Use your vacation to do good in exotic locations


Kids on Computers is planning a trip to the Huajuapan de Leon, Mexico area in June. If you can, please join us! If you can’t, please consider donating to help the labs we’ll be working on.

Most of us will be going down for a week or so. There are travel stipends available for those willing to spend a month helping in the area.

What could I possibly do to help? I ask myself this every time I go. Especially since I usually drag my kids along. Here are the things you can help with.

  1. Technical skills. If you can plug in computers, troubleshoot basic hardware problems, install Linux on lots of different kinds of old hardware, figure out why a mouse isn’t working, any of those things, you’ll be very much appreciated! We have to have at least one Linux guru on every trip. The rest of us follow directions. Upgrading 20 old computers in a school with no internet can be a long, manual process; it goes faster with more hands.
  2. Language skills. This trip is to Mexico. A large majority of the volunteers will not speak fluent Spanish. None of the kids and teachers in these schools will speak much English. If you can help translate, that’s a huge benefit. Not just when setting up the labs but when figuring out where to get supplies or going out for dinner. And if you don’t know the Spanish words for technical gadgets, it’s sometimes a really funny experience, especially when you’re not sure what you are trying to describe might look like. I’d never used ethernet crimpers until a trip to Mexico.
  3. Teaching skills. When we teach a class, we like to have lots of helpers. Helpers to show people how a mouse works, how to double click and how to change windows. Often neither the kids nor the teachers have used a mouse or a keyboard before, much less opened an app or saved a file.
  4. Logistical, herding cat skills. When you have 4 or 5 schools you are trying to work with, all spread out in different towns and 8 or 10 volunteers with different skills and you need a Spanish speaker with each group and someone who can figure out why the network is down in this school and someone who can update Linux on 4 laptops in another school … you need some logistical people. People who can help track who is where and what needs to be done.
  5. Documentation and note taking. We have all sorts of things we should and try to document. What computers are in which school? What’s installed on them? What finally worked to get Linux installed on that computer that had no USB drive? What should we bring next time? What worked in that class? What didn’t? What apps did the kids use the most? Every evening we try to spend some time working on this, but having someone dedicated to documenting what we’ve done, what works and what still needs to be done, who could do it while we are at the schools, would be great.
  6. Errand runner, make things out of paper clips person. We are always missing something, short something, need something. We soldered ethernet cables at one school! After stringing them across a road!

Besides just logistical efforts, there’s the benefit to you and what your support brings to the area.

  1. Support local efforts. I recently read this effort that said international volunteers are often just in the way. I agree, that sometimes local resources exist and if they are there, you should use them. In our case, I think there are very few people with technical skills in the little towns we go to. We do try to pull in local university students and technical people whenever possible. And we have to go back frequently, because going once, setting things up and then leaving isn’t helpful. They get new teachers, forget passwords, computers break. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
    With the travel grants, we hope to get local university students from nearby towns involved. But the other major benefit of bringing in outside people is that you get local people excited about it.When we set up 18 de Marzo, because we were there, we were able to bring in local media, the local school district, the mayor … because we visited the school, the school got more interest from local supporters.
    Unfortunately, they still don’t have internet access nor an accessible high school. But they do have a super involved parent organization and a full time computer teacher funded by student families!
  2. Spread the word. If you go on vacation to Huajuapan de Leon, you’re going to have the experience of a life time. And you are going to share your pictures and stories with all your family and friends. A few of them may join us next time. Or donate. Or just be more aware of the world.
  3. Spread your horizons. I take my kids so that they can see that kids have fun without Xboxes. They have a blast playing soccer and making new friends. And, yes, they did find the only arcade machine within miles. In the back corner of a little tiny store tucked away on a side street.

What to expect?

  1. It’s slow. Most of us are used to scheduling every minute of our time and being as efficient as possible. It doesn’t work that way on a volunteer trip to rural Mexico. Just getting there takes a while. We fly down to Oaxaca, spend the night. Walk across town the next day, get a van ride, drive through the mountains, walk to our hotel. Work doesn’t start until 2-3 days after you leave home!
  2. It’s not perfect. This is a volunteer run trip. And each trip presents different challenges. And not everyone has phones. Almost no one has internet. Getting from school to school means coordinating rides, arriving to find out they weren’t ready for you or the teachers were on strike, figuring out what equipment you need, what some of you can do while a couple of people drive all the way back to town to buy as much ethernet cable as they can, waiting around while your most seasoned Linux guru figures out why the installs aren’t working, … if you enjoy the people, what you are trying to do and use the time to get to know each other and the schools better, it’s great. If you came just to do technical work, it’d be frustrating.
  3. Friendly people. The other volunteers and especially the teachers, families and students are awesome. Everyone is appreciative, helpful and outgoing. Just super. The parents usually feed us. Lots of people give us rides. Some people open up their houses. My kids make friends everywhere. Terrific people.
  4. Not completely modernized. We stay in Huajuapan which is a decent sized small city. It’s got lots of restaurants and a few hotels. Grocery stores and mobile phone shops. And the water is often not hot. And the sidewalks can prove challenging. You might end up riding in the back of a pickup truck. Or walking a long ways in very hot, humid weather. On the good side, there’s no McDonalds and all the little shops are very interesting and very reasonable.
  5. Beautiful. The area around Huajuapan de Leon is gorgeous mountainous country side.
  6. Pretty inexpensive. Airfare is a bit pricey but after that it’s not expensive. Hotel rooms run $10-40/night. Dinners might run $3-15/person depending on what you decide to eat. So you can stay there pretty inexpensively. The van ride to Huajuapan is so cheap, I can’t figure out how the price of the ride from Oaxaca can cover gas. I spent a good hour of the trip doing math in my head and I have no idea how they are making a profit. Cabs around town are just $1-2, but cabs out to the other towns where are labs are can be quite pricey. (The cab drivers are friendly though. Avni and I took a cab out to Saucitlan de Morelos once and the cab driver was not just worried about leaving us there when we couldn’t find our friends, he was worried about the whole town because they had no phones and no cell service!)

So should you come? If any of that sounds fun, absolutely. We need you and you’ll be doing good in the world while having fun. If you can’t, no worries. If possible, contribute to some cause to make the world a better place. You can donate to Kids on Computers! 🙂

Are volunteers more dedicated than paid staff?

As many of you know I’m fascinated not only with how the open source software model works but how companies are unintentionally influencing the model by injecting money. I’ve shared my research and thoughts in my “Would you do it again for free?” talk.

So when I saw Volunteer staff are surprisingly committed, I was not surprised to see that volunteers were more committed on average than paid staff. I was surprised to see that the study authors decided that it:

could have to do with the fact the volunteers
tended to be older. “Older people are motivated to volunteer because of
their wish to fulfil an obligation or commitment to society,”

They forgot a few things like:

  • Were the paid staff volunteers before they got paid? Or were they recruited to the organization with a paycheck?
  • Do the volunteers get more (or less) say in what they work on?
  • Are the work conditions and hours the same for volunteers and paid staff?
  • Do they do the same types of tasks?

…and so on. I would bet that not all of the paid staff were volunteers first, and that while volunteers are drawn to an organization because they believe in the cause, paid staff are drawn because of the cause and the paycheck. Some might do it more for the cause and others more for the paycheck, but it’s not so clearly for the cause like the volunteers.

(Disclaimer: I was not intrigued enough to pay $28 to read the original article, so I just read summaries and abstracts.)

Bill Gates’ thoughts on why we don’t give more to charity: we don’t know what to do

Bill Gates’ graduation speech at Harvard is well worth reading.  He uses it as a call to arms.  As his mother said, "From those to whom much is given, much is expected."  We all need to work on the world’s inequalities.  In his opinion the biggest obstacle to giving is complexity, "To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact" and we can’t see the solution and when we do we don’t measure the impact.  It’s not that we don’t want to help the dying children of the world – we just don’t know how to save them.

Market forces aren’t going to solve the world’s inequalities – we have to do it.

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it.   We asked:  "How could the world let these children die?"

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not
reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not
subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their
fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

His advice is to spend a few hours every week learning about a problem, meeting others who want to fix it and working on solutions.  So – go save the world! 

Why don’t people give more to charities? Part II: Values

Yesterday I wrote about how one of the reasons people don’t give more to charities is because they don’t know the people personally.  I think another very real reason is that it’s hard to give aid to people whose values don’t match yours.  I know people that could very much use some help – or at least help with the things I value – but I wouldn’t help them because I think they are spending what they have on things that aren’t important.  For example, here are some stories from individuals I know personally:

  • Can’t afford insurance but bought a $225 chihuahua puppy,
  • Can’t afford to send their kids to preschool but pays twice the market rate in rent to live in a really nice place,
  • Complains about not having enough money for baby formula but owns a big screen TV,
  • Talks about how they can’t afford a car while holding a Starbucks cup.

(And don’t tell me they deserve all the nice things!  I’m sure they do but when you have to make trade-offs because you don’t have enough money, do you choose a TV or food for your baby?)  I want to give them financial education but who’s to say that my values are better than theirs?

P.S.  I should also note that none of the above people asked me for any money!  So this is all a theoretical debate.

Why don’t people give more to charities?

This quote from Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, really hit home for me.

The obstacle is that poverty is often not personal. If your next-door neighbor’s child was dying and you
could save her for $100, you wouldn’t think twice. But a child 10,000 miles
away whom you have never met, that’s just different.
About 29,000 kids die every day of preventable causes–29,000! These kids
have names and faces, hopes and dreams. Their parents love them as much as
we love our kids. We’ve got to make poverty personal.

"It’s not personal" is the reason people don’t give more and it’s probably the reason they are racist or demeaning to minorities as well.  I know that having friends from many walks of life has really helped me understand the world better.

Is life too easy in the Peace Corps?

My cousin Kelsi is in the Peace Corps and people have been giving her a hard time that she’s got it easy.  She’s really been enjoying the Domican Republic and writing some great stories about the country and the people there.  Having been in third world countries and a lot of Carribean countries, I don’t think it she has it easy.  I’m really glad she’s enjoying the good parts.  In her email today she shared one of the negative sides for the first time:

The first thing I saw when I got to my house in La Cienega was the hugest rat I
had ever seen being chased by the family dog.  I about started freaking out on
the spot, but since it was the family´s first impression of me, I held it
together as much as I could.  They reassure me that there are no rats in the
house, but I have the dog and cat sleep in my room just in case.

It reminded me of a hotel in Honduras where I was sitting at the pool and two rats tried to climb up on my chair.  I pulled up my feet and let my friend continue to sleep in the other lounger.  What else could you do?  I certainly wasn’t going to go anywhere while they were there!  I wish I’d had a dog!

Atheists, agnostics & charity

I just discovered that "three of the four greatest American philanthropists have been atheists or agnostics" thanks to the New York Times.  They are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Andrew Carnegie.  John D. Rockefeller is the fourth and he’s the exception.

This struck me for two reasons.  One, I have Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion on my reading list because it has gotten so much publicity.  He argues there is no god and the reason I thought of it just now is because I listened to a radio show where he explains why atheists still contribute to charity.  I can’t off the top of my head recreate his argument for you, but once I’ve read the book, I’ll post again.  (The other reason I have Richard Dawkin’s book on my reading list is because I really like his book The Selfish Gene.  In it he argues that our bodies are just vessels for our genes and that evolution is all about propogating our genes – our intelligence, our humor, our survival rate is all related to how well our individual genes do not our whole being.  Until I read it I’d always thought all of our characteristics had evolved to make our whole being successful.  Thinking about it at the gene level turned everything upside down and inside out.)

The second reason this struck me is that I always have a hard time explaining why I volunteer.  I don’t volunteer because I think I’m supposed to do so for religious reasons.  I don’t volunteer because that’s what I think I’m supposed to for any reason.  I volunteer because I enjoy it.  I enjoy three things about volunteering:

  • learning new things.  I have learned how to train dogs, understand the battered woman’s mindset, build houses (sort of), etc.
  • meeting new people.  Other than work, family and classes, this is one of the main ways I meet people.
  • helping people.  What I can’t explain is why I enjoy helping people.  Why does it make me feel good to make somebody else feel good? 

I believe helping people makes everyone feel good even though a lot of people don’t know it!  I remember leaving a bar late one night with a friend and there was a guy in the parking lot with a car that obviously had problems.  I asked him if he needed a push start and when he did, I made my friend help.  My friend was amazed.  "You are so good!"  I told him at the time that once you’ve owned a car that needs push starting a lot you tend to notice people that need a push start.  But now that I think about it, I don’t think he realized that he felt good because he’d helped.  I can tell you all the times I’ve push started a stranger’s car (a lot!) and each time I felt really good afterwards. (I can also tell you all the times a complete stranger has stopped to help me with something and that made me feel really good too – even when I didn’t think I needed the help.)

But I still can’t tell you why it makes me feel good to help someone who needs it.