Elsa Thomasma - Author Interview
Elsa is a writer and managing editor of the GoAbroad Content Team in the Philippines. Her travels have taken her to Europe and Asia. Over the years she has completed multiple projects in the Philippines, through various fundraising initiatives and originally as a volunteer with a local NGO. Elsa now serves at the Vice President of the NGO's board and is also the Director of the GoAbroad Foundation.
"It overwhelms me, amazes me, fulfills me, and excites me all at the same time. I love what I am doing at this point in my life."
Elsa, the Philippines is not the most popular volunteer destination for US students, how did you discover your placement originally?
Well, I actually shared with my Mom during university that I wanted to volunteer at an orphanage, and at the time I was very intrigued by the work of Mother Teresa. When we searched the internet for volunteer placements with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s organization, options in the Philippines popped up, including Volunteer for the Visayans. Coincidently, my Filipino friend was going to be visiting her parents that summer too, so it was the perfect persuasion tool for me to make my Mom feel comfortable with me trekking to the other side of the world at such a young age!
Describe the moment you knew you were going to be connected to the village of Cangumbang for the rest of your life?
The day I implemented my first original project in Cangumbang, the Bike Project. On that day I distributed 16 bikes to the Volunteer for the Visayans Sponsored children in the community. Watching the kids ride up and down the street, even in the pouring rain, with smiles from ear to ear literally stole my heart. After building three homes, I knew the Bike Project was only the beginning of a long relationship with the families and children in Cangumbang. When I got home a few weeks later the community was all I could think about, I knew without a doubt at that moment that I was going to be connected for life.
Are you addicted to your project? Will you ever move onto another project in another country?
I am definitely addicted to my project, but in the healthiest way possible I swear! I LOVE talking about it, spending time with my kids, and daydreaming about the future of it all. It overwhelms me, amazes me, fulfills me, and excites me all at the same time. I love what I am doing at this point in my life.
I think I will definitely move on to another project in the future, but I still don’t know where or when that will be. I am so connected to the Philippines right now, I am not sure where my passion is going to take me, so for now I am devoted to creating a successful project and not just a community center. I want to develop the community effectively, and then I might start thinking about a new endeavor.
Each time you told your family and friends you were returning to volunteer abroad in Asia, did they think you were passionate or obsessed?
Passionate, definitely. My entire family shares my passion for helping others, without them I would have never come this far. My family and friends have always supported me in every trip, they can see how much I enjoy volunteering in the Philippines and how connected I am to the people of Cangumbang especially.
You began travel writing as a way to keep your donors informed, how did it transform from reporting to writing?
Honestly, at first my writing was more like a diary, but it was a diary I was willing to share with family and friends so they could experience my challenges along with me. Eventually I realized it could be an amazing outreach tool, a way to share the needs of the individuals I encountered with a larger population of people back home. Then I began sharing the life stories of individuals that touched my heart, the challenges they faced, and the things I was trying to do to help them. I wanted everyone back home to feel connected like I did, and to feel they were in the Philippines volunteering vicariously through me.
Overtime, my blog and articles about the Philippines have become a way for me to pour out my love for the communities, families, and children I have spent so many countless hours with. Sometimes I write in desperation or helplessness, sometimes in joy or excitement, and other times purely to explain and share a story to open the eyes of anyone who comes across my writing.
Your fundraising tales are epic, what is the key to a successful fundraising campaign?
Passion, devotion, and determination. In order to have a successful fundraising campaign one must be passionate about the project, beyond belief at times. Fundraisers must be devoted to achieving the goal no matter how long it takes. You have to have an unwavering sense of determination that others will be inspired by, you can never give up hope or be fearful that it won’t happen. Sharing your campaign with everyone you know, family, friends, co workers, is also key.
I remember telling some of my friends that I was committing myself to fundraising for the community center in the Philippines, the first thing one of them said was “What if you can’t raise the money?” I remember laughing and saying “There will never be a can’t, I will just keep trying until it happens...it will be collected eventually.” That is when I knew I had a unique approach and drive to complete the project, I was assured then that my project would in fact some day be successful.
Is good writing essential to successful fundraising?
Yes and no, but mostly no. Fundraising requires so much more than good writing, I would say more than good writing one must have the ability to share the project verbally. People read articles every day in newspapers, magazines, or online about needs around the world, but having someone stand in front of them and explain a need from personal experience is so much more powerful in my opinion. Writing helps spread the word to a wider audience, that can’t necessarily be there in person, but there are other ways to fundraise successfully.
You studied Psychology at Grand Valley State University, why do so many psych students study and volunteer abroad?
I think it is because Psychology students are interested in the way people think and interact, and inevitably going abroad exposes students to completely new ways of thinking and interacting. Most psychology students also have the desire to help people in some way, and similarly volunteers are driven by the desire to help others. I believe that learning about psychology also teaches you a lot about yourself and how to understand other people to a greater extent, so traveling abroad may not seem as challenging to psych students.
Grand Valley has a great study abroad program, how did the international education office there influence your travels?
During my junior year of university I was itching to go back to the Philippines, but I knew there weren’t any study abroad programs available in the Philippines. I didn’t want to delay my studies to go abroad again, so I talked to the International Center and they told me about independent study credit options. So I spoke with a professor I had grown close to and asked if he would support me in traveling abroad and help me gain course credit through independent study on the Elite Class of the Philippines; as an avid traveler my professor supported me a hundred percent and I received three course credits while I spent the first semester of my senior year back in the Philippines.
The Padnos International Center (PIC) at Grand Valley also helped me get approval to receive nine credits towards my sociology practicum requirement, while volunteering in the Philippines for a semester as well. In the end, the PIC office allowed me to be a full time student and fulfill my desire to go back to the Philippines for a full semester.
You work with hundreds of writers, what is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring travel writer?
Don’t write for anyone but yourself. If you write with an audience in mind you will shape your writing to those particular people, but you have no idea who will come across your writing in the future. When I began writing about my travels I wrote things I may not normally share openly with friends or family, like my struggles to adapt to the new culture, every time I felt myself screening my writing I reminded myself that in order to truly help others learn about my experience and grow from reading my writing I needed to be completely open and honest. If you begin travel writing for the sake of others it will come across in your writing, the passion will fade and it will become an obligation instead of an exciting way to share your travels. Share what you think is important for the world to know!
You are a small town girl, living and working by yourself in a developing country for months at a time. What advice would you give women travelers who prefer living like locals in non-traditional destinations?
Never be afraid to ask questions, and never stop learning and observing. Even now, living as an expat in a country I have traveled to multiple times since 2009, I continue to learn about the culture and way of life in the Philippines. If I don’t know how something works or what is culturally accepted in a particular situation, I am never afraid to admit it and ask my Filipino friends for advice or direction. Developing a good group of friends you can trust and talk about personal questions and concerns is essential when you are a foreigner in a foreign land. But you can’t develop those essential relationships without asking questions and being open to learning each day.