Catherine started Bright Light Volunteers as a way to open the hearts and minds of students to unique cultural experiences. Bright Light’s service learning projects take place around the world and allow students to immerse themselves in other cultures. Catherine’s mission in launching Bright Light is to end the barrier youth faces in cross-cultural education and to create peace and empathy for the next generation of change-makers.
What areas of the world do you work in?
Right now we operate in 12 different countries. We work with NGOs inside each country, the kind of local groups that don’t get government funding but are still doing amazing work. We help them get their projects done and provide them with funding. The projects range from an organic farm in Cuba to an after-school center in Ecuador. We forge partnerships with these organizations to make connections with local people and to ensure our time and resources are being used effectively. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make an impactful difference, it’s just about knowing where and when to step in to help.
What can students gain from global service learning?
We work with established groups of 8 or more students. Our programs are different in that individuals can’t register for a project, we need a sizable amount of students to be able to execute a worthwhile project. Oftentimes, teachers will form a group of students who will fundraise for a specific project. They’ll come to us with a general idea of what they want to do, like “climate change in South America” or “education in Africa” and we turn to our local NGO partners around the world to find the best fit for them to do a project. Our job is to connect them with the community in need and offer them the resources they need to succeed there. We work with a lot of kids in Title 1 schools in west Tennessee. Many of these kids have never left their hometowns before, so it’s a really big deal when they get to spend a few weeks in Cambodia learning about a whole new culture and way of life. These trips really help students identify the human in all of us by exposing them to an environment that is totally different from their norm.
What inspired you to start Bright Light Volunteers?
I was an exchange student in Russia when I was in high school and it really affected the way I look at the world and helped determine what I want to do. I became a mom at a really young age, 17, and by the time I started college I was a mom of two. I pursued a degree in International Studies with a focus on Latin America and Cultural Studies, because I’ve always been drawn to the idea that we are all intrinsically alike as humans despite our cultural differences. I started working for a nonprofit after college and was able to bring my kids on service projects with me. It was incredible to see the world through their eyes and hear them ask questions like, why aren’t those kids in school? How come some kids have to work while we get to learn? I realized then that this is how we make change— by ensuring that youth get these opportunities for cross-cultural education. It’s so easy to spread intolerance and hate by thinking of people as “others”, and I found that education and immersing yourself in other cultures really eliminates that way of thinking.
What is your favorite part of your job?
When I first started this, I knew every participant by name and what project they were working on. I was able to participate in a lot of the programs, which was really amazing. As we’ve expanded, it’s impossible for me to know every student and take part in every trip. There’s a lot more administrative and behind the scenes work that I have to do to get these projects off the ground. Now, when I am able to join a trip with students as a guide, it’s the most incredible feeling. Experiencing that journey with them makes it all worthwhile.