- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Ashley vonClausburg refers to herself as “the bravest little chicken.”
After quitting her corporate job of four years in Washington, D.C., the 26-year-old decided now was the perfect time to travel overseas by herself. Everything about traveling, she said, thrills her, while, at the same time, induces panic attacks. What she didn’t expect was to be part of an international relief effort after one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall devastated the central Philippines, killing more than 1,000 people in one city, as estimated by the Red Cross.
“I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go,” vonClausburg wrote in an email she sent from India. “I’d thought about visiting the Philippines as a tourist around that same time, and it didn’t seem right to abandon the country now that it was in a total upheaval. Plus having no job, no plans, and no responsibilities pretty much made me the perfect candidate to dedicate my time.”
The Huntingtown native and 2005 Calvert High School graduate arrived Dec. 2 in the Philippines, less than a month after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the cluster of islands. She worked with All Hands Volunteers, a U.S.-based nonprofit company dedicated to empowering disaster relief volunteers around the world, and wrote about her travels and experiences in a blog, TravelerbyDesign.com.
“I started saving immediately after graduation and, after four years, had enough to quit my job and support myself while traveling,” she said in an email she penned from India.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina Greensboro in 2009, majoring in international relations and dance and spending a year studying abroad in Italy, vonClausburg said she knew she wanted to move overseas again and spend time working on her writing and photography skills.
“I didn’t have any particular plan, other than knowing I would volunteer for the first two months in Thailand,” vonClausburg wrote. “Past that, I was just making it up as I went.”
She arrived in Thailand at the end of August and volunteered at an addiction recovery center, and spent her second month with a non-governmental organization that worked with women from Burma. She arrived in the city of Ormoc on the island of Leyte on Dec. 2, the day her volunteer project started.
“When I made travel just about consuming things — food, sights, activities — after a while, I actually ended up feeling very empty and unfulfilled,” vonClausburg wrote. “It was only when I was producing [and] giving that I started to connect with a place in a real way.”
She joined a group of about 50 people in the Philippines who worked six days a week at schools and home sites doing deconstruction work — taking down dangerous buildings and cleaning up debris, preparing the sites to rebuild. The group, who lived together in the ballroom of a hotel, also spent a day distributing food supplies to more rural communities.
In her email, vonClausburg recalled one particular experience where she and her team built a home for a couple in their 70s who “had been living in pretty much a hole for three weeks — just a tarp propped up on debris and rubble.”
“One of the most remarkable things I saw was how happy and resilient and emotionally unaffected the people seemed,” vonClausburg wrote. “It was this bizarre contrast to see destroyed buildings, rubble everywhere, homes obliterated, and electricity a distant memory, but everyone was still smiling. Everyone was kind and welcoming and friendly with us. While we were on sites they would make us sandwiches and bring us drinks. Some vendors wouldn’t allow us to pay them for food even though we were probably the only sale they would have made that day.”
She said her current plan is to return in early April, though she has yet to book that flight. When she thinks back on her volunteering experiences, however difficult, she said, “It was probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a perfect experience.”