Jennifer Cook, 2011
I’m Jennifer Cook, from Shreveport, Louisiana, and I have a B.A. in Sociology, and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. I found Sprout through idealist.org while searching for employment opportunities after my master’s program. Sprout seemed like the perfect volunteer position, and I ended up loving the work so much that I stopped looking for anything else and decided to dedicate all of my time for two years to traveling with Sprout participants.
Growing up with a cousin who has Down’s Syndrome helped me develop patience and understanding, and left me always wanting to do what I could to help him and others enjoy life to the fullest. Because of this, most of my work and volunteer experiences were with organizations dedicated to working with underserved populations. Another passion that I realized later in life is that of travel – I feel that traveling is one of the most fulfilling experiences that we can have, as you are able to discover new destinations while learning at the same time. When I found Sprout, I knew that this was an opportunity to not only utilize the skills I’d gained in my previous work and life experiences, but also to share my passion for travel with those who may not otherwise have the option to do so.
My first trip with Sprout was to Lake George in 2011 with two very experienced leaders. We had a full group of 11 participants who enjoyed the many activities we shared with them. We rode the Mini ha-ha cruise boat, visited the Ben and Jerry’s Factory in Vermont and had a nice picnic in a park near the lake. Our participants were amazing – they all had very unique personalities and quirks that earned them a special place in my heart. I remember one of the guys always shouting out his girlfriend’s name every time we took a picture, causing him to be the only one with his mouth wide open in the picture (because her name ended in an “a”). And I remember another who wasn’t a huge fan of getting too physically close to people, and the emotional moment of being able to hug him at the end of the trip without upsetting him because we’d gotten that close over our 5 day trip.
It’s hard to really pick the absolute best part of volunteering with Sprout. There are so many benefits like getting to travel, having a flexible schedule, being trusted to take on such a huge responsibility, and meeting so many new and amazing people. If I had to pick just one thing, though, I would pick the fact that I’ve not only made a difference in other people’s lives, but a notable difference. In much of my social work career, I’ve been aware that I’m helping other people, but as I’ve always been on the macro end, it takes longer to notice those results. On Sprout trips you know that you’re making a difference because you can see it when someone who’s scared of heights has just managed to ride to the top of a mountain with your reassurance and help. You know that you’re impacting someone’s life when they tell you at the end of the trip “this is the best trip ever! I hope that you’re my leader again next year!” And even though you do experience a number of challenges during the trip, such as early mornings and late nights (my biggest issue!), or diffusing arguments between two participants, or cleaning up after someone has had an accident, you forget about it all when you give those final hugs and hear the participants tell their staff how awesome the trip was.
If a friend asked me why s/he should volunteer with Sprout, I would say: “it’s fun!” Of course, it’s not for everyone. It requires immense patience and understanding, as well as an ability to work well under pressure and react quickly in stressful situations. Sprout will test your personal limits, and as a result you will grow more than you even imagined possible. Additionally, you get the opportunity to meet new people from all over the world, help someone in need and travel to destinations you probably wouldn’t have thought to see otherwise.
One thing you must know about Sprout is that you are given a huge responsibility and are trusted immensely. There are generally three leaders on a trip, and one of them is called a “primary leader” simply because they have more experience and knowledge of protocol. While all leaders are equal, something about being termed the “primary leader” leaves you feeling as if you are the one to accept responsibility in case something goes wrong. When I first started with Sprout, I was thankful to have primary leaders along so that I’d have someone to turn to with the little questions I had that weren’t important enough to call our support line about. I lacked confidence in my own abilities to problem solve and took the easy way out by asking others instead of figuring out solutions for myself. Also, as a natural introvert, I found it somewhat challenging and awkward to be in such a social environment and struggled a bit with this for a little while. The more trips I went on, the more comfortable I felt, until one day, I was asked to be a primary leader myself. You can imagine my surprise as I hadn’t really thought I was ready for it yet, but was really anxious to see if I could do it. Within a couple of weeks, I feel like I was a totally different person. I worked through problems with my co-leaders and suddenly became the one they turned to with those little questions. I became so social and outgoing that now people have a hard time believing that I’m naturally introverted. My confidence has increased and I now see challenges as something to look forward to rather than something to avoid.
This is my fifth year of working with Sprout – first as a trip leader, and now as the Director of Leadership. I am thankful to be part of such an amazing organization, and also for all that I’ve learned from the participants, my co-leaders and the office staff. This is one of the few places I can truly say that I hope to be involved with for life!