Amy Valdes could continue living Santa Monica, climbing the career ladder and enjoying a measure of stability.
Or she could ditch it all to satisfy her longtime desire to travel abroad and help people in underserved communities.
“If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it,” she said.
Valdes, a 22-year-old Santa Monica High School alumna, has weighed the options and made up her mind.
She’ll soon be quitting her job as a customer service supervisor at Whole Foods and heading to Thailand for a two-week volunteering program that will kick off what she anticipates to be six months of personal growth, new cultural experiences and unforeseen challenges.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “It’s still a little scary. I’m leaving my family and my home and my boyfriend. I’m going on a whim. But I feel like it’s something I need to do.”
Valdes is part of a millennial generation that has shown an increased interest in volunteerism, according to several studies. Statistics from the Corporation for National and Community Service show that 20.5 percent of Californians ages 20-24 donated their time to nonprofit causes in 2013.
Valdes is going to Thailand on a program run by International Volunteer HQ, a New Zealand-based organization that places volunteers in countries around the world. The group has coordinated volunteer trips for more than 40,000 people in more than 30 countries since its inception in 2007.
Valdes said she knows there are numerous volunteer opportunities in the U.S. but that she wanted to go somewhere where her impact would be even more powerful.
She is planning to participate in an outdoor work program in the Chiang Rai province, where she could be asked to help with building schools and other facilities, improving residents’ access to clean water, developing gardens and maintaining roads, among other tasks. She likely will also have a chance to work on a construction project while living with a local family.
Valdes expects the Thailand trip to be a starting point for ensuing volunteer opportunities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal and India. She’s set six months as a target length but could stay longer or shorter depending on her financial situation.
Valdes has set up a crowd-funding account through the FundMyTravel website to raise money for her volunteering expedition.
“The decision to volunteer abroad is not an easy one to make,” IVHQ program manager Margarete Lua said, “and Amy is working hard to ensure she can raise sufficient funds for her program fees, airfares, travel insurance and vaccinations.”
Valdes started working soon after graduating from Samohi in 2011, but she kept thoughts of traveling in her mind the whole time. Through her job at Whole Foods she learned about the Whole Planet Foundation, which aims to alleviate poverty through micro-loan assistance.
She actually considered volunteering abroad through the Whole Foods foundation, but she wanted to have an extended period of time to immerse herself in the communities.
“It’s definitely going to be a culture shock,” Valdes said. “But that’s what I’m looking for. It’s just getting used to doing things a different way and respecting other people’s cultures and values. … I want to be in the raw, real places and get to know the people and have an appreciation for the things I have.”
Valdes said she’s interested in starting her own business when she returns home. With the photographs she’s planning to take during her travels, she eventually wants to make shirts and match the clothing sales with microloans for the communities where the photos were taken.
“This is my starting step,” she said. “I’m leaving everything, and I’ll figure it out when I get back.”
Valdes said she knows there will be language barriers and other challenges but that she’s looking forward to a new chapter away from her comfort zone.
“I think a lot of my friends are like, ‘Wow, you’re actually doing it,’” she said. “With my family, at first they were like ‘Good for you,’ and now they’re like, ‘Holy [cow], you’re going to be traveling by yourself.’ There are mixed feelings of excitement and fear. My boyfriend is sad and worried. But they’ve all encouraged me to do it. They all know how much I want it.”