Sep 13, 2021
Welcome to Volume 2 of my Season 1 recap series.
In this episode, we’re going to review some of the advice we’ve been given about hosting guests, volunteers, and students.
Hosting is a hot topic for many new landowners as welcoming in volunteers is an enticing way to get much-needed help building foundational infrastructure.
For many new landowners, it also fulfills a desire for social connection and a sense of community.
When done well, hosting guests as volunteers, apprentices, students, tourists, farm-stay guests, or curious neighbors can bring an enriching element of cultural interaction, personal growth, and prosperity to your project.
Suzanna Leff, from Finca Amrta, has been hosting volunteers for over 30 years.
At first, she was reluctant to host but opened up to it with some experimentation.
Suzanna’s personality and love of new experiences have brought her to treasure the interactions that her program has to offer both her and her guests. She gets to stay home tending her garden while the world comes to her.
She helps people to explore and harness their passions, and that practice has helped her meet her needs and live a long and happy life by the riverside.
She gets to share what she’s learned with others while continuing to learn from them in return.
Suzanna’s suggestion is to integrate guests into as many aspects of farm life as is comfortable for you to do so. It enriches the guest’s experience and, if done well, can yield greater returns than you’ve originally invested.
Finca Amrta hosts guests for a reasonably low rate, giving them board, access to the beautiful riverside property, and ample food provisions for them to prepare in the community kitchen.
In return, her guests help out around the homestead 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, and Suzanna is often right out there alongside them.
She explains that the most authentic teaching happens when everyone is working together.
Being in the present moment is very satisfying. It gives her a chance to check in with volunteers regularly.
Passing conversations can help keep spirits strong and minimizes build-ups of tension, misunderstanding, or stress.
Identifying unhappy volunteers and exploring where their passions lie can reap unimagined benefits and value.
Suzanna believes in redirecting volunteers toward tasks that maximize their individual skills and passion. She even encourages people to sing while they work!
One guest who initially hated their experience ended up painting a beautiful mural on the community kitchen’s wall. My friends, that’s impact!
I asked her secret for getting good volunteer administrators to help manage some of the program’s responsibilities.
First, she says we must train
ourselves to get better at teaching others. That’s something worth
If we want to succeed at leveraging our time so that we have more time to do the things we truly love, we need to take the time to train ourselves and become better at teaching others to do what needs to be done.
This is not a quick tip; this is a life path choice. It’s one that has given Suzanna the freedom to live the life she desires.
This principle applies to anyone wanting to become an entrepreneur of any kind.
Take the time to learn and practice communication and project management skills early. It’ll be worth the effort.
Suzanna’s found the majority of her best admins by offering the opportunity to pay volunteers who’ve shown the right qualities needed.
When people contact her asking for a full work-trade opportunity — and she suspects that they might be a good fit for the position — she invites them to first come out and volunteer for a month. If they fit the role, they can take the full work trade for the months that follow.
One resource that Suzanna shared that’s worth re-mentioning is VolunteerLatinAmerica.com.
It’s one of several useful sites for landowners to find volunteers and vice versa. Other sites I’ve found useful are:
Suzanna mentioned something else that I wanted to address, that despite the more common message, people often survive snake bites.
She said this about her encounter with the well-known terciopelo, a pit-viper common to Central America. She was bitten and survived.
The reason for mentioning this isn’t to discount the fact that many people die from snake bites — especially those of terciopelos.
My point is to highlight points of reference and patterns of belief.
One of the reasons this topic excites me so much is my background as a traveler, having visited many different places as a volunteer.
I learned a lot over those years, but what was more valuable is what I unlearned.
To this day, unlearning things and breaking negative or incorrect thought patterns continues to be one of my favorite undertakings.
It’s challenging and requires working with subtle aspects of the mind, but the rewards are empowering.
One of my favorite things to see, with any of my guests' experiences, is when they find themselves transcending a previously held taboo.
For most of us, our childhoods are filled with programming meant to keep us behaving suitably for the comfort of those around us.
It’s actually a very useful skill to teach our children and helps them to integrate into wider society.
But I also believe it’s important to teach them how to let go of “rules” once they’ve learned them. It can be tricky to do this while still feeling like we’re giving proper guidance.
All the same, teaching others how to understand the difference between absolute concepts and contemplations is critical to growing healthy humans who can stand free from the entrapments of social programming.
It can even be valuable to practice freeing ourselves from our own rules as a form of self-examination.
Honestly, I’m not sure how far to go on with this here, but I just wanted to put it out there that dangerous things are worth recognizing as dangerous things.
Likewise, treating dangerous situations appropriately is a skill worth learning.
However, we don’t need to use the potential for danger as a lever to believe that “badness” is sure to come from those thing’s very existence.
Sometimes, dangerous things exist, and that’s okay. Navigating the mystery skillfully involves moving forward with a sense of openness, as well as awareness.
Poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders, rabid bats, bacteria, viruses, and scary humans exist. Welcome to planet Earth.
It’s important to be able to identify and avoid these potential hazards or approach them with caution. Places, where these things are likely to exist, are likewise important to know about and prompt us to proceed with caution.
Allowing fear of these things to keep us from having life-enriching experiences, on the other hand, is a tendency we would do well to challenge.
Many times the best way to meet that challenge is head-on. Even if you get bitten, you just may go on to be a happy, healthy human.
Who knows, you might even go on to one day tell a story about how you’re better off for it.
While hosting volunteers was a particular focus of Suzanna’s interview, most of my other guests also host people in one way or another as part of their programs.
Aly Kahn & Alnoor Ladha from Brave Earth creatively responded to change by swapping from a no-volunteer-program decision to making exceptions when ramping up and preparing for a retreat.
Otherwise, they did effectively harness guest labor to help build their aircrete domes during a workshop where guests paid to learn the process.
These guys didn’t even need to
know how to make one, they just called DomeGaia to come by and
teach the workshop for them. Brave Earth only needed to take care
of the hosting and marketing.
Justin Dolan of St Michael’s Permaculture Country Club and Meghan Casey of Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat both shared similar insights about looking for organizations that work with student groups who might be looking for new places to host their programs. Meghan has found success working with the World Leadership School.
Personally, I’d suggest reaching out to any of your local university’s ecologically focused departments or programs.
A campaign like that could not only bring students, money, and exposure to your project, but networking with these organizations can develop into long-term perennial relationships that can benefit your project for years to come.
Like Ancel Mitchel of Talamanca Chocolate, both Justin and Meghan mention the benefits of putting together long-term apprenticeship or intern programs.
This experience tends to be more meaningful for both the project and the student. They also offer opportunities for deep learning beyond what’s generally taught during a 1-2-week event, such as a Permaculture Design Course.
Nico Botefur of Essence Arenal shared a lot of great advice around hosting guests.
When getting started, he saved some money in a way that’s added value to his guests’ visits ever since.
He bought some old canvas tents from the Salvation Army and hung them over bamboo frames to make his first Glamping accommodations.
By purchasing several of them used and having them shipped over he saved a bunch of money while recycling what had been discarded by the military.
Nico believes that giving your guests a quality experience is the best investment you can make in marketing.
He builds strong relationships with his staff and has a way of making them feel like part of a team. As a result, the staff has a way of welcoming guests that feels akin to being welcomed into their home.
Another touch that had an impact on me was a drone image he had taken of his farm, illustrating pathways and other notable spots around the property.
That image was then blown up, laminated, and hung near the reception area to help visitors get an instant sense of orientation upon arriving.
That one, small thing goes a long way toward enhancing the guests’ experiences and reducing the staff’s need to give repetitive directions regarding trails and other points of interest.
In my opinion, one of Nico’s most profound adaptations came in his early days when he wanted to serve good quality food in an area where it was difficult and expensive to get locally.
Lynx Guimond, at Sailcargo Inc, is no longer hosting guests, volunteers, or students.
The volunteer-run education program that they were teaching to people in the pueblo got shut down with the onset of the pandemic, but that just led them to pivot and find funding to pay those they were able to keep on board with the project.
Lynx used his connections with their non-profit organization to help earn funding and reshape the program. As a result, he’s ended up with a more dedicated and loyal crew.
Lynx shares his perspective that healthy and happy people are high-quality assets.
Take the time to check in with guests, volunteers, and team members to make sure that they have a chance to be heard, if not helped.
Like Suzanna, he suggests that we ask people what they want to do and offer variety with their service.
Gaining a point of reference for rural living is a life-enriching opportunity worth giving to oneself, let alone a valuable tool to offer others.
Staying at places like this as a guest, retreatant, student, or volunteer brings value to people’s lives.
Many people who have visited places like this as workshop students, apprentices, or volunteers have developed marketable skills that have changed the direction of their lives.
As we discussed in the last episode on financial sustainability, it’s essential for the longevity of a project to recognize this value and charge accordingly.
If hosting guests in any form interests you, make a list of unique experiences that your guests can experience.
Add it to your welcome guide to help them see the site with this expanded point of reference. When designing your welcome guide, include things like:
Links to video tours of the property, showing trailheads and harvestable foodA photo gallery of animals, birds, insects, and flowers that they might find around the placeA Guest Book where they can read and add to a collection of meaningful testimonials and reviews from those who’ve come before them
If you really want to improve a guest’s experience though, it’s perhaps even more important to work on your communication and other interpersonal skills.
You can have a lot to offer, but if your approach doesn’t put their experience first, you’ll lose out in the end.
If you’re listening to this episode as a traveler who likes to visit unique projects like those highlighted on the podcast, remember that you get out of it what you put into it!
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Dive in and participate!
That’s what I’ve got for you this week.
Make sure to tune into the next installment and review what we’ve learned about developing healthy communities, both within an intentional community, as well as in our interactions with regional neighbors.
And don't forget – we've created a downloadable PDF to offer you a list of all the tips we've collected for hosting guests, volunteers and students! Check it out here: https://sharinginsights.net/hosting-volunteers
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Special thanks to Peter Mukuru for editing this episode!
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