A Journey to Finding Happiness: Why You Should HelpStay

This story begins at the end of my senior year of college. Like any other soon-to-be graduate, I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I was completing a degree to which I felt myself falling out of passion with but knew it was too late (and costly) to turn back from. I was entering adulthood, now with a clearer image that my career in advertising wouldn’t lead to a life of Mad Men-esc glamour or paradigm-shifting media that would help teach people valuable lessons, but a life of emails, spreadsheets and #hashtags.

I wondered. Is this it? Will my life moving forward be nothing but another version of the same, formulaic story with nothing to look forward to but promotions, marriage and kids? I decidedly said, fuck no. I had to see what else was out there and get back in touch with the things that make life truly worth living, according to me.

Earlier in college, during my sophomore year I had studied abroad in Madrid, Spain and had felt the most alive than ever in my life prior to that point. As my first time out of the country, that experience was my initial exposure to the world outside of my northeast U.S. bubble. The languages, the people and their way of looking at life was far different than mine but one that I was fortunate enough to learn a lot from.

Madre Teresa de Calcuta after school program. Us jump-roping with the girls :)

During this time abroad, I had volunteered with children at an afterschool program and experienced true joy in helping them with homework, hugging them, feeding them, and often times dancing with them even though there was a very sizable language barrier. The new friends, Spanish nightlife, and beautiful landscapes, although amazing, couldn’t hold a candle to this part of my experience.

Immediately upon my return from Spain I sought out other programs like this but couldn’t come across any under $2,000. I was stunned. Thousands of dollars to donate my own time? I just want to help. Why is this so difficult/costly?

Upon graduating, I had to give it another try. Traveling without it hadn’t felt the same since, especially after going on a cruise. “Hello small, impoverished island! Me and my friends are just going to park our floating shopping mall here and drink margaritas on your beaches! Have fun cleaning it all up after we leave.” Yeah — not for me. I wanted something more. To truly become a part of somewhere by contributing to it and earning my place. That’s when I found HelpStay.

HelpStay is a skills-based volunteer platform that allows you to volunteer somewhere and in exchange, receive food and warm bed. Browsing the “stays”, they varied from working at orphanages in Uganda to surf hostels in Morocco. I was so impressed. Not only could I give back to a wide variety of communities, but also have fun and learn a new skill in the process. Needless to say, I was so excited I reached out to about 15 hosts, eager to start my first HelpStay.

My luxury suite for 2 weeks

Two months later I found myself living in the trailer depicted above working at Biotopi Nature Park on the Greek island of Crete. From the moment I made it to the park, I was enthralled. I had never seen the stars so clear before. I felt that for the first time, I was breathing fresh air. The park was right up the hill from the small city of Rethmynon but tucked away just far enough to really feel like I was a part of something special — like I was a part of nature.

Volunteering alongside me was a Welsh girl who was studying botanicals, and a French father and son who were traveling together to reconnect. We spent our mornings feeding the animals (Bunnies, Chickens, Turtles, Iguanas and giant Snakes) and tending the plants, all gathering around the outdoor kitchen table afterwards for fresh fruit and creamy greek yogurt (yum). It was our mini-paradise. All of us finding refuge in this tiny corner of the world eager to learn more about ourselves and the world.

Entrance to the park

The amount of interaction was far above what I expected, and being the extrovert I am, found myself thriving in. Biotopi had a nature park, an adventure park and a cafe. The nature park was frequented by tourists from all over the world of whom we’d guide around the park, the adventure park was a summer camp for kids that was run by local Cretan camp counselors and the cafe was a local hotspot for Cretans to have a drink and look down at their beautiful town. The diversity of characters I was able to see come by, paired with the consistency of the everyday staff at the park made me feel like I was a local Cretan (minus the inability to speak Greek). Of all the interactions I had, I have to say that I learned the most from two in particular.

My two hosts, Susanne and Mihalis, were what most Americans would refer to as “authentic hippies” (minus the drugs), meaning they both had an undying passion and respect for nature and lived their lives exactly how they wanted to, defying convention. Both of their hospitality and insights taught me lessons I will carry with me the rest of my life. They were the type of people that spending time with made you feel like you had been living life under cinderblocks all along. They were both free in the love they had for one another and the love they had for life. Susanne was a shaman masseuse and Mihali an adventure seeker (I didn’t realize the extent of this until the day he asked me to drive him up the mountain only to run off with his hang glider). He often described the feeling of soaring with the birds and the mutual respect he had found with them.

Rajid and I dancing for the sunset on the campground

This experience was one of the best of my life for a multitude of reasons. Sure, I got to see a corner of the world I had never even thought of before but my interactions with the people I met and worked alongside were like nothing I had ever experienced. It’s almost as if coming together under these circumstances (and not a networking event, brunch or a cocktail party) strips away all of the bullshit, and allows you to be your most authentic self. Our paths had collided in this one, small place and none of us were ready to take it for granted. We treated the park as if it were our baby and cooked/enjoyed meals together like we were a family.

Volunteers eating a home-cooked meal together :)

I am a firm believer that all of our internal conflicts, self doubts and insecurities about who we are come from moments when our actions and our beliefs aren’t aligned. Following the path through HelpStay to volunteer in Crete was one of the first of many journeys I’ll be taking to give back and evince my truest, most fulfilled self. Mind you, I was scared at first. I didn’t know if I could “rough it” in the trailer and be pulled away from a comfortable life and network I had come accustomed to. Now having done so, I am more afraid of what may have happened had I not. My HelpStay experience was the wake up call I needed to say, “Marisa, get out there. The world is waiting for you.”

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