tortugas were dry.

Had I flown to Key West and headed for a hotel, then learned what I could from a tour on the Conch Train, then “shopped ‘til I dropped” on Duvol Street, I would not have learned about some great places to volunteer and I would not have met the locals in such a way that I can go back and pick up a conversation.

My days at AFS introduced me to volunteer ambulance drivers.  That led me to discover Hemingway was a driver.  Watching a movie with my son last month led to my February letter metioning AFS and Hemingway.  This month I was having my photo taken in front of Hemingway’s house.  I’m not sure what April will hold, as this puzzle gets pieced together one by one, but whatever it is, it’s certain to be no coincidence!

Inspire the world, Inspire Yourself,


Randy LeGrant
Executive Director

Tags: Reasons To Volunteer Abroad, AFS, Randy LeGrant

We Share AFS Roots...We All Do

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Thu, Feb 15, 2007

Last night I watched Fly Boys, a movie about U.S. volunteers traveling to France in 1914 to take part in World War I.  It’s a true story about the legendary Lafayette Escadrille, and tells the tale of America’s first fighter pilots.  The Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron (or Escadrille in French) of volunteer Americans established for active fighter pilot service on the Western Front.  Fittingly, the squadron was named after the Frenchman who served alongside George Washington.

Watching the movie, I slowly recalled that the U.S. did not even enter World War I until 1917.  For three years, American volunteers poured into France.

A group of AFS Ambulance drivers in WWI in France.Another volunteer organization operating in France during World War I was AFS—The American Field Service.  When you hear “AFS” today, you may know them as an international youth exchange organization, which is still active in more than 75 countries and is one of the largest volunteer based organization in the world…second only to the American Red Cross.  Back in World War I, you would have known them as volunteer ambulance drivers, recruited from colleges and universities around the U.S. to drive Ford Model T ambulances along the front lines, picking up dead and wounded soldiers.  One AFS driver wrote, “Though I did not want to kill I was willing to take a chance of being killed.”
Our global volunteer program here at GeoVisions has its roots in The American Field Service—the volunteer ambulance corps.  In fact, all global volunteer programs operating today owe gratitude to the AFS volunteer ambulance drivers in World War I.

I am lucky enough to have interviewed many former AFS volunteer drivers during my service there in 1992 and 1993.  Headquartered at an ancient château at 21 rue Raynouard in the Parisian suburb of Passy, the American Field Service had more than 800 volunteer ambulance drivers.

If you walk with me today in Passy, we would find an exclusive area of Paris, located in the 15th arrondissement on the Right Bank.  It is traditionally home to many of the city's wealthiest residents.  For Americans, we know that area best for being the home of Benjamin Franklin for the nine years that he lived in France during the American Revolutionary War.

A World War I AFS recruitment poster.Today at GeoVisions (and other such organizations), when we recruit college students to study or volunteer abroad, we go to colleges and put up posters and speak with students and their study abroad advisors.  From 1914-1917 the AFS actively recruited its drivers from the campuses of American colleges and universities with individual ambulance units made up exclusively of drivers from particular universities. There were Harvard units and Yale units among the hundreds of others, and they all worked without pay.  Ambulance driving required the volunteers to serve under extremely dangerous missions on the Western Front. In World War I alone there were 151 drivers with the AFS who were killed (21 of them from Harvard) and a number of others earned the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor for their heroic actions.

Some of the AFS ambulance drivers who later became famous around the world were Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Sidney Howard, Maurice Ravel, Walt Disney and Ray Kroc.  And as I mention Hemingway, I am reminded that the primary character in A Farewell to Arms, like Hemingway himself, is wounded while serving as an ambulance driver in Italy and falls in love with his nurse in the hospital.  Several AFS drivers I interviewed met their future spouses in hospitals around Europe.

What would bring these young volunteers to the Front in World War I?  The automobile was so new that many of the young men had to learn to drive before they could serve.   Adventure, patriotism, doing what's right, signing up because others in the same school class signed up, and wanting to participate in what was of significance to the world at the time were all reasons for joining.

Here at GeoVisions, we hear many of the same reasons our volunteers want to help in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Peru, Argentina, Costa Rica, Namibia and other countries.

An AFS ambulance driver in WWI.As soon as World War I was over, returning drivers established homestay exchanges between American and French students hoping the cultural awareness would put an end to war.  But, when World War II broke out, AFS again provided ambulance service in France and North Africa.

I am proud to have been a very small part of the AFS and to have had the honor of meeting and interviewing two of the World War I and several of the World War II drivers.  You can imagine how proud I am of what we are doing at GeoVisions International with our global work and service programs.  But nothing makes me more proud than to see our volunteers abroad, walking the talk, rolling up their sleeves and making such a positive difference in the world.

One of the first published accounts of the American Field Service was written by Leslie Buswell in 1916 in a 155-page book…more a collection of letters sent from France.  I have included a photograph of Mr. Buswell below.  Quoting from Mr. Buswell’s book is a fitting ending to my monthly letter.

Leslie Buswell, AFS driver.“So the days pass ----Now, with the evening, comes, as often, a grateful time of stillness. I like to watch from my window the shadows lengthen as the sun leaves to them their part. A little later, when they have wholly obscured all detail, man will perhaps furtively begin some move to make the night unlovely --- but for the moment there is rest.”

“Sometimes --- when the day's work is done --- and there is a quiet hour here, I can understand now the lure of peace --- and so I am doubly grateful that those of you for whom I care most have chosen to work --- rather than to forget the struggle here. When I come back to you some day, we shall feel a greater peace and sympathy for knowing that with the same eagerness, if in different ways, we have tried to serve and to save those men whose heroism makes our best effort seem a very small thing.”

Leslie Buswell, 1916.  With the American Field Service in France.

Inspire the world, Inspire Yourself,

Randy LeGrant
Executive Director

Tags: AFS, Randy LeGrant, History of Volunteering