BY CANDY PARKER
Believing she could change the world for the better by harnessing the energy of lesbian travelers by encouraging them to “do a little, a lot,” Shannon Wentworth founded Sweet in 2008. Over the next five years, Wentworth and her benevolent band of “Sweeties” have left their mark, garnering support for the lesbian community around the globe.
Lesbian.com caught up with Wentworth to talk with her about the voluntourism concept, how even the smallest investment of time can make an impact and how these acts of kindness are changing views regarding LGBT rights around the world.
Tell us about the concept of “voluntourism” for those who might be unfamiliar with the term.
Voluntourism combines volunteering and tourism. It’s pretty simple. The options range from bringing much-needed donations to organizations to spending an hour or so doing a project with locals to spending even more time volunteering.
What inspired you to launch Sweet based on a voluntourism model?
As I traveled the world for leisure, I was always interested in ways to give back and interact with local culture. To that end, I’ve worked in a salmon processing plant in Alaska, on a farm in South Australia and on a kangaroo reserve in the rainforest. With Sweet, we’ve designed our trips to be the fast-food equivalent of voluntourism. Basically, our guests have the option of participating in 3-4 hour projects that make a measurable difference in a short amount of time. Ever wonder how fast 20 lesbians can paint a school? The answer is 45 minutes. The cool part is that we work side-by-side with locals wherever we go, often bringing additional donations and sharing a meal as part of our project.
You gave a TEDx presentation where you discussed your philosophy of “doing a little a lot.” What would you say to people who believe that their small contributions might not be worthwhile?
I think a lot of people feel powerless in the face of huge global issues. That’s why Sweet takes big problems and breaks them into bit-sized chunks. We make our projects fun, short and impactful, so we can get a lot of participation. Our guests see the impact they are making, feel empowered and channel that energy into more small, fun projects. In five years, our guests have planted over 7,000 trees, removed over 500 bags of trash from beaches, adopted or found new homes for over 500 dogs and cats, created three children’s libraries, planted two community gardens and donated tons and tons of school and medical supplies. That’s all from doing a little a lot.
What has been your favorite Sweet community service project thus far?
That’s like asking me to pick my favorite “Charlie’s Angel.” They are all gorgeous and amazing. In Belize City, where homosexuality is illegal, we were front page news and on the evening news. We were able to paint colorful cartoon characters on the walls of a dreary children’s hospital ward in conjunction with the country’s first lady as well as create a children’s library at a local school.
Another project that stands out, by far our biggest yet, was in Costa Maya, Mexico. We had 145 women break into teams of five to pull trash from a beach. We made it a competition. We pulled 220 bags and cleaned a mile of beach in 45 minutes. It was incredible.
What would be your ultimate voluntourism destination/project?
Ultimately, I’d love for Sweet to be creating schools to educate girls and women all over the world. Our guests would visit those schools, spend time with the students and participate in various site improvement projects. That would be amazing.
Sweet has visited some less-than-lesbian-friendly destinations since first setting sail in August 2009, engaging with the communities on impactful service projects benefiting women, children and the environment. How do you think this “we’re here; we’re queer; and we’re here to help” approach has influenced views on gays and lesbians in those areas?
How can we expect people to love us if they don’t know us? That’s why we travel as out lesbians and connect with the people and organizations we serve at the heart level. We share who we are with them. Everyone gets it, regardless of language, religion or politics.
We’ve been to two countries that outlaw homosexuality outright, Belize and Nassau. Everywhere we go, the people we meet are taken aback by our diversity. We look like a cross section of America, all ethnicities, ages, shapes and sizes. There’s always that initial period when we meet people who don’t think they’ve ever seen a homosexual in which they are staring at us and going “WTF?” In the end, we always make good friends and hopefully open their hearts to the LGBT folks living in there midst.
For more information on Sweet, including their 2014 Mexican Riviera cruise, South African Safari, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres resort vacations and the 2015 Sweet Adventure Down Under, visit www.discoversweet.com.