Fostering Compassion Through “Voluntourism”: One Mom’s Inspiring Story


Mindfulness and compassion have been in Laura Traxler’s blood for as long as she can remember. A longtime Orinda resident, Laura consciously planted seeds of compassion in her two sons throughout their childhood that are now beginning to bloom as they enter adulthood. How did she do it? And what can us mothers of young children learn from her that we can incorporate into our lives now? Here is Laura’s story …

Early Influences

“My whole life, from a young girl, was all about service.”

Growing up in Southern California, Laura’s parents taught her and her four sisters compassion in profound and unusual ways. One remarkable example was during their adolescence, when the sisters were typical, self-centered teenagers. “If one of us had a temper tantrum about wanting something, then Saturday morning around 5:30 you would get a nudge from my dad, and he’d get you out of bed, and we’d drive down to Los Angeles and work at a food kitchen all day long. And then driving home, he’d say, ‘Do you still want those gauchos?’ Of course, the answer was always no. It was an interesting way to teach service … the world is so much bigger than you. And getting a whole day with your dad when there are five kids, even though you were working your butt off, was still very special.”

Laura also had an active role in her church youth group, where they adopted an orphanage in Tijuana and visited it every month. She was already becoming a community leader as she entered college, founding a youth group at the local Catholic Church where she became the youth minister for two years.


Fast-forward to Motherhood

About fifteen years ago, Laura and her dear friend Kacy Richardson started traveling for spring break with their families together each year. After a few years visiting the big island of Hawaii, aka “Lamorinda West” during spring break, they wanted to focus on quality time with their families (vs. partying with their entire hometown) and decided to incorporate service work into their vacation as a way to connect as a family while also helping a local Hawaiian community in need. Laura’s oldest son, Steven, was 10 at the time. Her younger son, Kevin, was 9.

Laura and Kacy had a goal in mind, but weren’t sure how to make it happen. “Internet searches were just starting at the time, so finding [the beneficiary] was like a needle in a haystack. But when you want to do good in the world, things happen. I found an agency and just dialed for dollars and some girl happened to pick up,” Laura explained her good luck.

The agency was a halfway house for homeless families trying to get back on their feet. The agency gave Laura some ideas of needed items. To prepare for the trip, Laura and Kacy worked with their children to procure the items. They posted messages at their elementary school to collect gently used items and had a bake sale at their baseball league’s opening day to raise money to buy new items.

With the goods in hand, the two Orinda families flew to Hawaii and delivered the items to the families at the halfway house. They spent the day with the children who lived there, making crafts and playing games. The experience was rewarding for all, especially Laura’s and Kacy’s children, and they repeated it the following year.

Motivated by their success in Hawaii, Laura and Kacy wanted to find another service opportunity for their spring break trip to Puerto Vallarta the following year. Their research led them to a baseball little league that was in need of equipment. To raise money they did chores around the house and had another bake sale. They also asked their baseball league players to donate gently used baseball equipment like bats, gloves, and helmets.

With the money they raised, they wanted to buy as many new baseballs as possible – the league in Puerto Vallarta was using grimy old balls. They walked into the baseball store with their wad of cash and asked how many baseballs we could buy with it. Once the store manager realized what they were doing, he offered to sell them the balls at cost.

They arrived at the airport for their spring break trip with an enormous duffle bag of baseball equipment that was significantly over the weight limit. The check-in agent asked what was in the bag, and once the two families explained what was in it and why, the agent closed his eyes and put the bag on the conveyor belt without charging them a penny.  As Laura reminded me, “When you do good, things happen.”

In addition to these family vacation service projects, Laura’s family was getting involved in the community in other ways. She and her younger son, Kevin, joined the brand new organization Boys Team Charity for two years when he was in high school (similar to Charity League for mother/daughter).  In addition, Laura followed in her father’s footsteps: “If my kids got into trouble, they would go to the Contra Costa Food Bank and stack shelves.”


Blossoming Young Adults

Two years ago (when the boys were 19 and 20), Laura experienced a defining moment in parenthood. While playing a family game where they were given 40+ words to describe their family values, all four family members chose the same words: family, compassion, helping, responsibility, and integrity. “Whatever my husband and I did to define and identify and live values, they got it. It was stunning as a parent … we did it.”

Today, Laura’s younger son Kevin, still in college, has revealed his “stunning heart” through the stories he has recounted to his mom in recent years – like the time he pulled over to help an elderly woman with her groceries, and drove her home after learning that she could no longer drive, asking her to call him next time … Or his emotional description of his arduous fraternity service project helping an old man dig the sand and seaweed piled hip-high from his home after a hurricane in the Florida Keys that ended holding hands in a circle, praying together while the man wept with thanks. “He sees humanity so differently, this is how you know it’s in their DNA,” she rejoices.

Their older son, Steven, is now searching for his first post-college job. His priority is finding a value-driven company that shares his priorities: children, poverty, and education. “It is rather gratifying, that that is part of my oldest one’s DNA,” Laura proudly shares.

Having recently lived through the high school college application process, Laura raised a critical point about Mindful Littles’ work teaching young children about compassion: “This space is so special because they are so innocent and pure and teaching them that right then and there … for our community, it is huge because in high school, it’s for resume building and for the most part its not because of your heart.”

Laura’s story is powerful, and her tactics have been an inspiration to me already: an hour after I met Laura at Coffee Shop in Lafayette last month, I texted my dear friend Kat to share the idea of incorporating service into our next combined family vacation. When you think about it, it is really just a natural extension of vacation planning, and giving back for just a day (or part of a day) could be priceless in building our children’s compassion quotient.

If Laura’s story has inspired you, there is good news: valuable resources exist today that were not available when Laura was raising her family, making service work while on vacation easier than ever! In fact, now it even has a name—voluntourism. Various organizations offer to do some/all of the the leg-work for you: For domestic vacationing, reference Go Overseas to connect with organizations across the USA. For international travel, Projects Abroad leads programs around the globe. Or check out Give a Day Global, which connects you with non-profits around the world. Opportunities range from a day to a week or more.