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Jim: Growing While Giving Back

I first learned about YMCA overseas volunteer opportunities when I was a college student working a summer job at Silver Bay YMCA on Lake George, New York. After graduating in 1982, I was soon off to Sri Lanka for a six-week internship with the Colombo YMCA, where I led outdoor recreation and life skills programs for disadvantaged youth.

That was about 35 years ago, and the lure of continued fun, adventure, personal growth, and meaningful work as a humanitarian aid worker has taken me to over 20 developing nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Except for six years of graduate studies in Hawaii, where I completed Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Public Health, I have been overseas ever since. 

After Sri Lanka, I was hooked on the thrill of international living. For the next eight years, I worked with voluntary organizations in 15 developing countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In general, nothing was planned — there was no grand strategy, no burning ambition, no life-long dream or goal to achieve, other than a keen desire to continue living this incredibly fulfilling lifestyle out in the world. I just fell into these amazing experiences largely by chance without any specialized international-development training, arriving as a “clean slate” and approaching each new situation with a genuine openness to learning from my experiences. It was learning by doing and naturally practicing what I later read about when I returned to school, including the importance of sitting down with the local people, observing, listening, and learning, as well as sharing whatever I had to offer.

Although clearly an outsider, I caught some glimpses of local situations and perspectives. During this time, I picked up working levels of Samoan, Indonesian, and Thai languages. Later on, I learned the basics of the Khmer language while working with UNICEF in Cambodia and also became proficient in Vietnamese on a major Women and Child Health project in Vietnam, which further enhanced my understanding about some aspects of the developing world, about people, and about life — an understanding that can only be gained by living these experiences.

I have always preferred the far richer experience of living locally, feeling part of a place with a clear purpose rather than simply visiting as a tourist. My early overseas experiences left me eager for more and clearly demonstrate how anyone can experience genuine fulfillment and self-discovery through different, freer ways of living — ones that are not narrowly focused on blind ambition, resume building, or saving the world, but more on following your heart, discovering your life’s purpose, moving with the natural flow of your energy as it connects with the universal energy. By keeping it simple, easy, and not forced, this may involve living “outside the box”, experimenting with lifestyles learned from other cultures, and being open to other priorities in life.

I currently live in a peaceful seaside setting in southern Thailand.


Jim is an experienced expat, having lived and worked in over 20 nations over the past 35 years, and has also traveled to over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and the South Pacific. Regularly having to say goodbye to new friends and partners is one of the biggest challenges he has faced, but online-networking has proved to be a great help when it comes to staying in touch. He encourages everyone to have at least one overseas experience, and to keep a journal and take photos early while it is all fresh, to remember the amazing and funny things which may happen to you.

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