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Santa Monicans’ Global Connections in South Africa:

Nine-year-old Austin Vesiliza has lived in Santa Monica all his life. But he doesn’t feel like he resides just here anymore, since his experience with Global Buddies – a new program that promotes cultural exchange and volunteer travel for families to South Africa, Uganda, and other countries.

“I live there and here. My South African Global Buddies are my friends everyday, and I am theirs. Our lives have differences but our hopes are the same. We are growing up together,” said Austin.

The idea of a volunteer vacation – combining travel with the chance to give something back to communities visited – is one of the fastest growing trends in the tourism industry. But only a handful of groups welcome school-age children.

Global Buddies is designed especially for kids. Developed jointly by UCLA’s Global Center for Children and Families and UTU Social Ventures, the program invites families with children ages 7 – 17 to join trips where they participate with local families in activities that nurture an emerging sense of global citizenship.

Global Buddies aims to provide travelers and locals alike with an opportunity to forge authentic connections that change how both groups see their world. These trips combine time in the community with volunteer service projects, environmental education, and excursions to explore the region’s heritage and scenic spots – all undertaken together with youth and adults from the host organization.

What makes the program unique, according to Executive Director Diane Flannery, is the way it provides a transformative global experience at such a young age. “When children encounter the joy and caring that permeate these communities, which have so little in the way of material possessions, their perspective changes,” Flannery says. “They participate as equals with their local “buddies” and discover what a difference they can make in the world together – and they absorb this in a way that becomes reflexive by the time they are adults.”

Since 2007, Global Buddies has taken two groups to South Africa, where the program is hosted by Women for Peace, a nonprofit organization in Mfuleni township near Cape Town. Austin and his parents, long-time Santa Monica residents Cynthia Sherrill and Rinaldo Vesiliza, went on both trips, and have already signed up for a third Global Buddies expedition next summer.

Sherrill relates how her family’s experience in South Africa has become the undercurrent of their existence: “In the township, we saw that we were all one. Taking care of one another and sharing what we have are the most important things by far.”

Global Buddies is expanding in 2009, with a new program planned for Uganda. Flannery expects both trips to include additional travelers from Santa Monica, and emphasizes that adults without children are just as welcome as families.

“We feel we offer a unique opportunity to really get to know a country’s inhabitants in a short period,” Flannery says. “We work with our partners in South Africa and Uganda all year long – design the programs together, to be sure everyone benefits – which creates a level of trust that translates into the warmest possible welcome.”

For Austin and many of the other youngsters who have traveled with Global Buddies, it’s the simple things that make these trips so rewarding. Describing his time in South Africa, Austin says, “I discovered you could play sports even if you don’t have the right equipment. In South Africa they don’t go out to buy toys, they make it on their own. I never realized you could take any little thing and make a toy.”

Registration for Global Buddies’ 2009 trips is still open, with a few spaces available for both South Africa and Uganda.

For more information, visit globalbuddies.net, call Diane Flannery at the Global Center for Children and Families at 310.794.8117 or email DFLannery@mednet.ucla.edu.

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