Venturing Forth Again

With travel restrictions easing, families battling poverty and those helping them can be together once more

December 21, 2022 | Be Informed

Since the founding of Unbound in 1981, staff have logged millions of miles by air, land and sea to visit families and support local program teams throughout the world.

Travel has been such an important and routine part of life for Unbound staff that when worldwide movement came to a sudden stop in the spring of 2020 due to COVID-19, it created major challenges. Not only were staff unable to travel abroad, but staff in local program centers were restricted from traveling to visit the families they serve.

Unbound’s late co-founder Bob Hentzen spent years living and working among poor and marginalized people in Latin America. During that time, he observed how easily international nonprofits can fall into the trap of presuming from a distance to know what’s best for those they serve. When he and the other founders started Unbound, they were determined to stay connected and aware by frequently visiting Unbound’s local program sites.

International Programs Director Dan Pearson has seen the wisdom of that determination borne out over the years.

“Bob used to talk about our ongoing conversion,” Pearson said. “I think a big piece of that — of being reminded that families are capable and challenging the myths about poverty — comes from empathy. It’s a lot easier to retain and replenish our empathy face to face.”

Being there, Pearson said, also provides an irreplaceable kind of learning.

“Every trip I take, I’m surprised by something that I couldn’t see from a distance, that I couldn’t understand. And even if I could understand it intellectually, just at a gut level it’s different when you’re sitting there in [a family’s] home.”

grounded by the pandemic


The cessation of travel affected more than just staff. Unbound awareness trips were also suspended. These popular and immersive overseas experiences, which usually involve sponsors meeting their sponsored friends, are an important part of Unbound culture as well as a reflection of organizational transparency.

At the time everything came to a halt, several staff members were on the verge of a long-planned trip to Unbound’s newest program country, Rwanda. The trip would have involved international programs staff as well as members of the marketing and communications team. Henry Flores, who lives in Colombia and oversees the work of Unbound’s regional reporters throughout the world, planned to go.

“We were going to go and cover the very first sponsored members, the initial steps into the program in a new community, a new country. We were really excited,” he said.

Multimedia editor Danika Wolf shared in that excitement.

“My bags were packed, my plane ticket was in hand, and I had plans to meet my newly sponsored child from Rwanda,” Wolf said. “Unfortunately, our directors had to make the tough decision to cancel the trip just three days before we were set to leave, which ended up being the day the country shut down our borders.”

The cancelation of the Rwanda trip created special challenges for international programs staff.

“We haven’t created a new project for more than a decade,” Pearson said. “So, our first experience of having to do it remotely was definitely a challenge. It forced us to be more creative about pulling in colleagues from other countries once they were able to travel within the region.”

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Unbound Regional Reporters Director Henry Flores interviews local staff member and former Unbound scholar Yohumara Hiciano on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic.

innovation in a time of need


Creativity was a common theme throughout the pandemic in other local program sites as well. Fortunately, Unbound had already established a system of electronic fund transfers to families’ bank accounts, so one potential crisis in the ability to deliver benefits was avoided. But maintaining contact and building a sense of community during a time of restricted movement were major challenges.

While staff in local Unbound programs were unable to visit families, they used other means to stay in touch. The most common were cell phones and video conferencing, but they also employed messaging apps, social media platforms and even radio broadcasts to reach families without access to technology.

“The projects started innovating on the connection part with mothers groups in online meetings,” Pearson said. “On the Kansas [Unbound headquarters] side, there was innovation with correspondence [between sponsors and sponsored friends] and how to do it from a distance. We had taken a couple of steps in that direction, but the pandemic forced us to close that whole loop so that letters could flow back and forth digitally.”

Those responsible for gathering material for Unbound media also had challenges, but once again the emphasis on personal outreach helped. Because local staff know the families, they could assist in finding compelling stories that help sponsors and others better understand families’ realities.

“It almost feels like we just paid more attention to the [communication] structure we already had,” Flores said. “We already had a personalized approach to the families. We know where they are. We know who they are. We know their life challenges family by family. … We have those connections already, but they became more evident and stronger during COVID-19.”

Because of the generosity and loyalty of sponsors and the adaptations Unbound made in the U.S. and abroad, the organization made it through the most difficult days of the pandemic.

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Visiting Unbound staff members enjoy a moment with Dilcia, center, grandmother of sponsored child Raul in the Dominican Republic. At left is Oscar Tuch, regional reporter in Guatemala, and at right is Danika Wolf, multimedia editor in Kansas City.

Stepping out slowly


As restrictions began to ease and countries once more started to allow access, staff gradually — and cautiously — began to travel again. But getting back in the swing hasn’t been easy.

“It was extremely exhausting to travel because I had been in my apartment for a year and a half or two years,” Flores said. “Carrying a bag with very heavy equipment and moving through airports, it was very exhausting. I’m still adjusting to it.”

Pritha Hariharan, international program director for Africa and Asia, also found the resumed travel challenging.

“I did have some apprehensions going back in, some personal and some pandemic-related,” she said. “My personal apprehensions had to do with leaving my two young children behind for extended periods of time. We had all gotten used to being together.”

Her other concern was for the health of the families she visited. While signs are that the world is returning to some semblance of normalcy, cautions about COVID-19 remain. For that reason, Unbound has been deliberate in considering when and where travel is appropriate, taking into account such things as a country’s infection rate, its vaccination rate, and in-country protocols and restrictions.

Unbound has also put in place its own protocols for travelers, including pre- and post-travel COVID-19 testing and a mandatory period of working from home following every trip.

Flores and Wolf have already completed their second coverage trip since returning to travel. They went to the Dominican Republic in March and Costa Rica in June, both times meeting up with Unbound’s regional reporter Oscar Tuch, who lives in Guatemala. The three worked long hours and after each trip they brought back numerous stories, photos and video.

“When we visited Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, the objective was to go and cover material that we can share and use to amplify the voice of those who are in the communities,” Flores said. “The excitement of being able to connect with staff members, to connect with families, seeing each other again … it is always a beautiful feeling.”

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After resuming her travels, Pritha Hariharan, international program director for Africa and Asia, visits with a group of mothers of sponsored children in Prayagraj, India, in November. Unbound has established health and safety protocols for any of their Kansas City staff who travel internationally.

Looking ahead with confidence


If everything goes according to plan, 2023 will bring a limited number of Unbound Awareness Trips. Look for more information soon. In the meantime, interested persons are encouraged to sign up for updates.

The world has changed. What Unbound travel will look like in years to come is unknown. But we do know that in a post-COVID world, it will be more important than ever to stay connected to the realities of the families.

Unbound is working to, in the words of Pearson, “extract all the good, all the lessons from this experience.” Among those lessons is the knowledge that with the resiliency of the families, the dedication of sponsors and the willingness to innovate, Unbound is ready to face the future.

Every trip I take, I’m surprised by something that I couldn’t see from a distance, that I couldn’t understand. And even if I could understand it intellectually, just at a gut level it’s different when you’re sitting there in [a family’s] home.

— Dan Pearson, Director of international programs for Unbound


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