Volunteering Across America

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by Hope Sykes

The Graham's first 50-state trip began on July 4, 1996, when Marlene and Craig Graham packed up their small van and headed across America with their two children, Collier and Courtney. As Marlene succinctly put it: "We wanted to spend more time with our children; wanted to experience America as a family; and were ready for adventure. Our middle-class lives had simply become too complicated. Something had to give. So we did."

I wish...

I hope...

I've dreamed...

Over and over again these wishes are shared with the Graham family, by Americans from all walks of life, as they travel throughout America "taking it's pulse."

Yet despite their exciting one-year trip, dubbed "An American's Family's Journey Through the 50 States", and publicity received through the major news networks, talk shows, and print media, they returned home restless. "We had experienced so much kindness on our previous adventure that we wanted to share that with our Internet audience, " Marlene explained. "And then we thought: Perhaps this could inspire others to reach out in their own communities."

Freshly inspired by the President's Volunteerism Summit in Philadelphia, the Grahams hit the road again for another year-long journey across America. This time they are promoting goodwill through volunteerism, integrating real-life kindness with homeschooling, and sharing these continuing adventures with schools and individuals through their web site at http://www.usatrip.org/.

Yet again, the same questions and statements came up from individuals they met:

"I really would like to do what you are doing but..."

"I don't know how to get started on such a trip. Can you help?"

"I'd love to take such a trip but my wife/husband/kid probably wouldn't go for it. How did all of you agree to do it?"

So, how did a family of four make the transition of selling their house and packing up a van for two expeditions across America? The Grahams have offered to share some of their advice to help others plan similar adventures.

"Never did we have any idea there was such latent wanderlust in America, particularly among families."

~ The Graham Family

First of all, Marlene, wasn't it scary just pulling up roots and hitting the road?

"...The fact is, most people are unsure of taking such a plunge. The best thing to do is to talk with others who have done it. And make sure that your situation is such that you can survive the most likely worse case scenario. If you have to start all over with a career, would that be okay? Are you willing to get by on less money down the road to have this wonderful opportunity?"

"But at the same time don't get so cautious that you talk yourself out of a trip. It's like having a baby. There's never a perfect time. Yet any time is perfect to bond as a family. And there's no better way to bond than a trip where kids are not distracted by friends and outside influences. On an extended adventure, you only have each other to rely on."

"We've had several couples take us to lunch or dinner to discuss a long trip, and hash through their concerns. Each person's situation is different, of course, but it sure helps to talk to others who have done such a trip. In all my discussions with people - hundreds of people - I've yet to run into anyone who has regretted making a 'window of opportunity' in their life. But, of course, when you have children you need to put some extra thought into such a journey. I always tell families (and couples) to do a trial run of a few weeks or a month so they can get used to close quarters and getting along in those circumstances. We didn't do that, but we felt confident that we could handle whatever was ahead. (Plus I had the benefit of such a journey when I was young.)."

"It hasn't always been easy for us. We're all hardheads and we do our share of arguing and pouting--but then we did that at home also. Our standard joke is that we still fight, but now we know each other better when we do."

But what if you have a regular job? Can you really take time off and do this without expecting total financial ruin?

"Chances are you won't be able to pick up career-wise where you left off (and maybe you wouldn't want to anyway) unless you are taking a sabbatical. But I know in our case, even if we don't ever achieve the financial success we were on track for, we're rich in the friendships we've made across America, and our understanding of our country. Money isn't everything, and as long as we can get by and are able to give our kids a good, strong education, and be happy, then we'll feel very successful in life."

Important Dates:

  • National Youth Service Day - April 20-22, 2007 http://www.ysa.org/
  • Global Youth Service Day - April 20-22, 2007
  • Family Volunteering Day - November 17

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