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Volunteer Vagabond

Gypsy Jean’s Story and Advice for Giving Back to the Countries We Visit

“The two months that I spent in East Timor in 1999 shifted my soul,” says Jean Feilmoser, sipping an iced cashew beverage in a Salvadoran café in the Mission District of San Francisco. “At least 95 percent of the people there couldn’t read or write, so they used their thumbprint to vote. Malaria was endemic, and I had to get every inoculation known to mankind to go there. But we managed to hold democratic elections, and the people were so kind and gracious to us. They understood we were there to help them.”

Feilmoser started traveling at the age of seven, and 48 years later she hasn’t stopped. “Gypsy Jean,” as her web moniker is known, has visited 126 countries and counting, and there’s no end in sight. A long time member of the Travelers Century Club (TCC), where membership entails that you must prove you have visited at least 100 countries, Feilmoser has traveled all over the world as a tourist and tour director (“I’ve been to Australia 55 times, and Antarctica five times,” she says).

Whether at home in the Mission, or overseeing elections in countries many people have never heard of, Feilmoser sees volunteering as a way of making the world a better place.

“I went to Tijuana, just over the California border into Mexico, with my parents as a little kid, and I was amazed at the poverty. Ever since then, I wanted to see the world, and help people,” says Feilmoser. “When I was a teenager I joined a club for international affairs, and then I traveled around the world for a year as a backpacker. I think we are all a product of the environment in which we are born. Being from the Mission District of San Francisco, being on the road is like being at home for me.”

A rowdy 50 square blocks, in the Mission you’ll discover French cafes, Irish pubs, Chinese groceries, Italian delis, Mexican taquerias, Jewish synagogues, Pentecostal churches, Scandinavian bakeries, Spanish tapas bars, Latin salsa clubs, Armenian florists, Central American luggage shops, and Norwegian old age homes. It’s the entire world in a village.

After many years as a tour guide, Feilmoser started volunteering, first as an election worker in San Francisco, then with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which sends observers to monitor elections in developing democracies.

“All of my travels had opened my eyes to the way the world really is,” says Feilmoser, sipping her cool Brazilian drink. “So many people had been so kind to me on my travels that I wanted to give something back by volunteering. Mostly, I want to help people move towards self-determination, the same sort of freedom I enjoyed that allowed me to travel the world and go where I wanted, especially places where people have never been allowed to vote freely.”

Feilmoser evolved from a polling station supervisor to an LTO (Long Term Observer) in the Slovak Republic, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, and Russia’s far east. She then discovered the United Nations Volunteers and went to East Timor, one of the world’s newest countries, racked by violence and poverty.

“I think of all the places I have been in the world, the local priests in East Timor were some of the nicest people I have ever met. They would come by and visit, feed us information about local issues we would have never learned on our own,” she says. “This allowed us to broker deals with the Indonesian army so that voters would be able to get to the polls. The people in East Timor had nothing, but everyone was so kind to us.”

Although most members of the Travelers Century Club may be wealthy or retired, Feilmoser is an anomaly. When not traveling, she manages an H&R Block tax office, drives a taxi, or works as a transit data collector. (“I count people on commuter trains,” she laughs.) She also leads JWalks, her personal tours of the Mission District, where she was born and raised. “It’s the real San Francisco,” she says, “that tourists rarely get to see.”

Feilmoser speaks English, Spanish, German, and some French, which she says really helps on her travels, and she has taught English in Brazil and Mexico. Next up on her wish list are visiting Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland. After that, maybe French Guiana, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, but first of all she is busy volunteering on several committees in her neighborhood. She is also a volunteer ambassador for the San Francisco Convention Bureau and volunteer president of the Mission Merchants Association.

“I am just so curious about the world. I want to see what’s out there, to feel the sweat and the pain and the hurt, to feel alive. It doesn’t do anyone any good sitting in a cubicle all day, working 9 to 5, dreaming about a life they are never going to live,” says Gypsy Jean, picking up the menu and scanning other exotic cold drinks. “I’ve been volunteering since I was 18. I’ve found out that no matter where you go, if you are good to people, then they will be good to you. And no matter where I go, I want to help people. Being on the road, that’s my real home.”

Gypsy Jean's Top Ten Tips for Volunteering

1. First, volunteer at home.

2. Decide why you want to volunteer, and in what country. Research everything you can about that country, and learn some of the language.

3. Google up the name of that country, and the word “volunteering” to find opportunities.

4. Look into which agencies or NGOs are active in that country.

5. Create a CV that highlights your experience, and write a cover letter detailing your interest and what you have to offer.

6. Research visa rules, and medical necessities such as malaria shots. Bring all your own prescriptions.

7. Make sure you have all your bills paid, or someone who will cover this in your absence.

8. Pack everything you think you will need, then cut it in half.

9. Bring photos or postcards of your home and friends.

10. Read everything you can on TransitionsAbroad.com..

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