A mutual friend introduced me to Heather Newgen when Heather was moving to New York from LA last year.
After trading several messages, we met for the first time in New Orleans — I was there on our semi-sabbatical and Heather was shooting a TV pilot she’s pitching called The Voluntourist.
I was impressed by her passion for this new project — and even more so when we went to a screening of her pilot and she told the story of how she got to where she is today.
Heather was kind enough to share that story as a guest post for Newvine Growing.
If you’d like to learn more about The Voluntourist, visit her website. She’s also seeking donations, as she’s bootstrapping thousands of dollars in upfront costs — like an upcoming trip to Kenya — with only her credit card and belief in her idea.
Today I enjoy a successful career as an entertainment journalist and on-camera interviewer, but my life could have turned out very differently. One person took the time to encourage and inspire me and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.
Volunteering became my passion because I know what it’s like to be alone and need help, but not have anyone to be there for you. On my own pretty much since 14, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble — a lot of trouble. I had no direction and never thought I’d amount to anything. I honestly didn’t care.
I barely graduated high school. In fact, I rarely went to high school. Partying was more important. My teachers knew the situation, so they pushed me through the system, but I really didn’t deserve to graduate.
Once I was out of school, I never thought about my future or doing anything but hanging out. I really didn’t know there was anything more to life than living in a small town and working at whatever you could find a job doing. I didn’t have dreams or goals and I was O.K. with that. As long as I could party I didn’t need anything else.
One day a girl I knew told me I should take a class with her at her junior college. Out of nowhere, she said it was time I stopped living my life the way I was and to get it together. That really hit me! It was nice to see that someone cared enough about me.
I reluctantly went. I wasn’t sure what to expect or even what classes to take since I had no idea what I wanted to do.
I took random courses just to see what I liked and I met an amazing English professor who saw my potential. She recognized that nobody had worked with me before and she took an interest in me. I took five classes with her and she got me to levels I never thought I could achieve. She was a huge support system and she worked with me for four years. The hard work paid off.
I was accepted into USC and majored in broadcast journalism. I couldn’t believe I was getting into such an incredible school, especially considering my background. I came from nothing and never thought I’d do anything but work odd jobs so it was thrilling for people to see how much my life was changing.
The challenge wasn’t over, though. I had to put myself through school by waiting tables every weekend and working on campus in the library. I also went home every weekend to take care of my Grams. It was intense, but I felt so accomplished and it was all because one person took the time to help me.
Fast forward to now: I’m an entertainment reporter and I’ve interviewed the top A-list actors and filmmakers in Hollywood. I have traveled the world for my career, doing things many people only dream of doing. But surprisingly, I still often felt empty and alone – I’m not really that “Hollywood” girl at heart.
I had begun to feel sorry for myself because I wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore. My job no longer made me happy and I was living in a false reality. On the outside, it looked like I had everything, but the truth was I had nothing.
I became annoyed with myself. My life wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be, but I knew from experience I have the ability to change that. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and became determined to help others who really needed it.
So I went to Morocco and worked in an orphanage with disabled children. It was my first volunteering trip and it was so rewarding that I now do a different country every year.
My next trip was to India and that wasn’t such an amazing experience. In fact, it was anything but. I realized quickly that not every volunteer program was the same, but it was too late. I was in India and had signed up with an organization that was corrupt. The program manager was taking volunteer’s money and keeping it for himself so he and his family could live in luxury.
Our program fee was supposed to go towards housing and meals, but he kept most of it and spent the least amount of money he could on the volunteers. We were put in a cockroach-infested basement and sent to one of the worst parts of India to volunteer alone. It was terrifying — so much so that several girls changed their flights and went home early.
I was scared, but more pissed off than anything. So I decided to do something about it. I’m creating a show titled The Voluntourist.
I’m going to travel to various cities and countries while trying out different volunteer programs. I’m going to show you exactly how to volunteer and which organizations to go with. In addition, I will take you on weekend adventures so let you know exactly where to go and what to do on your time off from working.
My biggest goal is to share with people what being a ‘Voluntourist’ is really like, doing what it takes to help someone in need but also making time to open yourself up to everything other parts of the world can offer. I know firsthand how much it means for someone to make an effort to change your life, and I can tell you how much making that effort will change your life, too.
Blogging disclosure: I am rarely unbiased about anything I write about. Think of Newvine Growing as my version of Oprah’s favorite things. I make no representation of impartiality — I would love for Heather to sell five seasons to the Travel Channel — but I have no financial interest or other involvement in The Voluntourist. I’m just asking you to donate because Heather’s doing a cool passion project here.