I am a great believer in volunteer work and dedicating time and effort to the greater good.
Corporate responsibility embodies this spirit on the business side. In our modern cities and developed nations we often don't realize how lucky we are and that there are millions of people who have it nowhere near as good as we do.
One organization that is very aware of the conditions of people around the world is G.A.P Adventures, Canada's largest adventure travel company. With hundreds of adventure travel offerings to continents like Latin America, Asia and Africa, the people at G.A.P are very informed about the situation of communities in many countries. G.A.P Adventures' founder, Bruce Poon Tip, went as far as setting up a special non-profit organization, Planeterra, to address some of these needs and make a difference in the lives of people and communities around the world.
Today Planeterra operates community projects in countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Belize, Honduras, Ecuador, Chile and Cuba. These projects include indigenous learning centres, literacy and computer training programs, weaving projects to teach indigenous women valuable marketable skills, homes for abandoned children and many more. G.A.P Adventures pays all administration fees for these projects and has made a commitment to matching all donations dollar-for-dollar, so all funds are going to these important causes and the money donated is in fact doubled.
G.A.P uses all sorts of creative ways to generate funds for these humanitarian projects and just this past May I had a chance to attend a very entertaining fundraising event: "Ignite the Night", an evening full of astounding performances and acrobatics. The performers from Zero Gravity Circus put on a magnificent spectacle for an enthusiastic crowd of almost 500 people. In total about $20,000 were raised in this one event alone.
Well, the creativity of the fundraisers at Planeterra is virtually unlimited and this past Saturday, July 8, they held a rather interesting event to raise money: the 3rd Annual Skydive Event. 40 people who collected pledges in excess of $250 got to experience skydiving and G.A.P Adventures paid for the jump fees. A barbecue and bonfire were also included.
This was an event I wanted to see, so I drove out into the country town of Dundas, about 45 minutes west of Toronto. By the time I got there mid-morning the skydiving activities were in full swing. I was really curious about what skydiving is like so I approached one of the skydivers to tell me about their experience. Fresh off the landing area I caught up with Andy Zimmerman, who is in charge of promotions and marketing at Y108, Hamilton's country music radio station.
Andy shared with me that training for his tandem jump started at 8 am. All the students had to watch a training video and then to practice exiting the plane in a mock-up of a plane cabin where the exit procedure was rehearsed. He commented that as he left the plane strapped on to his instructor Ahmed a thought was flashing through his mind: "What am I doing here?" That thought was quickly replaced by exhilaration as he experienced about 45 seconds of free falling which he describes as an awesome, surreal experience. He said the plane took about 20 minutes to reach 10,000 feet and you could even see Buffalo, New York, from the air! He said he would do it again, any time, it was just a fantastic experience.
Next I caught up with a female jumper, Britt Buchalle, who indicated that this was her first jump ever and that she was quite calm during the experience although she felt a little light-headed towards the end. She had never been on a small airplane and the ride was actually better than expected. Once in the air she really enjoyed the scenery and the feeling of weightlessness. Britt also mentioned that she is originally from Germany and has only been in Toronto for a short while. She really loves the city and its multicultural flair. Britt actually works for G.A.P Adventures in their Global Connections subsidiary which provides airline tickets for individual travelers and G.A.P tour participants at greatly discounted prices.
Since I wanted to find out what is new at G.A.P Adventures I connected with Kira Zack who handles marketing and communications for G.A.P. She informed me that Bruce Poon Tip is currently in Quito, Ecuador, where he has been participating at the inaugural United Nations World Tourism Organization Seminar on Ethics in Tourism in Quito, Ecuador. Buce had been invited to participate as a guest of the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders' Forum, founded in 1990 by Prince Charles to generate long-term awareness about corporate responsibility and sustainability. Conference participants included representatives from national and local governments, industry and tourism associations and various NGOs.
Just recently, G.A.P Adventures received the 2006 Global Traders Market Expansion Award, which honours the most innovative and successful small and medium-sized Ontario business leaders and exporters. Kira also pointed out that G.A.P Adventures is sponsoring the Toronto International Circus Festival which will be held from July 14 to 16 at Toronto's historic Distillery District. Admission at the festival will be free of charge, but attendees will have a chance to make a donation to Planeterra.
I also caught up with Elinor Schwob, the fundraising coordinator at Planeterra. Elinor had also done a skydive earlier this morning, actually she was the first jumper out of the plane! She admitted she also asked herself "What am I doing?" Elinor mentioned that during the free fall it is actually quite hard to breathe since the air whizzes by so quickly and she describes the free fall as more of a floating feeling than a dropping feeling. She also indicated that Planeterra's goal was to raise about $10,000 with this skydiving charity event, but from initial tallies the total funds raised would be much closer to $15,000. As far as future fundraising projects are concerned, she mentioned the "Night of 100 Adventures", a gala dinner to be held in October of 2006 that will feature entertainment and food from all over the world. 50 trips will be given away by G.A.P Adventures.
Of course I also wanted to know more about skydiving itself, so I asked to meet an expert on this high-adrenaline activity. Tony Cooke, a sales supervisor with G.A.P Adventures, has been on the Board of Directors of SWOOP, which is a non-profit member-owned skydiving club. At present there are about 60 to 70 members, and all funds generated from non-members are rolled back into the club to cover operating expenses and equipment maintenance.
SWOOP is the closest drop zone to Toronto and is one of the oldest member-run skydiving club in all of Canada. Tony explained that SWOOP offers three different types of first jump experiences:
- P.F.F.: the "Progressive Free Fall" is a training intensive jump and the first jump is actually level 1 of a Seven Level freefall training program, leading to a full license as a skydiver. - I.A.D. is the traditional way of making a first jump which involves 5 hours of ground training and a solo jump from 3500 feet. - Tandem jumps are some of the most popular ways of jumping for the first time. Ground training only takes about 30 minutes, and students jump with a highly skilled and certified Jumpmaster. The jump starts at 10,500 feet and includes 35 seconds of freefall at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour.
Tony explained that every parachute has a pilot chute which acts as a deployment system for the parachute and drags out the main canopy. SWOOP uses fully steerable canopies that actually resemble semi-rigid aircrafts. The club has three small airplanes to take jumpers up to the right altitude and it has one of the best safety records in the world. As a matter of fact, Tony emphasized that safety is number one at SWOOP, evidenced by the fact that the club has never had a fatality. Its mandate is to promote the sport of skydiving, all the while giving top priority to safety.
My next conversation partner was Danielle Weiss, who is in charge of the Planeterra Foundation. She said that these days she focuses mostly on Planeterra and on planning new volunteer tours. In addition to two existing volunteer tours to Peru and Guatemala, ten additional destinations will be available in the upcoming year, including volunteer trips to Patagonia, Costa Rica and Zambia. In several of these tours the participants will pay for their own tour and fundraise $1000 for Planeterra. After the trekking experience the tour participants will visit an actual Planeterra project to see first-hand where some of their funds are going.
Danielle is also currently working on a partnership with Habitat for Humanity which may have G.A.P staff participate in a day-long charity build in Toronto while G.A.P travellers may have the opportunity to help build homes for needy families in international destinations. Recently Danielle came back from a month-long trip to South America including Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. For the first part of the trip she led a volunteer tour in Guatemala where they were working on a well drilling project to supply water to the local community. The G.A.P travelers also helped build and paint a school. The travel group included a medical team which provided a two-day health clinic to local residents.
Danielle is now assisted by Elinor, who handles fundraising, and a new team member: Liz Manning is the sustainable tourism assistant. I had a brief chat with Liz and as a graduate of the International Development Program at Dalhousie University, Liz herself has a great interest in community development. She has travelled with her parents since she was a child and participated in the General Assembly of the United Nations as part of the 1991 World Children's Committee. Liz has also volunteered on the island of Nevis and spent an intense summer program at the University of Havana, studying Cuba's history, culture and socio-political system. In Malawi in South-East Africa Liz studied community based orphan care.
Since starting with G.A.P Adventures Liz's responsibilities include greening the office, i.e. sourcing environmentally friendly products including natural hand and dish soaps, as well as finding ways of reducing paper consumption around the office. This has meant moving away as much as possible from faxes to email. In addition, G.A.P is now buying its electricity from Bullfrog Power, Ontario's first green energy company. Bullfrog customers pay more money in order to purchase electricity from green sources. Staff will also be educated with regard to green power and environmentally sustainable decision making.
Marine tourism is another one of Liz' responsibilities. She works with the crew of the Explorer cruise ship on an environmental education program. This includes an open house at departure time as well as fair trade products in G.A.P's on-ship store. Many of the products for sale are made by members of the community programs that G.A.P supports through its Planeterra non-profit organization.
I left the SWOOP skydiving location at about 1 pm to head back to Toronto. Skydiving was in full swing and everyone was having a ton of fun.Burgers were sizzling on the grill, puppies were playing in the grass, and later on there would be a big barbecue and a campfire for the folks that would be staying overnight in tents. This is a great example of combining charity work with having fun for organizers, volunteers and participants alike. That's how a fundraising event becomes a win-win situation for everyone involved.