Nonprofit’s Global Vision Makes U.S. Teens More Worldly

"I was not nearly the same person I am right now before I traveled to Brazil," Nataly Luque said about her experience with Karuna International, which allowed her to teach English to children who, in turn, taught her much more. (Courtesy Michelle Martin)

Traveling is a broadening experience no matter your age, but thanks to the vision of a San Diego woman, teenagers are getting a chance to see their world.

Michelle Martin is the co-founder of Karuna International, an organization with the goal of increasing global awareness among young adults by promoting and supporting international volunteerism and providing education about international development issues.

The organization has been around since 2003, but was first inspired when Michelle was 19-years-old and visited Poland as a volunteer.  “It was a very cross-cultural experience, working with kids who only spoke Polish, and alongside volunteers from all around the world, such as Italy, Japan, Czech Republic, Canada and of course, Poland,” she said. “It changed my life and sparked an interest to continue volunteering abroad.”

When Michelle finished college, she considered joining several different agencies and nonprofits that offered global volunteer programs, but found that many of them had drawbacks.  The problem was the program fee, which was typically $2,000 to $3,000 for a two- to three-week placement. “It was very expensive and not very realistic for a young college grad,” Michelle said. So rather than save money to go on her next trip, Michelle started Karuna International to offer scholarships to other young adults to have a life-changing experience of their own. “The students we are able to provide scholarships for are all around 15, 16 years of age and each have had that life-changing experience at a crucial point in their lives when they are trying to determine their role in our world.”

Michelle says the programs and trips are designed to give participating teens a sense of purpose and empowerment so they know they can be active agents of social change. “Many of the teens we work with are low-income minorities and have always been told that they are the ones who are at-risk and disadvantaged,” she said. “Once they visit an even poorer part of the world and have the opportunity to experience severe poverty, they realize how many opportunities they have here and the potential they have to make a positive difference in the lives of the individuals they meet on their trip.”

That’s how it worked for Nataly Luque, who credits her Karuna experience to Brazil with changing her forever.  “I was not nearly the same person I am right now before I traveled to Brazil,” Luque said. “I was materialistic and trapped in a bubble where only my problems mattered…There are so many people that need our help, my help, and after going through this experience I was thankful to see how fortunate I really am and how my problems are not nearly as big as theirs.”



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