The organization was founded in 2012 by Catherine Greenberg after she had volunteered abroad with her children. She was overcome by the impact that this type of global service had on not only the communities being helped, but also on her children. With that, she wanted to help other students gain a global perspective while doing sustainable good.
Over the years, Bright Light has grown to not only organize student volunteer abroad groups, but corporate groups as well.
The right-hand to Greenberg, Amanda Mansfield—the Director of Volunteer Coordinator and Program Development—told me more about what Bright Light does in this exclusive Q&A interview.
Where do you go, and who do you serve?
We currently have programs in 9 countries. The countries we serve are Albania, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, and Peru.
We are also developing programs for Thailand and Vietnam.
Each destination is different. Here is the type of service work we can accommodate in each country:
- Albania – Renovation of a school in the village of Trebisht, English language classes, and helping to socialize adults and children with Down’s Syndrome
- Cambodia – Building sustainable compost toilets, renovation of local schools, and English language classes
- Costa Rica – Work on a permaculture farm, reforestation, and hosting a health clinic and wellness course for the BriBri Village
- Cuba – Work on an organic vegetable farm in Viñales and donations of school supplies and farm equipment
- Ecuador – Renovation of a daycare in the city of Quito, reforestation, and conservation efforts on the Galapagos Islands
- Ghana – Construction of latrines and wells, book donations, and assisting local doctors in clinics giving various treatments
- Greece – Reforestation projects, animal welfare projects, and archeological projects
- Guatemala – Renovation of local schools and community buildings in San Pedro and English language classes
- Peru – Renovation of local schools and dormitories in Cusco and English language classes
- Thailand – We are working with a solar company to install solar lighting and make donations of inflatable solar lanterns
- Vietnam – We will be repairing bridges and renovating village schools
In all of our program destinations, volunteers have free time and cultural activities that are planned so they can fully immerse themselves in the local culture.
What are specific examples of your impact—on the volunteers AND the people you serve?
In Cuba, we have strengthened relations between Cuba and the United States by serving as ambassadors of our country. By working side-by-side with the Cuban farmers, they have grown to trust and respect our volunteers, and thereby have grown to trust and respect Americans. We are able to save these hard-working organic farmers a week’s worth of work in four days of volunteering.
During our many visits to Cuba, we have become friends with one particular farmer, named Eduardo Perez. Eduardo is such a lovable soul. He has been learning English, since we have been volunteering at the farm he works at, in an effort to improve his life and the lives of his children.
Each time we visit, Eduardo makes it a point to show us how much his English has improved since the last time we were there. This new-found skill has helped Eduardo in his career, as he is now able to give tours of the farm to visitors. He loves telling tourists about each vegetable they grow, the animals they utilize, and how they keep pests and weeds away organically. His story is truly an inspiration to everyone who travels with us.
We’re currently raising funds to buy Eduardo Perez a motorcycle so that he can have reliable transportation to and from work, saving him countless hours spent commuting, and ensuring that he gets to enjoy what precious free time he has with his wife and two sons at home.
(See here if interested in donating: https://www.gofundme.com/a-motorcycle-for-eduardo.)
In Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, we are helping to conserve one of the most beautiful places in the world. We also are making an impact on the people there as well. During our last program to Ecuador, by us being there, we inspired a group of local soccer instructors to donate one-year scholarships to two deserving young men who were from a very poor region and showed great skill during a soccer game we played with the children of the facility we were serving.
Nearly all of the groups we are traveling with currently are repeat volunteers with our organization. Our volunteers’ lives are forever impacted by the work they do with Bright Light Volunteers. They are able to experience cultures they might never have got the opportunity to experience before. This leaves them with a deeper understanding of their place in the world and what they can do to help others in need.
Tell me about your partnership with Bethel University. How did that come about and why?
Stacie Freeman, professor and director of global studies at Bethel University, first met Catherine Greenberg during a service learning program to Costa Rica in 2011. Catherine was the group’s trip leader for this program, which was coordinated by another non-profit organization. When Catherine left the organization, Stacie continued planning global service programs for her students on her own to Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia.
In early 2016, Stacie saw on Twitter that Catherine had just returned from an exploratory program in Cuba with Bright Light Volunteers. At this time, Cuba was still tricky to get in to. Stacie was determined to take her students to Cuba, though, and Alternative Spring Break 2016 was planned with Bright Light Volunteers, and it was a success for the students and the Cuban people they worked with. During this time, Stacie was also hired to teach Sociology 111 in her area’s high schools in Tennessee for Bethel University’s Dual Enrollment Program.
As her high school students were seeing pictures of her travels on social media, Stacie was asked to put together a trip for Dresden High School students, in Dresden, TN. This program was approved for dual enrollment as well, and students earned 3 hours course credit online, as they learned about the history and culture of their program’s destination.
Dresden High School students embarked for Cuba in June 2016, and again for Peru in May 2017, both times earning college credit, which is not only unique, but also looks very impressive on college applications.
In July 2017, students from Texas and New Jersey will be travelling to Cuba, making this partnership in global service learning a nationwide opportunity!
What is the greatest challenge the Bright Light has faced so far?
One of the greatest challenges has been keeping up with the demand. Through word-of-mouth and other various marketing, our organization has begun to explode over the last two years. We went from hosting an average of four programs per year to, this year, 12 programs while planning for 11 (so far) for 2018.
Luckily, we have some very dedicated volunteers, interns, and staff who have been instrumental in overcoming challenges as they arise with grace and professionalism. We are very grateful of everyone who has stepped in to help with our vision and mission.
What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
Our greatest accomplishment is the changes we see in the people we serve. The people who receive our help all over the world have become our extended family. And the volunteers who travel with us are our best friends!